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Swedish Sidewalk Etiquette and Black Bodies

. . . It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. . .

—Ralph Ellison Invisible Man (1952)


 

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On my walk to the grocery store, I stay to the right side of the path, giving cyclists a wide berth around me. The width of this path is fairly generous, nearly six feet across. There’s enough room for me to remain safe during my ten minute journey. When I spot the jogging man coming towards me, he’s several yards ahead, on my side of this wide path. I have a few seconds to decide what I’ll do, the anxiety actually elevates my heart rate. Stay the course or move aside? The way I reason it, he’s moving much faster than I, speeding downhill while I trudge upward, he has the ability to jog around. At the last second I stand my ground and stay the course.

When he does brush against me, our arms bumping, I continue walking with the knowledge that this is not normal behavior. He doesn’t say “excuse me” or “Ursäkta mig.” He just blow through me as though I’m not there. For the rest of my fuming walk to the store, I realize that this hasn’t been the first time I’ve experienced this. 

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Survivor’s Guilt: Black Expats in the Trump Era

survivors guilt

When Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election, I scrolled through the flood of Facebook post’s reading the lamentations of devastated friends who claimed “IT’S TIME TO MOVE TO CANADA!” (Never to Mexico, though. I never saw anyone threaten to move to the popular vacation destination, Mexico). I rolled my eyes and thought: “Y’all ain’t going anywhere.” Because you can’t leave. If your country made a mess, you had to stick around and deal with it.

Then my husband took a teaching job in Sweden. Of all places the places to move after a year and a half of dismal political failures, Sweden and it’s free health care/education was the deus ex machina this black girl needed. At that point, I was like: “Peace, America. It’s been real.”

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Reenactment of my quick “get away”

But about a month into my new Swedish life, my feelings of relief soon became feelings of guilt when I saw the wave of #livingwhileblack news reports. My survivor’s guilt isn’t born of some explosive tragedy like a terrorist attack or a plane crash. Mine comes from being born in a racist America, where my humanity is questioned at every turn. And since I’ve left my home country, I’ve become terrified of what might happen to the black/brown people I know and love. I feel powerless over here.

Below, I’ve compiled a few screenshots of these disturbing headlines. I eventually had to stop at these because: a) There are just far too many (even in the last month), and b) It’s so damned disheartening.

It’s no secret that White Americans have grown bolder by their new president’s racist rhetoric. They’ve taken his fear-mongering rants, regarding non-whites, and ran wild with it; calling the cops as they go. Black people cannot be in public spaces (or private, for that matter) without some trembling white woman alerting law enforcement. And because these hysteria-driven incidences are occurring so frequently (again, in the past couple of months), it makes black people wonder: “Am I next?”

I look at these news reports and feel sick because I know if I were still living in the United States, it would be a matter of time before the police were called on me for. . . God know’s what, using coupons at a Dollar General?

I recently met some Black American men, at a bar, in my new city. And after we got over the initial shock of “Omg, what on earth brought you here??” we got down to how things were back home. I informed them that things were indeed not good back home, but they didn’t seem particularly bothered by events. They were married to Swedish women and had effectively moved on. One man, Carl, bemoaned local inconveniences like not being able to collect guns or the license that must be paid when buying a television. He even said of Trump: “The guy might be okay, if he’d learn how to talk with some sense.” Needless to say, I felt strangely alone after meeting my kinsmen. They were done with America and the closest they’d come to racism was annoying questions like: “But where in Africa did you come from?”

I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist in Sweden, in fact, there are far-right/neo-Nazi political parties that are making serious waves right now. But this day-to-day weaponizing of police isn’t taking off here. I’m also not asking you to feel sorry for my situation. I’m fine, I swear I am. I’m certainly not the first black ex-pat to have these feelings.

James Baldwin kept America in the back of his mind while living in Paris or visiting Leukerbad. He compared #livingwhileblack in both Europe and America and found some similarities, but he also found some freedoms. His day-to-day wasn’t hindered by fearful white women on cellphones. Being in a land with no apparent “whites-only” signs allowed him the freedom to be thoughtful and critical of racism in America (again, not to say that France didn’t have their own problems i.e: Algerians).

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It’s my hope to acquire Baldwin’s astute observations regarding my own homeland. America, regardless of her deep flaws, is still my country. My blue passport is proof of my citizenship and in it, reads: “Place of Birth: Arkansas, U.S.A.” Little Rock, to be exact. I come from strong people, from the deep South, who saw my leaving America as a good thing. I want to keep writing my observations for them.

