He Did Nothing. He Did Everything.
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” W.E.B. Du Bois.
Before I tell this story I need to establish two very important things:
1. I am Black. I have occupied Black, prettily melaninated skin for upwards of 40 years. I have never been mistaken for “not black,” though sometimes I’m asked if I’m “island-Spanish-speaking Black.” I can not take off my Blackness, and I cannot hide it. My Blackness is as visually apparent as the color of a rose, the emerald green of a fern, or the cerulean of the ocean.
2. I am a woman. I have occupied a decidedly female and feminine body for upwards of 40 years. I have never been mistaken for “not woman or not girl,” and I know that I possess the kind of female body that is coveted by some: a smaller waist than hips, more derriere than the House of Dereon, and clearly defined ex-perky breasts. My womanness is as distinctive as the difference between a ruby and an emerald.
At all times, I occupy this very Black, very female body. Most times, the decisions I have to make navigating space hold my Blackness and my womanness in concert. Sometimes, I am asked to make a decision that puts my Blackness and womanness in conflict. Those times are extraordinarily hard.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always existing as two beings in the same bodily space, of knowing the burden and joys of American Blackness in a place where female bodies are often the target — ridiculed, harassed, grabbed, threatened. One ever feels her two-ness — a person of African descent, a woman; two souls, two thoughts, two understandings, and sometimes two warring persons in one body, whose sharpness alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Recently, a Black woman friend and I went for a walk in our neighborhood. Typically, our walks are uneventful aside and this one was too, until we got exactly 125 steps from the front door of our apartment building.
One-hundred twenty-five steps from the front door, a husky Black man, walking behind us, said hello. We replied, gave a nod in the man’s direction, and kept walking toward home. Exhausted by a 15,000 step walk, I want to get home so I can shower, collapse in front of Netflix and ice my non-Megan the Stallion, golden girl knees.
The man following behind us continued to talk to our backs: “Ya’ll live ‘round here?” Our internal antennas rose and began to sharpen. We slowed down, now approximately 100 steps from the front door. We give a very noncommittal answer like “we know the neighborhood” and — this is important — keep walking away, albeit more slowly. At this point this man is talking to our backs.
Why is this important? Because when you are a woman, you know when men ignore normative social cues. And when men ignore normative social cues, you know that something about him is not right. So, your instincts overtake you, and you become hyper aware. Immediately.
Now navigating my city, I see and interact with lots of Black men. These interactions are socially normal, following the mutually-agreed upon, unwritten rules, and they’re often just flirty enough for me to know I’m still fly. For example when I’m out and see Black Man, we nod at each other, wave, say hello or good day. Black Man says something, like “good to see you out here!” or “ya’ll have a good day,” or “damn, my day is better now” and we all laugh and carry on. Sometimes we stop and chat, sometimes Black Man offers directions or a smile and wink. During these interactions there are hundreds of social cues that are exchanged back and forth allowing both parties to experience and assess the interaction as normal. When one or some of those social cues are off even the tiniest amount, we people who have been occupying female bodies for a long time know. We KNOW. And we become instantly sharp. Without even talking to my walking partner, I knew that she knew that something was amiss. There is a wolf in the forest.
We keep walking, even slower. He is still talking to our backs. “What’s your address?” He calls out.
Sharp. Sharp as a newly whetted knife or the shine on your granddaddy’s Easter shoes.
This is a good spot to pause my tale to tell you that I have been followed many times. Without deviating too far away from this particular story, here are some Cliff’s Notes:
1. When I was about 18, a Black male police officer pulled me over. He then started showing up uninvited at my house, often at night, always in his uniform and squad car to “talk.” My mom created the escape plan.
2. When I was about 25, a car pulled off the freeway and followed me to my home around 2:30 a.m. I drove to the nearest police precinct, which is where the car sped off. I live more than 2 miles from the precinct, so I was followed more than two miles through a neighborhood where I took great care to make a lot of random turns.
3. Last year, a Black man followed me on the bus, sat behind me, and talked to the back of my head for upwards of an hour. I ignored him. Halfway through the ride, I knew I couldn’t get off at home, and I made an escape plan.
There are more, but I share these examples in order to illustrate that 1. I ain’t new to being followed; I know when I’m being followed; and I know that when I’m being followed, the place I can’t go is home, because I don’t want the follower to know where I live.
Back to my walk. At this point my girl and I are exchanging glances and I can read her mind as well as she can read mine. We can’t go inside. So, what do we do?
We see one of our neighbors and his family getting in their car near the building. We like our neighbors and have really good relationships with them. We hadn’t seen them since Sister ‘Rona shut shit down, so say hi. We talk and laugh for several minutes, giving the wolf time to go elsewhere and us time to get in the building. We finish the conversation with our neighbors, say goodbye, and begin to turn toward the building.
