I had planned to write a short blurb to explain this piece, to provide some context about the education I’ve received and how it has led me to view whiteness and so on. I’ve changed my mind, not because I don’t care if you understand or not, but because I’m exhausted from talking about this constantly. There are three more names we’ve had to learn these past few days: Joyce Quaweay, Skye Mockabee and Korryn Gaines. There are probably so many more that didn’t make the news. Say Her Name. I’m exhausted, and I hope this piece speaks for itself.
There’s a young man on the train, very slim, maybe in his mid-twenties. For someone who spends almost all my time observing strangers moving about in their strange worlds, I’m terrible at estimating people’s ages. I blame that on the fact that all the older people I know have wrinkle-free faces frozen somewhere in their mid-thirties, with only a few flecks of grey at the hairline as evidence of their age. This man is wearing a grey suit, wrinkled in the back from where he has been leaning on the seat, with a pale blue shirt and a matching tie. He has red hair combed over to the left side of his head, a little limp because of the summer heat, or maybe from an overdue wash. He is having an energy drink for breakfast, and the can is the only thing he is carrying. He has on brown shoes that look cartoonish in their largeness, in the way that men’s shoes always appear to me. His white headphones loop over his collar to the inside of his shirt, maybe connected to a phone, maybe connected to nothing but giving the impression that he is unavailable for any kind of conversation. It could be that he got on the train at the other end of the B line, and that the look of irritation on his face is a remnant of dealing with the BU students crowding and shuffling on and off between stops. Maybe he didn’t get much sleep because he spent the night worrying about his old parents wilting slowly in a Mid-western town. Maybe he is just tired because he stayed up late drinking within his work buddies as if college ended last night, and not three years before when he moved to Boston.
There’s a young woman in blue pleated pants, with white squares dotted all over them. I believe they’re from the clothing store where I used to work. If I think hard enough, I may even be able to remember the exact name of the style: Ann, Kate or Devin? She has an orange shirt tucked into her trousers with a white belt to secure the outfit, and a black bag with the designer’s name and logo fixed on in gold lettering. She is wearing square tortoise shell glasses that she pushes back up her nose absent mindedly, and her hair is an indeterminate brown. Indeterminate because it doesn’t look like anything that I have known before. In all the books I read growing up, the children looked like the mischievous Cupid laughing jumping of the surface of gaudy cards in a filling station shop in February, and their hair was always the color of hay, or of sunlight filtered through thin orange curtains, or of a lake at night. This is none of those things, and I don’t have the words. I try to imagine a life for her, like I did the man. Maybe she is an intern at a shiny ad agency in the financial district, only in Boston for the summer before she returns to an elite college elsewhere on the east coast. She probably knocked her bag into the small of my back because the only faces like mine she registers are the ones fixing their eyes on mop buckets and dirty floors when she exits the shower of her dorm, even though there are probably many more in her classes, and in the city, than she notices because they are not supposed to be there.
I’m a disappointment to a curriculum that pounded lines of poetry into my skull to the rhythm of iambic pentameter. All I can remember is the absurdity of memorizing lines of drama from Hamlet on a boiling day in a school hidden by full hedges and tall gates from the gaze of people who were not international enough. I was obligated to concern myself with this Hamlet character who, if he were alive today, would probably be found posting terrible haikus on Tumblr and plotting how he was going to leave his parents apartment for good this time. Obsessing over the significance of Ophelia’s drowning when my own ability to stay afloat was going to be tested, dangerously so, in classrooms and residence halls and workplaces full of people who would not be able to hear my own cries for help. I have been called upon to jump into strange skins and to understand what it’s like to inhabit them, while looking at my own as a thing to be studied objectively, to be grateful for this redemption orchestrated by high culture and long-suffering Jesus with the freshly permed wave to his hair.
And yet, there is still something that obstructs the light of recognition before it reaches my eyes. There is a piece of stone blocking its way that now makes it difficult for me to see humanity in people that cannot see me. That the dehumanized eventually become inhumane is clear to me in the way I look at people on the train as flat pieces of canvas waiting for me to make half-hearted strokes on the surface. I left the empathy that was forced on me between pages of G.M Hopkins’ and Emily Brontë’s works, marking my place in histories of people winning wars fought over graves of the original wonders of the land, pages bled through with florescent pink highlighter ink. I don’t have any empathy left to give. I can look, disinterested, in the same way I glance at semester abroad students with cowries matted into the back of hair that isn’t made for locs, locked arms with their local friends, or the expat mothers moving in a cloud of Paris’ finest perfume and left over air conditioned cold, pulling naughty children away from their uncouth playmates with open pink mouths and dust trapped in the knots of their hair. I can look, but I have lost all interest in a human condition that is only human when it doesn’t include me.
(Image: The train stations in DC made for really good photo ops. Spring 2014)