… and yet folks wonder why I’m angry.
There are so many things I would rather be writing about today. There are so many sad things I could be writing about today. Instead of those things, I am writing this.
Yesterday I was walking in lower Manhattan. I was nearing Houston Street, thinking about ducking into the subway station at the corner and getting back to my book once I was on the train, thinking about the volunteer work I was scheduled to do later in the day, thinking about the residency applications I’m working on, thinking.
“Smile, big lady!”
Yes, because any moment of my life can only be made better by some random man demanding that I smile. Because — obviously — I only exist to window-dress your day with my smiles. Yes.
I could write an entire post about how annoying it is to have men ask women to smile. That’s not this post. I didn’t smile.
I didn’t smile and I kept walking up the block.
And then he grabbed my arm and spun me around to face him. I was so taken by surprise, I almost fell into his chest. Before I had a chance to rebalance and focus, he got in my face yelling about what made me think I was too good for him and how sick he is of angry black women, and how — fat and ugly as I am — I should be glad any man was talking to me.
Generally speaking, men don’t accost me. They make any number of comments, give all kinds of looks, but they don’t put their hands on me. I’m not saying it never happens, but it doesn’t happen often. The last time I can remember it happening is five years ago. Because it happens so infrequently, my first reactions are a little slow-motion. First reaction: surprise that some stranger is grabbing me. Second: look at the stranger and gauge how strong he seems to be and if I think I can fight my way away from him.
So I looked at this man yesterday. He was taller than I am, maybe 6′ 2″. He was slender, but he had spun me around. Aside from the fact that he caught me off guard and so off balance, I am a big person, it’s no easy thing to spin me around. That told me he was probably stronger than I am. Third reaction: use my words. I’m pretty good at talking my way out of trouble. And I’m pretty good at shaming street harassers into backing off.
But this man was bigger and stronger than I am, and was already worked up, shaking me roughly, yelling crazy crap about fat black women and how entitled we act and how we should be more respectful when a man shows us some attention. And I froze for a minute.
But then I unfroze. And I started yelling for him to let go of me, started trying to break out of his hold.
And then I realized I was on a pretty populated street, and there were people around me. I started asking people for help, asking people to call 911. Most people ignored me, acted as if they could neither see nor hear me, didn’t even flinch away or glance in my direction. I didn’t exist. One man laughed at me. Two men said they didn’t get involved in couples’ problems. Couples’ problems. As if anything about that scene looked like a couple having a disagreement.
I understand why the women who passed didn’t step in. That man had already devolved to violent behavior. I don’t think I would have stepped in, either. But I would have stayed there. I would have engaged the woman and called 911 as she’d asked me to do. I would have let that man know that he had a witness to his harassment and that it wasn’t cool. And I’m willing to bet that, one person stopping might have emboldened other people to stop, and that an audience might (might) have pushed that man to let go of me.
But no one stopped. No one stopped.
I wish I didn’t have to stop here and say this, but I have to stop here and say this: every single person who walked by me yesterday was white or looked white. The man in my face was white or looked white. And that was when I my fear of the man shifted over to fear of what could happen to me if the police did come. I wasn’t as tall as that man, but I am definitely bigger. I could imagine police officers seeing me and seeing Eric Garner, seeing Eleanor Bumpurs, seeing a big black person who needed to be subdued, not bothering to see that I was the person being assaulted.
I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street. And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street. Shouldn’t. Do.
This whole scene didn’t take very long, from the moment he grabbed me up to this point was maybe only 20 or 30 seconds. It felt much, much longer.
A group of black teenagers walked up and one asked if I knew the man. I said I didn’t, and they immediately stepped between us got him off me and away from me, formed a shield between him and me. They tended me — was I okay, had he hurt me, what did I want to do, did I want them to travel with me. The man ran and two of the boys were going to go after him, but I stopped them. I wasn’t going to be the reason for someone misinterpreting the sight of two young black men chasing a white man down the street. More things I shouldn’t have to worry about. But do.
The boys — because really, they were babies, maybe 15-17 years old — walked me to the subway and were ready to throw off whatever their plans for the afternoon had been to see me safely wherever I was going, but I said no. Those boys were beautiful and fine and exactly the kind of men you want every man to be. And I thank all of the people who raised and shaped them. And I didn’t mind at all that they called me “ma’am.” I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t been coming up the block.
I was badly frightened by that man. And I was angry. Angry at him for not seeing me, for seeing only a female body that he felt he had control over. Angry at him for putting his hands on me. Angry at the people who wouldn’t help me. Angry at every one of them who pretended not to see or hear me. More than a dozen people passed me. More than a dozen people ignored (or mocked) my call for help. And I understand fear of putting yourself in danger. But practically every one of those people had their phones in their hands (for all I know, someone put my street assault on Instagram). It would have been an easy thing to call 911. Just hearing someone make a 911 call would surely have sent that man packing.
I want to believe I was mistaken in my fear of the police, but how can I be? There are too many stories that back up my fear. There is Marlene Pinnock as just the latest example of black women not being any safer from police violence than black men.
I want this post to be more articulate (yes, I used that word). I think I am still too close to yesterday. Retelling the story gives me a stomach ache and I lose sight of the points I want to be making. I keep coming back to this: I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street. And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street. And I shouldn’t have to fear that expressing my absolutely valid and appropriate anger sets me up to look like an aggressor, to fit someone’s stereotype of a loud, angry black woman, to make me someone to be ignored. All the things I shouldn’t fear. Shouldn’t. Do.
Something that doesn’t give me a stomach ache? Those boys. Those boys who have probably been stopped and frisked all kinds of times. Those boys who saw a bad situation and knew they could do something about it. Seven children — all loose limbs and baggy pants and over-long muscle shirts and ball caps and big hair (one of the boys had a gorgeous afro!) — seven children stepped up.
I’ve been away for a LONG time, but today is a Slice-of-Life Tuesday, and the slicers are going strong over at Two Writing Teachers!
Click over and see what everyone else is up to!