Lastly, I want it to be known that I wrote this piece in response to a Facebook post I recently read (I’ve bolded the last sentence):

How many of you live in a different country other than the US. I know everywhere its some type of “issue,” with being a dark skin black woman. Yet, I’m curious to know what are your experiences as a black woman in a different country? I know this is a loaded question. I WILL read each response. I ask because I’m thinking of what my life could be if I decide to leave the US. Thank you so much

The location, where black women could escape to, was not settled in the long comment thread that followed. EVERY COUNTRY had its issues, even Canada. The point was: Black women are looking for a way out. They are seriously considering leaving everything they know for some goddamn peace and quiet. America has reached a critical juncture where the marginalized are openly abused, kids are in cages, and white people are frightened of little black children selling lemonade.

Who wouldn’t want to escape?


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I think I was about thirteen when I learned that black people can’t go just anywhere in the United States. It was a very quick, subtle lesson that could have easily been missed but I did spot the concern on my mother’s face when she said, “We’re not stopping in Rogers for anything.” She said this in response to my stepfather’s unfurled map of Northwest Arkansas. As they sat in the front of our family van, charting a route to Fayetteville, I paid close attention to the unspoken tension from the backseat.

My stepfather noted that there was no way of avoiding the town. We’d have to drive through it to reach our destination. But no, we would not stop. From our vacation home in Bella Vista, where money made more of a difference than color, I was more out of touch than I understood. I didn’t notice the lack of black folks in the tiny community, which was devoted to the Walmart corporation. There was literally a golf course behind our rental. Elderly white men, in their golf carts, regularly made stops yards from where I sat on the patio to read.

It was when we made plans to see the university town of Fayetteville, I was reminded that I was black and that I was definitely The Other. No amount of money would change the fact that when we hit the open rode someone would have to pee. There was a good chance that we’d have to pull over in one of those dinky Arkansas towns. Even if we drove through without gassing up, peeing, or stretching our legs— there was a good chance that state patrol could pull my stepfather over.

The journey only took an hour. It was mostly quiet aside from my parents speaking in hushed tones about this forbidden town of Rogers. “You just don’t stay around this area after dark. Everyone knows that,” said my mother. The tension didn’t let up until we got to the city limits of Fayetteville. Only then, my sister and I felt comfortable enough to start jostling around in the backseat. My parents began talking louder; their laughter was nervous with relief.

I didn’t fully understand the term “sundown town” until I was in college and I had read there were many of them in Illinois (where I went to school). If white people didn’t want blacks in their town after the sunset, they let us know it. In the Jim Crow South, The Negro Motorist Green-Book was a valuable lifeline for those who wanted to travel safely. This annual publication informed black travelers which hotels, restaurants, and service stations were relatively safe. Most importantly, the Green Book told us which towns to avoid entirely. This booklet, first published by Victor Hugo Green, probably saved lives in the 1960’s. In a time where the middle-class was booming for all Americans, families wanted to take road trips on the interstate highways. Black families wanted to go on vacation as well. It was just more. . . challenging for us.

I was thirteen-year-old in 1997 when my mother, a child of the 60’s, grew concerned about traveling through her native Arkansas. Twenty years later, in 2017, the NAACP has just issued a travel advisory for the entire state of Missouri. They ask that black people “use extreme caution” while traveling to or through the state. They cite incidents like the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, university students who received death threats in Columbia, and recently passed legislation that makes it difficult to sue employers who are guilty of discrimination. An entire state is on notice.

I have written and spoken about this before. I have described what it’s like to travel to Thailand, Finland, Estonia, and Ireland, as a black woman. I may have experienced awkward moments but I don’t remember a situation that made me grit my teeth and stay silent like my mother did in 1997. She knew better than I the dangers that lie in wait in our own backyard; that simple road trips could go horribly wrong if she didn’t keep her wits about her. What I didn’t realize was that things hadn’t really changed and that, in some cases, we were backsliding. I have a U.S. government-issued passport that will take me everywhere in the world. The sundown towns of my own nation. . . the jury is still out on that.

Fayetteville was nice. We had a chain-restaurant meal and did a little shopping but we didn’t stay too long. I’m now certain that while we had fun, my parents thought about the drive back to Belle Vista and the potential issues that could arise. We took off long before dusk. Our drive was quiet.

 


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On Casinos

I let out a small gasp when I use the ATM machine. My husband stands over my shoulder and sounds frantic, “What??”

“They allow people to take out $3,000 at a time!”

He looks relieved. He thought there was something wrong with our account. “You’re in a casino.”

