The sound of gravel, the feeling of drowning, the chilling effects of racist acts
By Brian Broome
Jan. 22, 2018
Jan. 22, 2018
Let's talk about RACE
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Editor's note: This story contains strong language.
There have been moments of solitude and silence when I have literally taken my right hand, placed it over my left shoulder, and patted myself on the back for surviving small-town Ohio. And if you are a black person from small-town Ohio, you deserve it, too. Go ahead. Do it now. Pat yourself on the back and be proud that you are still standing upright. Because, I may be biased, but I am fully confident that the entire state of Ohio is nothing but a racist cesspool.
I could see this fact much more clearly when I put the Buckeye State deep into my rearview mirror as I headed for Pittsburgh. The “You are Now Leaving Ohio” sign became smaller and smaller as the “Entering Pennsylvania” sign became larger and larger.
But, just to make sure I made the right decision, I consulted the murky depths of the Magic 8-Ball I’ve had since sixth grade.
I asked it if it was a good idea to leave Ohio for Pittsburgh.
It answered, “Yes. Definitely.”
“Let’s Talk About Race” face to face at Repair the World in East Liberty on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, from 6-8 p.m.
There will be a guided discussion with a panel featuring Pittsburghers who have been leading the conversation. Join us; it’s free and light refreshments will be served. Register here.
Of course, I didn’t know that I was living on the lip of a racist hellmouth when I was growing up in Ohio. As a kid, my immediate surroundings were my whole world until I learned that I could change them and escape to a better place. Pittsburgh was that place.
On Route 76, Pittsburgh gleamed on the horizon like a birthday present, like the Emerald City with the sun glinting off of it. Its beauty from that distance made me silently vow to never go back to Ohio again for any reason. In Pittsburgh there was potential. Ohio was the long-lost child of Jim Crow just aching to get back into her father’s arms.
Ohio wears on the black psyche until you either leave it forever or get damn good at football.
Hello, Pittsburgh. I am here for you to save me.
I moved to Pittsburgh a long time ago in 1990. I like it here. Every winter, I complain, but there are many reasons I stay, most of which walk on two feet and call me by my first name. I like the different neighborhoods. I like the Strip District. I moved to Pittsburgh to escape Ohio and, although I know that that’s not very far, it felt like a world away. Every television show I’d ever seen back in Ohio assured me that cities were sanctuary for black people. I moved so that I would no more have to deal with small-minded, racist white attitudes. When I moved here, I reveled in my newfound freedom from racism. I made friends of all races and backgrounds.
But, Pittsburgh is not another country and thus, it slowly revealed itself to me.
When I was 14, I disobeyed my mother once and left the house while she was at work. We lived just outside the small, basically rural city of Newton Falls, Ohio, and I needed to go into “town.” I set off on foot forgetting the fact that, even when I was in Newton Falls with my mother, she never let me out of her sight. There were rural roads leading into the city limits and no sidewalks. I took off on foot the way you do when you think you're a grown-up, certain that nothing in this world can harm you. I don’t remember what I was going to Newton Falls for. That knowledge has been deleted from my memory. But I do know that it was the most important thing that had ever been up to that point and I remember my mother just didn’t “get it.”
It was a road that my mother had driven me down several times on our way to the Sparkle Market to buy our groceries. My feet had never touched it before. It seemed vastly different on foot: unrecognizable, spooky, dark green and ominous. While walking, cars whipped by me so fast that I hugged the side of the road and took shelter in the grass. Whenever I would hear a car approaching from behind, every muscle in my body would tense. As the road laid itself out before me, I was helplessly exposed.
And then, I heard the slow crunching of rocks beneath tires behind me.
Not the scattering of them under the wheels of a car that was driving 60 miles an hour. But the slow crunch of gravel signaling that the vehicle behind me was slowing down. I hoped that it was someone I knew. Maybe one of my mother’s friends who would scold me and then force me into the car with the promise to tell my mother on me immediately. I prayed for this. I prayed for my mother’s punishment.
My prayer went unanswered.
