This essay can be found in the anthology From All Corners published by Unsolicited Press. You can purchase a copy here.
Some time ago, while at Barnes & Noble, I saw a woman who looked confused.
She was a tanned, middle aged blonde in bell bottoms and a sheer blue scarf, her arms full of magazines on writing: Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, and so forth, all periodicals that I spent many of my visits to the bookstore poring over wistfully.
“Writing…writing,” she said aloud to herself, scanning the stacks, and I laughed inwardly. Now the scarf and faded vintage blue jeans made sense. She fancied herself a writer — a poet, even. And despite my amusement, I felt a kinship with her. Here was another literary dreamer like me, buying as many magazines as she could in hopes of discovering some bit of wisdom within them that would release her inner genius. But I noticed, with a hint of old-timer superiority, that she was looking in the visual art section for more of them. A commonsense approach — but one would have to be a regular like me to know that, at least in Barnes & Noble’s world, writing and art did not mix.
“All the writing magazines are over there,” I said in her direction. She looked up, a surprised who, me? scrawled on her face, then she smiled in what looked like a mixture of gratitude and more confusion. I wondered if I was being presumptuous — sounding like a know-it-all — so I backtracked: “I’ve never seen any writing magazines over there — there might be some, though — but in general they’re over on this side,” I said, gesturing.
As I spoke, I noticed her expression change. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the eager attentiveness turned into a strangely sour look, as if something I had said or something about me set her teeth on edge. When I finished, she smiled tightly at me, and turned around right in front of me to ask a woman standing at the rack I’d pointed to where the writing magazines could be found. I watched, flabbergasted, as she took the woman’s — the white woman’s — directions, and began to put the magazines back on the shelf.
In less than a second I felt that vicarious shame that comes when you are in the presence of someone who has publicly violated a taboo. The blonde poet (was she even a poet, then? If she’d needed to ask where the magazines were in order to put them away, she must not have gotten them in the first place — ) had been ill-mannered enough to blatantly show her prejudice by unnecessarily asking a white woman for the directions I had just given her. How embarrassing. But as my ears kept on burning, I knew it was more than that. I felt naked, exposed — my blackness seemed to fill the air like a stench. The woman’s ridiculous behavior had reminded me and everyone else around me of my second-class status, in defiance of all those who politely ignored it.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father’s lips quirk upward in a silent laugh. I snickered with him, shaking my head, rolling my eyes, both of us sharing the same thought — White people. What are you gonna do with ‘em? I turned back to my reading, and soon the incident had passed from my mind. Sort of.
It wasn’t as though it should have been surprising. It was exactly the kind of encounter I prepare for in my every move when I enter affluent white spaces (and Barnes & Noble located in Houston’s wealthiest neighborhood, River Oaks, certainly counts as that), without even being conscious of it. This is what I mean: my steps become softer, more purposeful. My limbs stay close to my body. I slip around like a nimble shadow, as if to say, I’m only passing through. I mean no harm. As I travel I see myself, the potentially unwanted outsider, in my mind’s eye as awkward and lumbering as a bull in a china shop, and the image makes me careful not to literally or figuratively step on anyone’s toes. Eye contact varies. Sometimes I feel comfortable, bold enough to look everyone in the eye and smile. Today, though, I stuck to my normal routine. See a young, white or Asian or Indian man — look away, pass by quickly, unless there is in their eyes the glint of acknowledgment, in which case I may look longer, warmly, politely — I enjoy silently greeting strangers — before going about my business. These folks I’ve just mentioned are the least likely to seem pleased to see me in their line of vision. Women of all races and ages, and older men, tend to be more welcoming, although middle aged or older white and Asian women can be wildcards.
I said that all of this is unconscious, but that’s not exactly true. I think about it. But only in the way you think about the fact that you’re hungry when you pass by your favorite restaurant. Pure instinct. Well, no, that’s not it either — the thought comes with a steeling of my gut, a stiffening of my neck — expecting to be disappointed, hoping against hope that I won’t be. I guess it’s more like stepping outside after a long time indoors, bracing yourself for overwhelming cold or heat. Either way, you adapt. You get through it. After a second, you’ve forgotten about it. Your body has taken over. And that’s how it is with me.
It only dawned on me as the escalator carried me downstairs what this adaptation meant. Somewhere along the line, I had not only become aware of my second class status; I had accepted it. Not shamefully; I’m proud of who I am and I have hardly ever wished to change. No; I had accepted it as a fact of life. The great chain of being, if you will.
We learned about the great chain of being in my 12th grade English class. Unlike most other lessons among the thousands I have had in my life, I remember plainly how I brought my eyes up from my notes and a copy of King Lear to my teacher as she stood at the board. To understand Lear, she said as she wrote, we had to understand the hierarchy the world was conceived to be in during the time when Shakespeare had written it. Each role was divinely prescribed, and absolute. To step out of your role was to bring about chaos. She continued to fill out the chain — king above nobleman, nobleman above commoner, commoner above animal above plant — and I shuddered at the scientific precision of the ranking. How did people live, I wondered then, when social existence was the equivalent of a straitjacket?
Easy, I realized once it dawned on me that I lived in a version of the same reality. It is easy to live and accept one’s inferior place. You might not agree with it, but you soon learn that there’s very little you can do about it — so you just play along.
Near the bottom of the escalator, an existential panic rose within me. My life had begun and would end beneath, always beneath — and I felt the suffocating sensation that comes with being aware that you are unfree. But soon a calm came over me, my psyche rescued by thinking of the billions of subjugated people who had been born and died before me and feeling a sense of kinship with them. That’s culture, I thought. That’s life. As arbitrary and bone-chilllingly cruel as the notion is, humans for time immemorial have lived by a common rule: the lives of some people are worth more, and others less. And I simply happened to be born as what, to many people, is worth less (or, to some, worth nothing at all) — my skin’s pigmentation, the dimensions of my facial features, and the protein structure of my hair marked me, securing my place.
Another merciless realization: I could fight against the absurd, barbaric chain all my life, and I would never win, not completely. There is a crushing sorrow in this knowledge that I will never overcome.
But I’ve come to realize there is another form of victory:
Never forgetting the truth.