We are at Hollywood Casino because I want a sure bet: The Epic Buffet. I know that with $10 a piece, we won’t exactly beat the house, but we’ll leave properly satiated. But in order to get the buffet, my husband and I have to walk through the frenzied lights and sounds first. That’s when I see the hordes; tired and bored Toledoans parked in front of penny slots, pressing buttons and waiting. There are the usual gray-heads, but a few younger people as well. They all have one thing in common: Desperate hope. . . and probably addiction. Hence the $3,000 cash allowance at the ATMs.

My husband and I eat our meal, commenting that we’re the youngest people at the buffet. While I fork through my dry baked cod, I get the itch. I try push it to the back of my mind and continue eating. But on the second trip to the food line, I can’t help but sneak a peak into the open gaming area, back at the color lights and fake cash register sounds. The itch gets stronger and when I return to the table with my over-salted chicken, I tell my husband: “We’re going to play with $10 dollars before we leave.”

He raises a brow before saying that he didn’t bring any cash. I brush off his concerns. “They have ATMs.” He nods and goes back to eating.

Addiction, in my family, is a bit of an issue. I can trace it back to the stories my mother told me about her father, Archie. My grandfather was a drinker, gambler, and from the way mom had a penchant for dramatic flair, probably a horse thief as well. He came home regularly without important items like shoes. Perhaps he lost his shoes in a card game? My own father, though I didn’t know him well, had a deep relationship with alcohol and a menagerie of drugs. My uncle, a Vietnam veteran, was more or less on a similar path. The war did its best to solidify that path. These were the men in my family.

My own flirtation with addition first came in the form of gambling in college. I learned how to play poker in my school’s cafeteria and I’d like to believe I got good at it, until I didn’t. A dollar a hand was easy enough, but when I began seeking out the game instead of going to class, it was cause for concern. I put an end to it before it affected my grades because I was more afraid of failing than falling into a legacy. But addiction has a sneaky way of mutating itself. Gambling turned into smoking. I only quit smoking because I was scared into quitting. When a day-long asthma attack couldn’t be abated with a simple emergency inhaler, I had to haul-ass to an emergency clinic. I was on bedrest for days after, trying to catch my breath. Though my family’s legacy and my own flirtations haven’t gotten me into deep trouble, I still regard every sip of alcohol warily. It could always become the start of something sinister.

So I should know better than to withdraw money at a casino. Also, you can’t just pull $10 out; it has to be twenty. I find a machine to break my twenties into four 5 dollar bills. I give half of it to my husband, fearing that if I do this all on my own, it will take longer. And if it takes longer, I’ll start to enjoy it. We each take our ten and split up. Sitting at my machine, I don’t notice that it’s a penny-slot. This bores the hell out of me but I do get accustomed to pulling the arm. You press a button, pull the arm, and watch the cherries line up. Press, pull, watch. Press, pull, watch.

This goes on until the motions are robotic. The frenetic jingle-jangle noise fade into the background as my only objective becomes these three actions: Press, pull, watch. I lose that first $5. I move on to another machine and lose that money as well. My husband breaks even though. He has managed to retain his ten dollars and is satisfied. Nothing fazes him. I should be thankful that he gets no real pleasure from gambling. It makes it easier for him to guide me out of there. Truthfully, when I look around, I realize I get no real pleasure for being here either.

Toledo was promised a great deal when Hollywood Casinos broke ground. There were supposed to be jobs and the surrounding community was to be “revitalized.” Whatever that means. Things haven’t really materialized the way people thought they would. Downtown Toledo still looks bombed out. The revenue hasn’t made a dent in the homeless population or help curb the state’s opium crisis. The people who sit at slot machines and stand around the craps tables know it too. This place hasn’t changed the community for good or bad, we’re all just. . . stagnate.

I pause before we leave. No one looks happy as they flush money down the toilet. The scene is a far cry from the billboards and commercials that show young, vibrant people blowing on dice before they toss; jumping in the air and hugging when they strike it big. Beside me, there’s an ancient women who’s hair is pulled into a small tight knot. She’s wearing a Garfield the Cat t-shirt and purple sweat-pants. Her walker is parked next to the machine. As she slowly pulling a rewards card, something of a quick debit card, out of her machine, she lets out a tired sigh.

Seeing enough, I turn to my husband. “It’s time to go.”

As we walk to the elevators that lead to the parking garage, I see a sign that advertises El Dabarge’s free concert tonight. Now if that isn’t a sign from the gods, I don’t know what is. While my flirtation with addiction leaves me feeling hollow, the Epic Buffet certain does its job of filling my belly. I am suddenly reminded that I have the things I need. My husband and I have the basics and a little more to enjoy a meal out of the house, a trip to the theater, and coffee and a book at Barnes and Noble. There is real, tangible joy from those things. They aren’t based in fluke or luck.