The living rage of the polar bear hiding behind the house plant
Living, quarantining or jogging: Let's talk about we who gets the right to personal freedom and who has to scream for the quiet of their own space.
My grandma was a missionary, I like to think she was the good, non-righteous kind. (Now, to be clear, she was righteous in many things, you knew better than to talk back to her too much or challenge her notions on, say, the correct way to cook a turkey. I just think she wasn’t a bible thumper.) She was a teacher, so she would go where they needed teachers and a side helping of Methodist energy. What this meant for me growing up is she was gone a bit, but when she would come back home she’d often shuttle around Minnesota giving talks about her experience. The audiences were typically church fellowship groups, upper Midwestern white ladies with time, curiosity and affection for Jesus.
It was my grandma’s road show, and she’d bring me along for enrichment, but also as her A/V guy. As an 11 year-old I got very familiar with how Kodak slide projectors work. I also got some of my earliest lessons in what personal space means. It was during these trips that, on at least more than one occasion, an upper Midwestern white lady with time, curiosity and affection for Jesus would come up to grandma after her talk, converse about the wonders of grandma’s travels and how proud she must be of her grandson.
And then they’d ask if they could touch my hair. As if I was just another part of the showcase; a sensory aid.
That wasn’t happening, it never would. Grandma wouldn’t allow it. What I remember most is the sense of “that was weird,” and “old white ladies smell...old.” Grandma was more direct: it wasn’t just “weird,” it was wrong for more reasons than I could keep in my head at the time. But she made sure to tell me something simple: no stranger has any right to touch your head, touch any of you. Your being; the very space you occupy? It belongs to you alone.
“You play basketball?” I’m in a gas station looking for a snack when I hear this question. I’m in my early 20s and in Maine and it’s winter. When I finished journalism school I took an internship with a small family of newspapers in Maine, a place I had never been before. Most of my applications for jobs and internships had come up short, but not in Maine. I remember my grandma’s response to this information as something close to “you couldn’t find somewhere farther away from us?”
When the internship was up the newspaper offered me a full time gig in Portland, this was before it was discovered, rediscovered and discovered again as the darling for East Coast getaways and culinary expeditions. As the newest guy on staff you don’t get much choice in what you do, so what fell my way wasn’t one subject or even one town: it was a whole damn region. A swath of small towns running between Portland and the New Hampshire border. Town council discussions on property taxes, planning board fights with developers, that one time I had to chase a rumor Tom Brady owned a lake house in a small town Tom Brady would absolutely not buy a lake house in. So I lived in my car, winding through county routes where I was sure if my wheels left the pavement my body wouldn’t be found for days if I was lucky, but the spring thaw being more likely.
The basketball question sat in the otherwise empty air of the gas station. The part of the question that went unsaid was much simpler: you’re not from around here, not even a little bit, are you? I answered the same answer I always gave when I got this question. “No, not at all.”
“Let this happen to you enough times and you become aware of your presence, the gravity you create by your inability to be inconspicuous on so many stages. You feel like a polar bear looking for cover somewhere outside the arctic.”
I got used to this question and all its variants when I lived in Maine; dropping by city hall, walking into stores or knocking on doors if you happened to be related to someone snatched up by the cops. (Just to be clear: I’m not saying everyone in Maine is a racist, I never did a proper census. But the questions happened enough that I had a shorthand answer.) The job meant constantly putting myself in front of other people, confronting them with the 6’3” reality of a black guy who has questions, sometimes the kind you don’t particularly want to answer.
It wasn’t like I didn’t know I was black. It’s not like I hadn’t been casually tailed around a store before. Or stopped by the cops. But I was alone this time. Not just flying solo on reporting trips in the wilds of Maine, but because Maine doesn’t have a ton of people who look like me. I used to joke that the black population in Maine was so small I could calculate myself down to the decimal point. Similar to my experience on the roadshow with grandma, it presented key data, another awakening. Let this happen to you enough times and you become aware of your presence, the gravity you create by your inability to be inconspicuous on so many stages. You feel like a polar bear looking for cover somewhere outside the arctic.
Dancers and yoga teachers practice a thing called body awareness, a state of end-to-end connection; the feeling of your limbs, torso and breath, how they land moment to moment in space. It’s a beautiful concept. It’s something I think most black and brown people in the U.S. live with every day. Because I’m me, I just always thought it meant black people have Spider Sense.
It’s spring in the West Village, and I’m walking the dog in the newly-distanced now. Roscoe has finally finished sniffing and peeing and sniffing pee, and I want nothing more than to scream through the bright yellow Boy Scouts neckerchief covering my face. A pattern’s been forming: leave to walk Roscoe, return home filled with what feels like a barely contained rage. Every time we step outside I’m confronted by people wandering the streets who I can only describe as displaying a wide spectrum of fucks about social distancing from their fellow humans. Joggers who are content to eat up as much sidewalk as they can and dare you to break their stride. Groups casually crowding around to chat, kids running loose and carefree. The dude who cut his dog loose from the leash while casually sitting down to drink an iced coffee in the middle of a public garden.
I thought ducking and dodging and playing open-air Frogger was what we were all doing now. I made excuses for it—maybe they’re still adjusting, maybe it’s just shitty New York-ness, maybe they just sweat Purell. I was going full blown passive aggressive Midwesterner to justify people who don’t need my absolution. I wasn’t about to social media snitch, but I felt petty as hell. And I was burning up. And as my therapist regularly reminds me, we’re all entitled to our feelings. So let me give it voice:
Being black in this country is a constant exercise in awareness of space and your body. It is exhausting. And infuriating.
It’s damn near impossible for me to not get flooded with anger and resentment about how people handle themselves and the world around them, given the lessons I’ve learned and felt in my life. And it’s hard to not think about how we all occupy space right now. Specifically when everyone is being asked to make the same sacrifices and follow the same rules. Being unwilling to give another person the reach to not share the same air as you goes beyond disrespecting boundaries. Not wearing a mask right now is showing you believe everything in your path is less than.
When you’ve had enough moments in life to see the ways you’ve been othered, the myriad ways your humanity is chipped away or slipped off entirely, the small things feel disturbingly big. The lie is underlined and bold: We are all not making the same sacrifices, we’re all not following the same rules. Never have been. Especially when Ahmaud Arbery just wanted to go for a jog and didn’t make it home to shower. Especially when his murder was caught on film in the bright light of day. Especially because it took another collective cry, a flood of anger, just to see someone charged for taking Ahmaud’s life. Especially when Nina Pop, and the countless other black trans women murdered in the country, barely get that much attention.
Especially when there are unwashed armed hordes throwing tantrums inside the halls of power, demanding “personal freedom” to get a cut and a dye job or take the family to Old Country Buffet. They get the luxury of being reasonable protesters. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever known the feeling of fresh autonomy without a hint of suspicion. They’re demanding the right to personal freedom, when all I want to scream is “I exist. We exist.” I want the right to my own body and voice. I want the right to feel like the state, its agents or its self anointed protectors aren’t eyeing my every move like a predator itching for violence. I’m tired of having to live every day in this country like a polar bear trying to hide behind a house plant. Sometimes you just want to be able to quietly take up space.
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(Creative Commons image of downtown Minneapolis by Mac H. Creative Commons image of downtown Sanford Maine by John Phalen)