I am one of those people who have memorable travel experiences. Okay, I am being unfairly polite here. Survival instincts? Name a calamity, manmade or natural, and sure enough I am destined to be there. I am not even kidding. My “travel luck” or lack there of is often part of family banter.
A couple of days ago, an ordinary day otherwise, I was on my way back home. It was one of those rare few evenings when my husband and I finished worked around the same time. He suggested that he would meet me near my subway stop, and we could head back together. Simple sequence of events, right?
My husband was running a little late, so I checked the different exits to make sure we hadn’t missed each other. In those 10-15 minutes, an angry, non-crazy man showed up. This guy began to mumble something. Living in New York, you learn to tune every outside noise out. Survival instincts? It’s your music & your book that carry you home. Also, America has a ridiculous approach to guns & weapons—our streets are not safe. You want to avoid unnecessary confrontations. God alone knows who has what on them.
Initially, I ignored this man. His rambles increased in volume, but he wasn’t crazy. He began to throw profanity at Caucasians. And held them responsible for all the atrocities committed towards the African-Americans. My first instinct was that he was sharing his frustration about Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old whose death in Florida has sparked nationwide controversy. I felt empathy. I too, like many others, want justice for Trayvon Martin.
A few minutes later, this guy began to personalize his contempt. He started to harass this white guy and me. Started to personalize his rants. Mind you, this was at one of the busiest subway stops in NYC. I walked away at first. But then he followed me and stood two inches away from my face. For some inexplicable reason, he assumed I was white. He assumed I was a “white supremacist out to get black people.”
Years of watching criminal drama have taught me one thing: Always stare the perpetrator in their eyes. Never show them you are scared. Cinema and television shows have been good mentors in their own ways.:-) I asked him to step away and mind his own business. He didn’t budge, so I raised my voice without fear at a bigot. He moved, and I walked away. A few minutes later, I complained to the cops. Irony: the cop asking me for details was an African American guy too. Friendly and comforting. When he asked what the man looked like, I said, “He had long, unwashed hair.” This wasn't the first time I didn't see skin color. The policeman smiled upon hearing my description.
As my husband and I sat in the subway, headed back home, I started to cry. The happenings of the evening finally hit me. I couldn’t sleep at all that night. But it wasn’t fear that kept me awake; it was reflections on our degraded world.
The next day, last morning, I was scheduled for a haircut. My hairstylist, who has known me for years, could tell something was not right. Finally I told her what had transpired the evening before. A recent victim of mugging herself, she said it took between a month to 6 months for a victim to stop thinking about “the” incident—some research shows that number.
As I started to talk to her about it, I conceded I was upset about what had happened. But I was angrier about what the guy had assumed: (a) That I was a white woman. (b) That all women are weak and can be scared easily. (c) One race is out to get another race in all entirety—if we can’t look past our past, how can we create a healthy future together? Wrong on so many levels. Yes, I was mad that this man stereotyped humans/race/ethnicities just the way George Zimmerman did when he killed Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida.
But I promise you, not once did I think I shouldn’t have stood up for myself. Not once did I think I shouldn’t have spoken with the cops. Not once did I “assume” that ALL black men like to intimidate women.
Out of genuine concern, many have told me that I should have not spoken up that day. Avoided the guy. That I should have walked away. Listen, I did that at first. But there are moments when you have to make a decision, and all your training and ideals in life can become immaterial at that time. You do your best and whisper prayers. Survival instincts?
More than anything else, I, for one, am tired of dehumanization. Sick of hatred and mistrust. The innate human desire to dominate and hurt. So, yes, I pick my pen and protect myself. I pick my pen to be involved. I pick my pen, so I don’t stop believing. I pick my pen, so the world doesn’t change me.
More until next time,
Copyright © 03.31.2012
"I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize, and I think that the illusion is very necessary to push poets to be involved and to believe, but now I think that poetry changes only the poet." ~ Mahmoud Darwish