A White Man Called Me “Nigger” in the BART Station Yesterday

A white man called me ‘nigger’ in the BART station yesterday.

He was standing alone on the platform. He watched me as I came down the escalators, hatred shining in his eyes as I drew closer. He glared at me and then he hurled the word out of his twisted mouth, as if he were spitting the word out on to me. And then he walked away.

A white man called me ‘nigger’ in the BART station yesterday, and I felt scared because he had made it an ugly intimate scene of hate, and only he and I bear the name of witness. Everyone else was further down on the platform and I walked swiftly over to the small group of people because this is America in any year and I am a black woman, and I did not want those to be the last words I heard.

A white man called me ‘nigger’ in the BART station yesterday.

But I was on my way to healing. And surrounded by my beautiful black sisters, Mama Walker read to us her poem “Nigger in the Language of Love.” She spoke of after extended periods of identity eradication, we are coming to our own. She spoke of the word as meaning after all the fighting, finding we are one.

She held my hand and looked me in the eyes with the same amount of love as that man had glared at me with hate, and said that man only knew nigger in the language of hate. That he only knew it as something ugly, and I had a different understanding. A different way of living on this planet.

A white man called me ‘nigger’ in the BART station yesterday.

But don’t he know?

Don’t he know?

No one can throw me out of creation.

Choice Revisited: A Black Woman Reflects on Alice Walker and Returning Home

This was the first time that I did not begin a new journey with time spent reflecting in the Town Where Time Does Not Reside. I boarded my flight in London and came straight to this new beginning in Philadelphia, the weight of time zones and memories jarring the journey.

There was a moment on my celebratory vacation of finishing my MPhil in Greece, that I was standing on a rocky hill by a lighthouse on the island of Mykonos with a breathtaking view of the sea in all it’s blue-green majesty. In that moment I closed my eyes and felt the weight and wonder of the end of one journey and the beginning of the next wash over me. And in that moment I simultaneously wanted to cry, laugh, sigh, and rejoice for everything that was and was about to be. As I let myself feel all of these emotions swirl in me at once, I thought of what it has meant for me to be a black woman living abroad and what it would mean to return home to America. Again.

America is not my homeland of birth, as I often explain to people. It is my homeland by the choice of my parents to make it our homeland, as they believed it to be the place where their children–especially their daughters–would be able to realise things about themselves and become everything they wanted. Long ago too, however, my ancestors came across oceans. Some as indentured servants from India, some slaves from the Gold Coast of Africa, and others still the explorers who first cast the stones of ‘difference’ towards the other parts of me. I am all of those stories in one, and while much of my childhood was marked by those who wished to convince me I was the ‘exception’ of my people, if my time in America has shed light on one truth it is that there are no exceptions when it comes to black bodies that assert their right of humanity through the means they themselves deem fit. While I could sit in a room and smile and make conversation with those who did not look like me, I was all the while “black girl dangerous.”

Is it love and admiration if they only love and admire you within a particular lens? Or only when you stay inside the boxes they created, the spaces that they have named? Though America is the site of some of my most painful memories, it is also the site of many of my greatest triumphs. While I was in many ways forged by its fires, and spat out with a new “birth certificate” in hand, I often felt anxious, as if surrounded by walls that were closing in. I wanted and needed to see what lay beyond this country, what different ways of being and currencies in life were sought and fought for on other lands. I think that’s why I love the red dirt of Ghana so much. I feel the centuries of feet clamboring across the land, the strength of women carrying physical and emotional weights of home and family. My first time, though, leaving the country after my family’s first arrival, was when I was 17. I spent a summer at Cambridge, the very place I am not returning from. I had received a spot at a summer program that was designed for children of wealth. Upon gaining access I explained to them my financial situation, and they offered me a partial scholarship. I told them I still could not afford to attend, and they then offered me a full scholarship. I used the money I had earned from my after-school job to pay for my food and activities while I was there, and I spent the summer pretending to be just like all the other kids. For a moment I wanted to forget free lunches and the necessity for bargain shopping. That summer, I was not Delia the working class black girl who shocks everyone in her community by being intelligent. I was just Delia the summer program attendee who was a great dancer and had a knack for making up funny poems. There was one moment when one of the RAs almost blew my cover by commenting on my scholarship, and my eyes pleaded with her to not break the illusion. I have come to love travel for so many different reasons and have since put years behind me of masking my humble background, but in that moment my love of travel was borne out of something I reflect on still: the ability to view my life from the outside looking in. It gave me clarity to see what it was that made me unique and the spaces I was crafting in my life on a daily basis. I was hooked on travel from the moment I set foot back in America.

