"With my boobs and your black, we're gonna get into a lot of trouble," said my friend Stella as we walked through a gantlet of Italian men on what passes for a "street" in Florence. They ogled her just below the shoulders and me just above, staring straight into my eyes but never daring to say anything intelligible.
In June a guest blogger on Racialicious, a Web site dedicated to the intersection of culture and race, wrote about the prevalence of "street harassment" in the States, which is pretty much the same thing outside the States but with an accent. She cited a paper written by Cynthia Grant Bowman for the Harvard Law Review in 1993. "Street harassment occurs when one or more strange men accost one or more women … in a public place which is not the woman's/women's worksite. Through looks, words, or gestures the man asserts his right to intrude on the woman's attention, defining her as a sexual object, and forcing her to interact with him."
Funny, interaction wasn't what most of the foreign men I encountered wanted (well, not most of them). They seemed content to simply watch me go about my regular business of being alive. I don't know if my involuntary blackness aroused them — or angered them. Figuring out the international hand sign for "Let's have sex" or "Let's sell her into sexual slavery" can be hard if one doesn't speak the language. But after two weeks of stumbling my way through bona sera and bonjour from Florence to Marrakech, I realized that being black abroad isn't as simple as Josephine Baker made it seem: Show up, be adored, die an icon.
For starters, there was the conversation I had with a 31-year-old German osteopath in front of a medieval church in Barcelona. We were with a group and drinking San Miguels that a Moroccan man had sold us moments earlier. (He'd gone down a twisted alley to get the goods, opening up a sewer grate, pulling out a plastic shopping bag and then handing us a six-pack.) With a sewer-refrigerated cerveza in my hand, I told Matias (not Matthew) that Italian men were enamored with my skin. That they saw me and couldn't help staring.
"It's because I'm black," I said matter-of-factly, gulping down more beer and swinging my bare legs up in the air as if to show him how irresistible their color was. "Huh?" he said in perfect English. "And you think that's why." His friend, whose name was either Nando or Nenni, nodded and smiled. Stella laughed. She'd heard this before. Earlier that day, while we were on the beach, one of the many massage peddlers (seriously) was insistent on rubbing down "La Morena." (That would be me.) He also called Stella "fat" — and meant it as a sincere compliment.
"Well, what else could it be? It's different when it's you," I tried to explain to Matias, who had a story of his own about race across continents. Once, he lived in a house with a young black man from the States. Whenever the roommates would talk about anything political and racial, according to Matias, "He'd say, 'Oh, it's because I'm black.' That gets very difficult."
Germany, obviously, doesn't have the greatest track record when it comes to accepting "others," but Matias had no problem being a white man sitting on a crumbling old-world wall being truthful with a black woman. Sometimes it is "very difficult" to separate race from argument, especially when the other parts of your identity — culture, country, language — get stripped away.
Stella and I left Barcelona for Marrakech the next day. We traveled from the city of topless beaches to a city where being covered from head to toe isn't limiting so much as it is potentially liberating. If, as Grant Bowman wrote, street harassment inevitably reduces women's "physical and geographical mobility and often prevents them from appearing alone in public places" and therefore informally "ghettoizes women" by forcing them into a private sphere to avoid harassment, then the absence of said harassment should free them.
In 100-degree heat, we walked the maze of the souks, Morocco's outdoor shopping stalls, I in a long skirt and long sleeves, Stella in jeans and a button-up. Men saw us but didn't stare. Teenaged boys sprayed us with water bottles. One night a young man gazed into my eyes from where he stood behind his stall and said, "Your face is beautiful." I looked down at my feet and said, "Merci," strangely shy in a strange place.
I don't think it was my covered-up ensemble — appropriate for the culture, wildly inappropriate for the weather — or even the fact that in Morocco, half the population is as dark as I'll ever be. But after two weeks of finding it hard to see past my nose, suddenly I was over it. Over caring about the fact that my hair had long since forgotten whatever training it got at home. Over high heels. Over thinking that everything that affects me is because I'm black. Because I know that I'm also a loud American, an opinionated Washingtonian and a spoiled single woman. So being black abroad is less about the fetishizing of my skin — and more about stepping out of it.