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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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Black Don’t Craic Series: Part 3, Meeting Steven

Image result for wild lobster

I talked to man who fishes on the Renvyle coast for lobster. Steven is a short but solidly built man, who’s wind-swept ruddy face broke into a million wrinkles when he gave a less-than-toothy grin. It really didn’t take a lot of effort to get him talking. I just wandered out to the front stoop of the pub to have a smoke. That’s all you need, really.

When he revealed he was a lobster fisherman, I used what I remembered of David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” essay to fill in some awkward gaps in the conversation. I may have impressed him when I asked about hard-shell shedding. Speaking of shedding one’s shell, Steven took that opportunity to switch gears and tell me about the missing tips of his two fingers.

“You know how I lost them?” he asked. Of course I didn’t. I guessed that the hunt for crustaceans may have led to missing fingers. Turns out, Steven had been careless with the lawnmower. The blade took off half of his ring-finger and the tip of his middle-finger. “What did you do?” I asked. He didn’t pass out from the trauma like I would have, Steven ran himself down the road to the doctor.

Apparently lawnmower incidents are rather common in the Irish country-side. In fact, when Steven arrived to the hospital, there was already a man in the waiting room who was missing half a foot. He kicked his lawnmower. I asked Steven what happened to his missing fingers. Urgency made him leave the fingers in the grass bag. However, he did retrieve them later. He planted them in his backyard: “They’ve yet to sprout anything.”

I asked him if, after two years since the incident, he’s more careful with the mower. He admitted that he doesn’t fool with it anymore. He bought himself a donkey instead, it’s a good environmental alternative. I think Steven and I both learned that unlike lobsters and crabs, humans can’t grow back their limbs.

There’s that dark Irish humor


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Black Don’t Craic Series: Part 1, Vacation Hair

I’m two days away from spending a month in Ireland and I’m terribly anxious about a very minor thing. It’s very minor to my white husband, considering he’s still teaching himself Irish (which is a HUGE deal to him). I’m worried about Vacation Hair.

Vacation Hair for many black women is a big deal. Sure, there’s planning the essentials like power adapters, passport renewal, and bringing copious amounts of underwear. But when you’re abroad, in countries that might not have the products you’re accustomed to, what’s your plan? No really, what’s your plan? I’m two days away from this trip and I’m still panicking.

The last time I left the country, I was wearing Marley Twists. This was acceptable because I was only going to be in Finland and Estonia for two weeks. While the twists made moving our luggage and clearing our hotel rooms much easier, they became a little uncomfortable and itchy towards the end of our stay.

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Marley Twists in Helsinki, Finland

I have my heart set on packing lighter, carrying only the clothes and electronics that we need. As for as toiletries, just the basics please: deodorant, soaps, toothpaste, etc. I can’t afford to take the bulk of my hair products or a flat-iron (that was the mistake I made when I went to hot, humid Thailand). I don’t want to go full-fro (that was what I eventually needed to do in hot, humid Thailand).

Also, I still want to look cute. . .

So I’m taking a couple of stand-by wigs. I don’t like the idea of storing them in a suitcase, but it could free me up to carry fewer hair care products. I’ll just take my conditioner and my wide tooth comb. Am I being ambitious? Perhaps. The point is, I still haven’t gotten the hang of Vacation Hair. Every trip I take, here or abroad, I think I’ve perfected the problem only to buy the Wal-Mart comb that I accidentally left at home.

I’m taking a short simple number and a curly one:

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I will let you guys know how it works out. I have found a good article about traveling with wigs. I’m hoping that helps keep me properly on the move. If you have any Vacation Hair tips, please leave them in the comments section. Remember, I’ll also have Ireland Vlogs on my Motley News YouTube Channel. I want you to see the sights and hear the sounds (of the sheep) as well!