We often romantacize leaving. We label those with the wanderlust and means of taking a plane ride across oceans to countries others only dream and read about. We imagine them escaping the racism and emotional and mental turmoil of being black in smoke-filled cafes with a drink in one hand and a pen in the other, writing pages of prose about their epiphanies abroad. However, we forget about those who leave with just the money they have in pocket, or those who take on financial burden for the sake of finding out what else lies beyond the confines of the New Jim Crow and pre-determined narratives.

Sometimes leaving is about not being able to breathe. Beau Taplin on love wrote, ““No, I do not want to be loved unconditionally. I want to be shown when I am treating you less than you deserve. I want you to leave if I ever start making you promises I do not see through. Love me for my flaws, yes, but don’t you dare ever allow them to hurt you.” As black people, we carry the burden of the effect of years of blank checks and psychological warfare. We have allowed such hurt to cloud our vision toward thriving, and we cannot remember if we love or hate this land. As a black woman, love often comes in the form of a radical journey. Journeying to find love of ourselves–our bodies, our hair, the way we carry ourselves when no one’s ill will is watching–and searching for love from our black men, and seeking love from those who do not look like us around us. Loving the land is no difference. In her essay “Choice,” a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker recounts the history of dispossession that black people have endured in America. Such dispossession she writes leads to people leaving the land of their birth in order to preserve the good memories they have of it. But for Walker, land belongs to thsoe who have buried the dead there over and over again. While such land is sacred to families, land and space should also belong to those who live it, whose bodies shape its existence and who have been shaped by it as well. Walker thanks Dr. King for the return of the skies and smells of her homeland, and the ability to invite family members to visit and stay, and moreoever, stay herself. She wrote that the only ones who had previously stayed were those who could not afford to leave or those too stubborn to be run out. While more and more people are returning to their roots, to sow seeds they had previously taken elsewhere, there are those who go and return, and go and return, in cycles that allow the passage of air to flow through the lungs more easily.

Alice Walker wrote that our (black) mothers and grandmothers more often than not handed on the creative spark that was like a sealed letter they could not read, what they hoped for but often did not get to see. My mother loves to read, and she reads about places and their history. She has a list of places she hopes to one day travel to, and when I travel I think about how I am an extension of those dreams. She is always the first I tell about my journeys. I think about her own journey as a mother, and the home she asserted her right to create for herself and her family. In the midst of everything that tried to claim this power from me, I had the spaces my mother formed to forge an identity of my own creation. It is the type of space and identity that I can carry with me to other lands and other countries.

Blackness abroad is in itself a counternarrative. I have often been in circles of other women of colour while we discuss what it has meant and means for women of colour to assert their existence at places such as Cambridge. But to me, even more than the importance of existing in spaces that have typically not seen the existence of those like myself, is the ability to choose my own spaces of existence–those created for me in order to sustain me, where my creativity flourishes without being in direct relation as ‘the other’ or forcibly creating an ‘other.’ Alice Walker spoke of the choice Dr. King gave black people to remain in the South and return home. I revisit choice as this: the ability for home to not be just one space, but rather a myriad of real and imaginary spaces of creations. The type of radical spaces my mother created that allow me to return home. For there is no continuity of place without continuity of the body and mind. It is with those that we make and remake the spaces of our existence. We cannot have place, we cannot have home, without space. We cannot ask for it, nor can we spend our lives preoccupied with the need for others to acknowledge us and those spaces.

I am choosing to create. I am choosing to exist for my own love and my own well being, and to see that love spill over. I am welcomed home because I have named it so.