At the intersection of divine providence and the collection of complex chemical reactions that cause us to convert oxygen into carbon dioxide and that we have chosen to call “life,” there still exists a nether region that can be explained only by the ancient African proverb, “Shit happens.”
Shit happened to me last night.
Well, actually, the event I am about to describe didn’t exactly happen to me, but I felt like it did. It was the same pain you experience when your college football team misses a last-second field goal. It was the horror of watching them kill Catelyn and Robb at the Red Wedding. Damn the rest of the Starks and the players on the Auburn Tiger football team—I’m in pain here.
On Thursday night I wandered into a Washington, D.C., diner-bar at 11 p.m. My stomach was emptier than Jeff Sessions’ soul, and I was thirstier than LinkedIn’s email marketing team. I needed nourishment, but what I found would ultimately give me Taco Bell Kit Kat-quesadilla-level late-night bubble guts.
But this is not about tortilla-wrapped candy bars. (Seriously, white people, why are you like this?) What I would witness in that diner would teach me a valuable lesson about life, race and America in general.
So I’m sitting there waiting for my 6-inch beef (pause) brisket to arrive. My phone is at 13 percent because I am shitty at planning, preparation and future life in general. I realize that I’m going to need those last few gasps of batterytude (I think that’s the technical term) to summon my Uber. (Actually, it was a Lyft, but even when you’re in a Lyft, you’re still “Ubering.”)
This left me unable to use my phone for important things like scrolling through pictures of other people’s food on Instagram or checking to see how many times someone DMed me in Twitter to inform me that I am “the real racist.” I was left with the choice of watching what was going around me, like a pauper living in ancient times.
I was one of the few black faces in the building until a black woman walked in who was anywhere between 22 and 87 years old (you know we don’t crack, so this is the narrowest I can guesstimate her age). Her hair was pinned up in a bun of freshly twisted locs. Her teeth were whiter than Taylor Swift’s aura. She walked to the end of the bar near a table with a particularly enthusiastic older white couple who could have been anywhere from 61 62.5 years old (you can actually count the cracks in the corner of their eyes and get a pretty good guess).
I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I didn’t know her name, but in my head, I named her Tara. I watched the couple engage Tara from their table. The man told a joke, Tara laughed. The white woman said something. Everyone laughed. Then Tara eased to the left, closer to their table.
That’s when my “spidey sense” started tingling.
When I was 15, my church went to visit the South Carolina Capitol. As we walked along the regal grounds during the early morning, I noticed that the cobblestone sidewalks were a bit slippery from the sprinkler system. Either God spoke to me, or I have a well-tuned sense of disaster, but I could feel something bad was about to happen. A split second later, I could only watch as one of the most faithful and meanest ushers in my church family slipped. In slow motion, this woman’s feet went horizontal to her head and she succumbed to a dismount referred to in gymnastic circles and barbershops as “bussin her ass.”
That’s what I was beginning to feel in the diner watching Tara from afar. They were still laughing when I felt the tingling in my toes. She was now in profile, so I couldn’t see her full face, but I saw the exact moment when the happiness in Tara’s lungs converted itself into exasperation. I could see it exit her body when she sighed. I watched her chocolate smile turn stone-faced in a millisecond.
“Don’t do it, Tara.”
I might have said it out loud, but there was no one listening. The knot was in my stomach now. Tara was standing. They were sitting. I tried to reason it away: “Maybe they ... ummm ... they couldn’t have said ... ”
I thought it was a bullshit trope. I know it has happened, but I thought this particular societal ill had gone the way of Jim Crow, Paris Hilton’s singing career and people who believe in the Willie Lynch letter. “It is the year of our Lord 2017,” I thought. “This can’t be happening. Not in this day and time.”
Tara, who by now had become my cousin in the horror movie developing before my eyes, was standing at the bar, and the couple was seated at the table next to the bar. And she—
Hold my mule while I take this quick praise break.
—Tara leaned over.
The white couple reached up simultaneously and touched her hair! For a long time! Then the couple smiled, dismissed the woman and went back to talking to each other. There were needles in my toes now as I watched this couple transform Tara, still in work clothes, into a temporary pet.
And here’s the thing: Tara didn’t look angry. Even though I could see that she didn’t want them touching her hair, she chose not to make a scene. She handled the incident with as much nonchalant unperturbedness as if a cashier had asked to see her license when she presented her credit card. She swallowed it.
And I sat there eating those shards of shitty beef knowing that I wasn’t watching a woman let white people manhandle her crown. She wasn’t bending over to make them happy. She was bending down to get through it.
That’s what being black is.
As distasteful as it may have felt, those 15 seconds may have been the most innocuous thing that happened to Tara that day. She could have made a scene about the hair thing, but she probably knows that she can’t make a scene about everything. Sometimes you feel like fighting. Sometimes you just want to live.
That’s why black people stand for the anthem. That’s why we know the Pledge of Allegiance. That’s why we swallow hard and smile when we’re the only one in the meeting Brad speaks Ebonics to. It’s why we shrug off the small stuff. Handling two half-drunk bags of sentient privilege is light work. We can swallow that down like watered-down tequila.
I was still eating when Tara received her takeout order and left. When she passed me by, she and I gave each other the secret nod that black people share when in white spaces. I said to her, “I saw that.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
She smiled again as if she were well-versed in shaking off whiteness and going about her day. She paused and said rhetorically:
“I mean, hey ... whatcha gonna do?”