Fear of a Pink Hat
This is what it is to have dark skin in a pale skin place that made up race as the god it worships in its own image. January 26, 2017. I am downtown in Philly town. Just got off of the train at 15th and Market. Up from the El platform, pushing through the high gate turnstile. I have a dentist appointment in half an hour, hear the crowd, before I come face-to-face with it. Too early for rush hour. Is there a Flyers game this afternoon? Then why all these suburban white women in dowdy black sweats and pink, floppy, horned hats?
The police are out in force. Several rows deep in front of a newspaper stand, Dunkin’ Donuts and the stairway beneath the forty-five-foot-high, oxidized sculpture of a clothespin. Bulky black leather coats made even more so by the Kevlar vests beneath them and the Glock 9s strapped around them. Billy clubs. Heavy black boots. Shiny, white, metal helmets, dark visors. It’s not a terrorist attack. The mood is angry, but not mixed with sorrow. Riot gear. It’s a demonstration. Those aren’t floppy horns. Those horns are supposed to be fallopian tubes. Those are vagina hats.
Middle-class white women, red faced, shouting, wild of eye, have drawn vaginas and warning words on picket signs they wave right up in the officers’ faces. The police, however, are more interested in a darker fair, the few commuters just like me, trying to get through the concourse to where we’re going. Like the protesters need to be protected from us. I’m a writer.
Anybody who wants to compare their blues to being a black man, has never been a black man where men with guns have badges pinned to their chests. Even if nothing happens it can always happen, you may not see it coming, there’s nothing you can do if you do see it coming. No make believe Freddie Krueger or Jason Vargas for us. Every street can be Elm Street. Everyday can be Friday the thirteenth. We’re still not afraid of the dark. Nor will it do us any good to ask to speak to the manager.
The parade is long over, it’s dark by the time I leave the dentist. Fluoride fresh and no worse for wear. Now last week I saw a review for a new Coretta Scott King memoir. The only bookstore left downtown is a few blocks up the street and on the other side of Rittenhouse Square. It’s warm for a January. I make the walk without bothering to button my coat. Mrs. King’s memoir is on display, the only book cover with a brown face at the new books table.
I grab a copy and head up the escalator to the second floor. I skipped lunch and there’s a café there that makes a decent corn chowder. I rise with my back to the café. As soon as I turn around. Around the corner. Hanging around are police officers. Still in their bulky black Kevlar. Glocks at their side. They’ve commandeered tables nearest to the front of the seating area, corralled off by a black wrought iron rail with a birch beam across the top of it that reminds me of a hitching post in front of an old-time western saloon.
My messenger bag is slung over my right shoulder, like no saddle. I have Coretta Scott King’s autobiography in my left hand, like no six-gun. My day job is what I’m dressed for. Very few writers don’t have one. But there is one cop looking at me like I do have got a gun up in my waist, come to shoot up the place. Or he’s looking at me like he knows I saw those picket signs and those white women’s pink vagina hats and because he’s just as black as I and wearing blue, he sees red.
The café is packed. He’s not stupid enough to try anything here. Too many witnesses. More than likely multiple video cameras. I could ignore him. There’s a turkey and brie special that will go well with a bowl of corn chowder. One of the policemen must be having one. The creamy corn aroma floats deliciously over the café. See, we’re not that different, you and I!
I walk past the police like I would up to the bar in an old Western. Except, unlike the stranger come to town in those movies, John Wayne isn’t sitting over in the corner, got me covered with a Winchester Model 1892 Saddle-ring Carbine with the large loop lever the bad guys won’t see until he kicks over the table he’s hiding it under and graveyards are full of people looking enough like me that somebody should not have been stupid enough to send them there. It doesn’t matter how brave we are. Seldom do the murders have anything to fear from justice.
