I have been living in Washington, DC for nearly six months now and I have experienced more racism than I ever have in my entire life. It’s as if the air is polluted in a smog of hatred causing division among white and black people. I imagined it today as a pot of hot water boiling (or worse, oil) spilling over the pot causing the fire on the stove to sizzle. The overflowing water or oil is white supremacy, agitating the fire which is black people. The fire is escalating and the oil continues spilling over, one day it will inevitably explode causing an unstoppable fire.
Today on my way to work I got on the redline train, sat down and start reading my book, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I’m sure it was no coincidence. As the train doors close and the train begins to pull off, I hear the voice of a black man, angry, hurt, and speaking loudly. A voice begging to be heard by everyone on the train. I hear him saying, talking, venting, speaking to one of the white passengers on the train, or all the white people for that matter. “I’m tired of this racist shit!” he proclaimed. For some reason, I was just as excited as I’ve been each time a race-centered confrontation happens on the train during my commutes. The racial hostility is so intense, at times, that I feel more relaxed and even a sense of catharsis when that tension is acknowledged as the unspoken stress and awkwardness between two different worlds is released and diminished.
I wanted to hear a heated discussion on race. I wanted to hear him rant and he did. But no one responded to him. He said that white people have ruined the entire world, “look at all this shit happening,” he yelled, “and i can’t even hold $20 to get enfamil to feed my child.” I was sitting there amazed, really at his honesty and his vulnerability as a man–a black man. His openness with a train full of people watching. But I know that other people, white and black, must have thought he was crazy. He was angry and his anger, to me, was justified. After about five minutes and other black people telling him to be quiet, he made a threat to blow up the train. Saying since they want to blow up shit, he was gone blow up the train. white women ran off the train at the next stop.
I learned a lot from this. His anger originally started with a dispute over a seat with a white person and escalated into a glimpse of the reality in the life of black men in this country. I wanted to tell him that I understood. I felt bad that I wasn’t close enough to him to see him, to look in his eyes. It was sad. The white people on the train stared straight ahead acting as if they could not hear him. To them, he was just another ignorant, loud nigger. An invisible man who was not important or valuable enough to pay any attention to. To me he was a king. A god. This happened because people needed to hear what he had to say. People will go home and tell their family what happened or get to work and tell their co-workers about what that black man said on the train this morning. “he said that black people are kings and that this is the black man’s world,” I could imagine them repeating.
From this, I wondered, are black people on the same page in the fight against racism? Do we want to tackle it and dismantle the very fabric of this country in order to rebuild it? Or do we want to live in a color blind society? Are we comfortable with where we are? The black man sitting next to me was as unbothered as the white people were, reading his book, while other black people made attempts to shut the man up, cursing and angry with him for disrupting the illusion of equality among black and white people on the train. Like the obedient slave, defending their master. People are terrified to talk about race and racism in this country. Black people are afraid of being angry and exploding and white people are afraid of that happening.
White people are passive aggressive. They provoke black people on trains, on platforms, in our everyday commute. They are rude. If you are black, they bump into you and don’t say “excuse me.” They won’t move for you. If you are on the platform they will bump you rather than moving respectfully as most decent people do. The hate that they exude is alarming to me, from the time I moved here and everyday after. I couldn’t help but think of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, the book burning in my hands. “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time.”
The time before this, on the train, a black man was sitting in front of two white women. The women were laughing obnoxiously, giggling. He first asks them to stop laughing in his ear. They continue. He then raises his voice telling them to show him some respect and that he was tired of this bullshit. “I’m tired of you white motherfuckers disrespecting me!” he proclaimed, words I won’t forget anytime soon. The white woman said that she did not respect him and they ran off of the train at the next stop. I can imagine white women saying that and feeling that they have no reason to respect black people, and black men especially.
Another instance happened with a black woman. She was standing up, holding on to the rail and a white man must have pushed her or passively made her move for him. She went off for the rest of the ride. I won’t forget this either because she was right in front of me, looking me in the eyes, as if she was talking to me. As if we were having a conversation. She talked about “euro-peens,” as she pronounced it. “The devils,” she referred to them as. Everyone was looking at her or ignoring her like she was crazy, but the only crazy part was that she was telling the truth. The guy on the train this morning said the same thing, “devils.”
From these confrontations to all of the glares, stares, pushing and bumping, or the blatant disregard of white people toward black people (not wanting to take an empty seat to avoid sitting next to a black person, especially if that person is a black man) it never surprises me when these altercations occur. Relief from the racial tension, thick and engulfing, is a good enough reward. It’s freedom.
Or perhaps its fuel for the revolution.