The media frenzy surrounding the racism of Los Angeles Clippers’ team owner Donald Sterling reminded me why last year, at the age of 23, I decided to leave the country I had been calling “home” for nearly two decades. As a black woman of Caribbean descent, I felt alienated and lost in a sea of endless racial divide and turmoil. Everyday in America I was drowning. My sanity and sense of stability slowly deteriorated, submerged in disillusionment. I did not want to leave, I had to leave. A fiery rage set ablaze feelings of anger, resentment, disappointment that could not be quelled. How could the country that raised me on the notion that all men are created equal, cast me into a reality of segregation and racism? The questions swarmed incessantly like a mosquito’s annoying buzz. The answers never came. Instead, I left.
I took off to a chorus of Whys?, spiteful remarks about my oversensitivity and claims that America is post-racial; beyond black and white. Despite my ardent explanations, others called me a coward for running and not fighting the “good fight.” I was expected to have answers about how to fix America’s race dilemma, as if I were responsible for its creation. I left and found peace in a land unafraid to call me daughter or to accept me and my blackness fully. Colored faces were not restricted to rap videos or individual tales of success. They were the norm that filled government seats and headed major corporations — they were my neighbors and friends.
But my sister had a beautiful baby boy during my time away that I have spent no time with and I was desperate to be with my boyfriend who lives in upstate New York. A year later, I returned to the States. The flight from Port of Spain, Trinidad, back to Newark Airport had my stomach in excited knots. After so much time away, would I feel different about America?
The plane soared over the New York City skyline and I remembered my brother’s statement when he saw those glimmering lights for the first time, 20 years ago.
“Look how dey light up for we!” he exclaimed in his sing-song Trinidadian accent while we watched in awe, our faces glued to the window as the plane slowly descended, before landing with a loud THUMP! on the dark runway. Sitting on the plane this time around, I shook my head at the memory and sighed an exasperated chuckle. Those lights did not care if I came or went — they shined regardless.
I did not want anyone to pick me up from the airport. Being back felt like a confrontation, as if I was to be reunited with a lover after a bad breakup. I needed a moment alone with America. I dragged my luggage behind me onto the PATH train and sat with my face in my palms.
I dozed off and awoke in New York City at the last stop, 33rd street. Colorful faces rushed onboard, clamoring to find a seat for the long weekend ride that makes an additional stop in Hoboken, New Jersey. I had forgotten what it felt like to be cramped amidst so many different faces: a young Indian couple holding their toddler close as they exchanged loving glances; two blonde, white girls swaying side to side while wearing mini-dresses and uncomfortable high heels, laughing loudly at a brown-haired young man hunched over from obviously drinking too much; a young black couple with piercings wearing all-black baggy pants covered in metal belts. It seemed that people boarded the train from all corners of the planet, from every walk of life. I smiled at the sight — a renewed sense of hope rushed over me that perhaps there was something precious that I had overlooked in previous years. Perhaps a newly discovered sense of belonging was possible in all of the mixes mingling.
The last group of passengers forced themselves into the tiny spaces that remained, before the doors closed and the train lurched forward.
“Next stop is 23rd street,” the conductor announced over the static-filled intercom. My eyes darted about the train car, scanning each face aboard. Groups of brown, yellow and white faces clustered together; some speaking loudly with excitement, other’s falling asleep on one another’s shoulders. A black homeless man squeezed by the crowds with dirty clothes begging for change, unseen or unheard by the riders engulfed in conversation or busy toying with a cellphone or iPod. Our eyes met briefly.
“Goodnight beautiful lady!” he exclaimed, then poked his cup full of coins in my direction. I shook my head no at him, then mouthed “sorry.”
He continued his journey to the next train car as we zipped past all of the stops in New York City.
“Next stop, Hoboken!” the conductor bellowed. The two blonde girls surrendered to their spiked heels and plopped down onto the train floor. An older black woman gave them a disapproving look, then whispered something to two children seated calmly beside her. The train snaked through the tunnels between each stop. The doors on either side burst open and the rush began. The blondes, blues and whites of America’s diversity palette emptied out of the train at the stop, leaving only browns, yellows and blacks fighting for the unoccupied seats.