I leave the café empty handed. To get to the go down escalator I have to walk along the hitching post and turn my back on the officers until I disappear from their sights. Like a carnival duck on its wheel, hit the target, win a paid thirteen-month suspension, complete with exonerating investigation and reinstatement. Hurry up before I sink below the firing line! I have no arrest record. There’s no video of me on the internet striking a hip-hop pose. But I was suspended in high school. That should be enough to sway a jury that you were only doing your job.
It is still a beautiful night. The new moon barely visible above Rittenhouse Square across the street and lit with tiny white lights on wire starbursts hung from sycamore and maple trees. Branches barren, leaves didn’t used to bud until late March/early April, but every year they’re coming sooner. Almost as if global warming is real.
If I let anger and hatred consume me, I miss how fresh the night feels against my face and how good it is to breathe it. I don’t see the lively eyes and sloppy tongues of the dogs on their leashes, the wagging their tails, the grace of a jogger’s stride. I don’t share acknowledgement with a stranger or two.
A little boy is ahead of me on the walk, carried by his father. We’re passing the Church of the Holy Trinity, first service, March 27th, 1859, a little more than two years before the outbreak of The War Between the States over state’s rights to possess slaves. My grandfather’s grandmother would have been in bondage, in South Carolina, maybe some of the boy’s ancestors owned plantations in South Carolina. He has dimples, bright eyes and a bulky grey hat buttoned snug, but lopsided, under his chin. Blue superhero mittens hold onto his father. He’s smiling at me over the man’s shoulder. I feel a smile warm on my face too. Nobody sings anymore. I’ll bet that’s because we listen to our music through headphones. We wouldn’t be able to hear our own voices.
It’s not that many blocks from here to the Walnut Street Bridge and easy to take for granted that about a dozen blocks in the other direction and one over is the Liberty Bell. Independence Hall is right across the street from it, The London Coffee House, home of Philadelphia’s slave auction house, was at Front and High/née Market Street. Many of our Founding Fathers, half of whom were slave owners, may have known their footprints where my shoes now travel. Only there was no bridge until the High Street Bridge, in 1805. The first iteration of which is often credited as being the first permanent bridge over a major American River. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Jay, James Madison … slave owners all, they would have had to cross by ferry. If the water is still now, the South Street, Walnut Street, Chestnut Street, Market Street, bridges, the old post office, 30th Street Station, a tall parking garage, blue-lit tonight, the concrete embankment of I-76, reflect lit up, back to themselves off of the water.
My stomach reminds me I still haven’t eaten. Not having that corn chowder isn’t going to give me death. Having it isn’t going to give Liberty. I wonder what Patrick Henry would make of those vagina hats? Three/fifths of me? There are those of us who can tell horror stories just from the facts and still we laugh at the dark. Being afraid has nothing to do with not going back, dare, double-dare. My complexion is a dare, double-dare, whether it feels like it or not, every time I leave out the front door. Just like it was for Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, all the way back to Crispus Attucks. Is that how those women in their vagina hats feel? Black like me? I’ve heard some of them using an old racial epitaph to call themselves the new black. As though I am a laundry detergent and they are the new and improved version. Guaranteed for whiter whites. Nothing to say about colors.
This is not to say that those marchers’ vulnerability isn’t as real to them as mine is to me. Tonight, maybe more so. Because nothing that has happened has surprised me. I saw this coming the night that comedian, the one who used to perform the news, put his hands together and wasn’t careful what he wished for. How he laughed. But he wasn’t alone. Then he retired to raise goats in New Jersey. Something wasn’t right about an impenetrable blue wall from the beginning.
Right before the Walnut Street Bridge is a gym. It’s closed for the night, treadmills and state-of-the-art equipment, outlines in the dark behind plate glass windows. On the other side of the river, off in the distance behind a railway bridge crossing in front of it and in front of the forever construction cranes of a university’s manifest destiny, is Franklin Field. That’s one of over 200 of Ben’s namesakes within the city limits, including, up ahead, a bronze life size Ben on a park bench that you can sit next to it looking down a pair of horn-rimmed glasses at a newspaper held high.