There is a small patch of land with a large bush between the building and the sidewalk where our neighbor was parked. The wolf is hiding behind the bushes staring at us. He has been standing behind the bushes for the entire conversation with our neighbor.
So, my friend and I immediately turn back to our neighbor. I say in muted voice, “He’s still back there.” My girl quietly says back “I know.”
Let me be crystal clear: This man did nothing. He did not physically attack us; he stayed more than 50 feet away from us. He was walking legally on the same street as we were. Also, this man did everything. He followed behind us. He operated outside of normal social cues. He kept talking at us as he was ignored, and he specifically asked about where we live. He hid behind a bush for several minutes and watched us talk to our neighbor. This man did nothing and everything at the same time. So, what do you do?
This is not a rhetorical question. This is not a policy-what-should-happen question, or an ethical question or a moral question or a philosophical question. This is a question that I had to problematize, quickly.
With the cover of our neighbors, we begin quietly rapid-firing a plan. How can we get home.
“Let’s walk around and walk back.” Good idea, but I physically can’t walk another 3/4 mile.
“Oh! I have my keys. Let’s get in my car and drive around the corner.” Shit. I don’t have my keys. I left them with the concierge in the building so I wouldn’t lose them on the walk.
“Let’s call a friend and have her bring us the keys.” Nope, if she comes out of the building and hands us my keys, he’ll still know where we live.
So now we’re stumped and I am on the verge of frustrated, tired, annoyed tears.
Our neighbors look perplexed. We look at them and I say quietly, “that man behind the bushes has been following us for the past few minutes, and has been standing behind the bushes looking at us for the entire time we’ve been talking to you.”
Male neighbor says, “Oh no worries, I”ll just walk you guys to the door.” Chivalrous, but not going to solve the main problem — we don’t want the wolf to know what building we’re going into.
So then he says, “Ok, new plan, you guys get in my car and I’ll drive you to the back entrance and let you in with my key.”
So we pile in the car, and our neighbor drives around the block to the back door. The man stands at the corner, watches the car, and yells at us as we drive by.
Once safely inside, we immediately begin to debrief. First, we express our gratefulness for our neighbors. Then our annoyance blooms. We discuss our shared understanding of when we perceived danger and when we both knew something was wrong. When we turned on, became sharp.
Our frustration rises up and spills out that our white neighbor had to witness what just happened, as we are situated in a time that overpolices Black men, that criminalizes Black men, in a society that views Black men as threats, and executes Black men on sight.
Then we examine and discuss our deeply seeded knowledge, embedded in our chromosomes and rooted in the nucleus of our DNA that we are women occupying female bodies. And that no matter how equal we may be academically and intellectually, we do not possess equal physical strength to best most men. Therefore our physical safety requires us to be sharp, and smart and crafty, and thinking two-to-three steps ahead most of the time. We recount the women we know who have been harmed by Black men, the times we’ve been harassed by Black men strangers, our friends who have lost their lives at the hands of their partners. We remember the women we know who quietly tend the wounds of sexual abuse, until they crust over and form a tender, hard scar that pulsates forever.
Finally, a deep resignation of our shared conflict: Our Blackness which loves Black people and Black men, and our Blackness which recoils at the thought of initiating state action against Black people unless absolutely necessary, because the state has made it clear for 400 years its position on Black people. Our Blackness which marches for and checks on and rubs the backs of Black men, and which finds Black men amazing and smart and wonderful and safe and protective and loving and kind and who are the smell of a warm fire on a cold winter’s day, warming our womanness. Our Womanness which loves occupying a decidedly female body and fully recognizing the benefits of possessing such a body. Our wommanness which is soft and warm, and a kind lap for men and babies alike to lay their weary heads and take solace, a body with a mind that is smart, and a body fully aware of its limitations against predators and is frightened at times for its safety and security. Our femaleness which is sharp and keen and alert, even at 1:00 pm on a sunny, Saturday afternoon on a busy street. Our femaleness which demands equality, (but what does that even mean for Black women?) and which needs protection, but who protects us from us?
And now my friend and I are worn and tired and sad and ever-vigiliant, because now that the threat has been established and has rooted itself 125 steps from the front door, it cannot be forgotten. So we go to the front desk, and talk to an older Black woman in our building. We recount the events to her. She looks concerned and then says “Yes! I know that guy! He’s crazy. Stay away from him. I just started seeing him in the neighborhood. Something isn’t right about that guy.”
Who do Black women call, when the wolf is a Black man? When do we make that call? What constitutes a threat? Is 200 feet away a threat? 50? Does asking where I live make a threat that warrants a call for help? Does walking behind me? Does following me? What’s the difference? Does lingering behind a bush? Can I go in the house? Should I walk somewhere else and call a car? Should I move my keys between my fingers with the sharp end pointed out? Shit, I got my mask, but put down my pepper spray. How far does pepper spray spray? Wait, this man didn’t do anything, so should I spray him? But he also did everything. He did everything. He did everything.