“Next stop, Newport!”
My stop was finally near. As the train pulled into the station, I gathered my belongings and stood up to exit. The Indian couple and their baby stood with me, along with the other East Indian passengers. Hoboken or Newport had been my stop for years. After work, on warm days, I would stroll through those Hudson River waterfront neighborhoods with brand new, expensive high-rises, Starbucks and tree-lined parks filled with laughing children and lovestruck couples. Any stops beyond that point, I had avoided. I sat back down, remembering that today I would be venturing outside of my comfort zone.
I stepped off the train in Journal Square, the final stop where only the darkest shades of browns and black remain. A dingy “jungle” where the people who look the most like me find their home. Where murder is rampant and drugs are a way of life, sold in shoddy, run-down parks filled with basketball hoops. Where school shootings are regular and there are more liquor stores than supermarkets. Where a “Write to Lifers” center stands proudly on the street corner next to a memorial that reads “R.I.P Hotdog” decorated with 40 oz. bottles of cheap booze. Where death is just another statistic and life is the struggle to avoid becoming one. Not too far from that stop, my mom recently bought the first house she could afford in the Northeast as a single parent. After decades of running from state to state in search of opportunity for her children, she resigned to living in the only place she was ever truly able to afford: “the hood.”
I stood in the midst of black poverty and wondered: Where will my nephew find a place of equality in this country? With whom will he share a highway exit? A subway stop? A bus stop? I feared that him sharing a life with those who look like him would be a liability.
I was reminded of the America that I had long became acquainted with: One tormented by segregation, discrimination and systemic racism. A melting pot of colorful government cheese that refused to melt. And I cried for hope.
But instead, the America of today responded with a snicker. It undermined the feats won by those who fought for the civil liberties people of color rightfully deserve, as man and woman created equal to their white counterpart; those who “fought the good fight.” Those who would die rather than witness the degradation of their people housed on wretched streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. whose dream has become a nightmare. Those who would never believe that, with the aid of the American government, their children’s children would return to poor, rundown segregated schools only a generation after Brown Vs. Board of Education. Those who would fall to their knees in despair at the Supreme Court’s ruling that allows states to ban Affirmative Action.
They fought and won the battle, unbeknownst to them the war had only begun. A war that has taken black men prisoner. A war propagandized by short-sighted outrage, vapid discussions sparked by the ignorance of the Donald Sterlings and Clive Bundys of America. Afterall, what is more deserving of my outrage: a single individual’s opinions on race, stated privately to his girlfriend, or the NBA being majority-owned by white men, despite over 80 percent of the players being black? Most will agree that black people were not better off as slaves, as Bundy stated, but are they somehow better off as players for, rather than owners of the teams they play for?
I, a woman of 24 years of age, had been asked countless times how America’s systemic racism can be resolved. Yet America dared not listen to the millions of colored voices that plea to be heard. If it did, it would have heard the cries of the hundreds of thousands of black fatherless children as they are torn away from glass windows that separate them from the men who are supposed to be their role models. It would have weeped when it witnessed the struggle of the black single mother who desperately leaves her children in a car in an effort to gain employment. It would have felt the pain of the countless black mothers who bury their sons who live their lives on the streets, because only the streets openly love the black man.
From this reality, I was told to stop running, when all black people run one way or another. I only begged for an environment for people of color where we do not have to run from the sounds of gunshots. One where black men do not run up and down a court to make money for their owners. Where we do not have to run from our own black reflection, hiding amongst a rainbow of other colors to escape the “black reality.”
I will stop running when the black man does not feel the immediate inclination to run from the police when blue and red lights are spotted in the distance. I will stop running from America when black people, collectively, must run no more. Not from our own people, not from ourselves, not from violence, not from racism or institutionalization. I will stop running when Americans must not look to the media to find instances of racism and instead look to their neighborhoods to find deeply rooted segregation.
Until then, I simply cannot stand still.