The stadium is brick and dark and quiet and tonight the river beneath me has too many ripples on the black to accurately reflect shapes above it as more than colors waving in place. The truth is, the only time one announces, you’re with her is when you don’t have the confidence in the relationship to say we be together.
Three buses speed pass toward West Philadelphia. Zoom … Zoom … Zoom … I turn away from the road, downstream, where this river empties into the Delaware, the Delaware into its bay, into the Atlantic and across that. I lean over the rail, over the water. A soft wind coming the other way closes my eyes. When I open them, in my mind’s eye I see myself being interviewed by a white woman telling me that she must always be believed.
I do not respond, does this woman mean like Carolyn Bryant, Emmett Till’s accuser? I’m not going to respond that does this woman not know that the call for diversity now, more than ever, now, more than ever excludes me, unless I put on lipstick and a dress? Not that I don’t have the legs for it. And even then, choosing someone for their differences it is your choice, not theirs that matters.
I’ll keep silent that according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, that while white women, on average, earn seventy-nine percent of what a white male earns, a black man earns eight percent less than she, a black woman eight percent less than he, Hispanics a lot less than everybody. Nor will I bring up that it is a Muslim woman’s freedom of religion to wear a full hijab for official identification photos, while there are signs in convenience stores banning wearing a hoodie.
I won’t dare bring up that Jesus had to be black, because white men, even those promising half-baked miracles, can live their messianic reddest, whitest and blow everyone’s dreams. When a black man with a dream? Ask Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Myrlie Evers, Mary Magdalene. Ask Emmett Till’s mother. The sixty millions of our ancestors murdered in the Middle Passage, no, no, no, don’t bring them up either. They aren’t who we should never forget. Nor are Ella Baker, Dr. Pauli Murray, Diane Nash … We ourselves didn’t let Dorothy Height speak.
What I will do is look at that interviewer and tell her that no one can understand what it is like to endure what you’ve been through. This is what you feel. Your voice deserves to be heard without interruption or equivocation. This is not an invitation to debate, not a time to compare or compete. No one gets to explain what you mean by this or question what you meant by that. I’ll suggest Black History Month be changed to People of Color Month, because 28 days are enough to share.
In about twenty minutes, the next traffic light is my street, I’m on my sidewalk walking under spreading sycamore limbs, pass four story twins with skinny alleyways between them, porches with grated archways beneath them, little front yards, flower beds and wintered shrubbery. I come to my front steps. My front door. Key in the latch. Wipe my feet. Click. Push. Open. A wave of warmth welcomes me inside like the outside is not as mild as I am used to the cold.
That should be my ending, right there.
Now, if I was writing fiction, the kind I don’t write, there would be a white woman walking toward me, right now. Holy chiaroscuro! She’d be easy to write, asking how was my day, am I tired, did I eat yet, come here, tell her all about it. I’m tempted to write her. She’ll be gentle, understanding, too good for me in every way. My anger at the world will seethe beneath the surface, biding its time, itching to unload on her. Tic. Tic. Tic.
There is no one. When there has been there was no tic, tic, tic. We’d be getting ready to fix dinner just as soon as I hang up my coat and wash my hands. I’ve lost my appetite. There is the light across the alleyway through blinds in my kitchen window, the warmth, a receipt from CVS, anaconda in length, folded thrice. I pull out a chair, set my messenger bag in it, take out my notebook, feel the outside cool trapped between its pages and on my pen as I write: Not Welcome. Thinking I’ve found a title for a story collection I’ve been working on. But this between the world and we, it is no victim song.
The next day, on the day job, I’m in my tall cubicle in an office maze of tall cubicles and square numbered columns from which the constant, click, click, clicking of keyboard keys is like the march of crabs, click, click, clicking claws. Occasionally the clicking is silenced by conversations with customers, but more often its family and friends.
