The Nod: A Subtle Lowering of the Head You Give to Another Black Person in an Overwhelmingly White Place
By Musa Okwonga
Illustration by Daniel Zender
If you’re a black person who has ever visited a place where there aren’t many other black people, then you will be familiar with The Nod. The Nod is just that: An almost imperceptible lowering of the head toward any other black person you might encounter on your travels through, say, Slovakia or Russia.
Yet The Nod is also so much more than that: It’s a swift yet intimate statement of ethnic solidarity. The Nod is saying, “Wow, well, I really didn’t expect to see another one of us out here, but you seem to be doing your thing just fine. More power to you, and all the very best.”
The Nod is something that several white friends of mine often find bewildering. A few years ago, as I walked down a street in Italy with a friend, a black man looked at me and gave a small, stern bow before making his way off. “Who was that?” my friend asked. “Did you know him?”
Her incredulous expression made it seem as if I was part of some mysterious cabal.
I shook my head, no, I didn’t know him; but, in a sense, I did. He was bearing witness to the same thing that I was, which is what you might call “the geography of race.”
For a black person, there are some areas — bars, nightclubs, boardrooms, sometimes entire countries — where, for primarily economic reasons, you were never expected to reach. Within this context, a black person who travels within any of those worlds is someone often seen as a success; he or she must have an enterprise about them to be venturing out into such unfamiliar territory.
That means it’s always a privilege to receive The Nod, which is the closest thing to a secret handshake I will probably ever have. Sometimes, though, it’s bittersweet, reflecting how far black people yet have to go to feel at home in their surroundings.
For example, the last time I got The Nod was in a hotel lobby in Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup, just a few paces from the Ipanema beach; a hotel where, apart from the staff, I saw only one other black person all week.
It was to my surprise, then, that I barely got The Nod in Berlin. Here, after all, is a city within a country that doesn’t have very many black people at all: Though there are no official records, the estimate is between 300,000 and 500,000 among a population of over 80 million. I visited Germany for the first time in 15 years, just after they had claimed the World Cup, and was struck by the lack of diversity. Yes, there was a large Turkish community, and no shortage of white Europeans; but, in this supposed melting pot, there weren’t so many of visibly African descent. That’s not to say, though, that what I experienced was “the unbearable whiteness of Berlin”. There didn’t seem to be too much need for The Nod here; this felt like a town where there was always somehow room at the table for just one more, whoever you were.
This optimism comes with a caveat — you didn’t have to go too far east of the city center to find places where, as a black person, you wouldn’t choose to live as a first port of call. (Then again, that’s no different to how London was just a few years ago during the headier days of the British National Party.) There are doubtless greater racial nuances within Berlin society of which I’m unaware, but actually the city checked out pretty well. I could contrast the ease I felt there, for example, with the anguish I saw on a black man’s face in mid-90s Moscow, or the brotherly welcome that I recently got in Bratislava. Almost all of the black people I encountered in Berlin seemed as indifferent to my race as they would be if I were back in Hackney or Brixton.
That’s not to say that I didn’t get The Nod at all. The first black person I spoke to in Berlin was a retired solar engineer who had come over from Mali several decades ago, and who proudly showed off his free transport pass to me as we awaited the train. If anything, people like him were the pioneers, who had made it much easier for newcomers like me as I stood there on that platform. He, like my parents arriving in London in the 70s, had travelled thousands of miles to a place he could call home; where even the outsiders — especially the outsiders — could feel like they belonged. Maybe he, I, and other fellow nomads will never truly live in a post-Nod world; but, as alternatives go, maybe this wasn’t so bad.