I’m surfing the web. Now if this part was fiction, it would be too coincidental, I would stop reading. But you can look it up. On January 27th 2017, the Chicago Tribune, quoting the Associated Press, said of Emmett Till’s accuser, Carolyn Donham, née Bryant, after almost sixty years, Mrs. Bryant admitted the fourteen-year-old Emmett Till never grabbed her over the counter and asked ‘how about a date, baby?’ Emmett Till did not follow Mrs. Bryant toward the back of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market. Emmett Till did not snatch Mrs. Bryant around the waist, or brag about his sexual exploits with white women. Mrs. Bryant did not have to snatch herself away from Emmett Till’s grasp. The Till boy did not leave the Bryant store blowing a wolf whistle as exclamation point.
Emmett Till’s mother said her son had a speech impediment. Emmett could not have said those things easily. Carolyn Bryant was believed when she said he acted as matter-of-factly. Roy Bryant, Mrs. Bryant’s husband and J.W. Milan, Mr. Bryant’s half-brother, kidnapped Emmett Till. They took him to the Tallahatchie River. They made Emmett Till carry a 75-pound cotton gin fan to the water’s edge. They forced Emmett to strip naked. Bryant and Milan beat the Till boy. They gouged out his eye. They shot Emmett Till in the head. Emmett Till’s body was bound to the gin with barbed wire and sunk in the Tallahatchie River.
We know this because a year after being acquitted of their acts, for which they could not be retried because of double jeopardy, Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milan sold their confession to Look magazine for 4,100 dollars apiece. On May 22nd, 2016, George Zimmerman auctioned off the gun he used to stalk and kill an unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2012, after an acquittal of his own, for $250,000.
I’m caught by a co-worker, saying to myself, things are different, but they haven’t changed. The co-worker, let’s call him Nolan, can’t or doesn’t read social cues. Nolan is grinning. The only time Nolan isn’t grinning is when something gets on his nerves. He bounces between exuberance and frustration. Rarely does he rest at anything in between. He’s young enough, but not really, that penis jokes are still good stuff. I don’t judge. I remember the things with which I used to amuse myself. Sometimes I wish they still worked.
Nolan asks what am I doing? Come on. It’s break time. Walk him to his car. He has to get his wallet. Our parking lot is on a wide open plateau above a main highway. The far edge, where Nolan is parked, is always windy. Neither of us bother with our coats. Every now and then a strong gust narrows the eye and bows the head away from it, but it’s not cold enough that my hands are in my pockets. Nolan pops the door locks, ducks inside the driver’s side front, runs his hand under that seat, then the passenger side for the wallet. He pats down the dashboard, moves things in the glove compartment, moves to rear, he can’t find it. He probably left it home. I can’t understand how anybody can leave home without their wallet. What if he gets pulled over?
Nolan shrugs. He says, you’re not afraid of the cops, are you? I don’t believe it.
I tell him, neither would a jury of his peers.
Oh, here you go with that, he says.
I understand why the vagina hat marchers. I know how you can deal with those who’ve abused you and it’s not proof of their innocence. Or how because your abuser was always good to his character witnesses doesn’t mean he was never bad to you. Or even how there are moments you may feel genuine affection for your abuser and others, loathing for yourself.
It was we shall overcome first, tired of calling ordinary what wasn’t and beating the odds everywhere we were given a chance. Mostly we were given no chance and we paid dearly for not taking it. We made ours better out of that and we still haven’t got it made. Those are your sons standing their ground on this land all of us sacrificed for. Can’t you raise them better? If not for us, for them. For although love and hatred can coexist in the same heart, hatred and happiness cannot.
On our way back inside the building, Nolan without his wallet and not worried about it, with another big silly grin he says, So Black History Month, next week. When are we going to get White History Month? When I ignore him, he asks when am I going to write a story about him? I’m amused, not in the way he thinks, but he knows something got by him. I insist on it.
Xavier John Richardson is a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellow. His fiction appears in Apiary, Track//Four, Black Arts Quarterly, Philly Fiction, South Philly Fiction and For Women—A Tribute to Nina Simone. This is his first published nonfiction.