My first friends in Pittsburgh were Tom, a white, red-headed and muscular fireplug of a dude, Melinda, a white brunette with cat-eye glasses and a feminist’s anger, and Annette, a tiny, black lesbian with a shaved head and a progressive attitude toward sex. We were liberals in the city, and everything was lit up. We loved to go out like you do in your twenties and had managed to become part of the scene. I met people with pet rats and learned how to do drugs off nightclub toilets and order martinis. We wore leather pants and danced until dawn. Nothing like my sleepy life back home. This was the kind of urban existence that I had dreamed of; the whole city lit up like a jukebox and there was endless freedom to do what I wanted. There was no mother here to tell me that I’d better not leave the house. We were the very definition of cosmopolitan. There were clubs, hip coffee shops and cabs as far as the eye could see. I loved it.
One night, we were headed bar hopping. The hustle and bustle of Downtown on Saturday night was all around us with people laying on horns and shouting at one another. I looked good. I had done my best to tie a necktie in a way that I have since learned is dead wrong. It hung around my neck like a noose. Melinda wore her usual ensemble of all black and clunky military boots. Tom wore denim bib overalls with no shirt underneath. Annette had gone all out. She wore a giant Afro wig, big hoop earrings, white patent leather go-go boots, enormous false eyelashes, ruby red lips and a half shirt decorated with roses. “Femming it up,” she called it.
We were gorgeous.
The gravel crunching under tires had given way to a human voice — a man’s voice. He trailed behind me slowly, chastising me for being what he called in the middle of the road.
“Monkeeeeeeee!” he yelled.
“Hey, monkey! What the fuck you doin’ out here, monkey? You almost made me wreck! Hey! Nigger! You hear me?”
Your body goes clammy all over when you’re confronted by a racist. Your skin feels heavy and numb at the same time. You shut down, but you can feel the rage you’re trying to suppress, boiling like a hot cauldron deep inside. Your stomach becomes a black hole that you wish you could disappear into. The sweat bursts out of every pore on your body.
But, something tells you not to run.
Something in your black DNA tells you that running will only make things worse. You bite your tongue when you're alone because there is no doubt in your mind that these people think your humanity is so non-existent that they would suffer no moral conflict in killing you and dumping your body into the Mahoning River. The man’s voice behind me continued to taunt. Only now he’s not talking to me. He is now just talking loud enough for me to hear.
There is someone else in the car.
Tom remembered that he needed cash. We ducked into a side street to an out-of-the-way ATM and watched Tom pat himself down for his ATM card. He knew he’d brought it, but couldn’t remember in which pocket he’d tucked it away. So we stood there lined up. Him at the cash machine frantically patting his own body down, Melinda behind him having decided that she could use some extra cash, too, and me and Annette standing behind them both on the sidewalk. We laughed at Tom. We laughed and never once thought how this arrangement might look to someone on the outside.
Then, Tom starts to look a little panicked. He’s becoming frantic and thinks that maybe he’s left his card on the bus. The rest of us are becoming impatient. We’re eager to get to the bar and all breathe a sigh of relief when he finally finds the card tucked inside his boot. The city is electric with noise as we stand there waiting for him to now insert the card, remember his pin number and snatch out his drinking papers for the evening. Even though there is noise all around, I can still hear the telltale sounds of tires slowing down behind me. I know it better than I know the taste of the inside of my mouth.
A car has slowed down. Its occupant has been watching us the entire time.
Just outside Newton Falls, Ohio, the man behind me is telling his passenger what’s happening. He’s narrating like a tour guide on a safari.
“Look at this nigger taking up the entire road. I should just run him over. I don’t know why he didn’t just steal a car!”
He laughs loud. His passenger says nothing. I hear the vehicle coming around to my side and my blood is ice water and my head is full of static. I wish I’d never left home. I wish I’d listened to my mother. I wonder how cold the Mahoning River is this time of year. Here, I think to myself, is where I want to at least get a glance at my murderer.
I look up and he is sneer-grinning at me with pure malevolence in his eyes. He is driving a pickup truck. He is blonde with yellow teeth. He silently mouths the word “nigger” and shows me his middle finger. Just over his shoulder, I can see his two passengers. It’s two little tow-headed girls with big blue eyes, both in the front seat. They look confused by the driver’s behavior, but they’ll soon learn what he’s trying to teach them. They stare at me as if I am a wild animal with their mouths hanging open. We lock eyes before the driver yells, “Fuck you! Stay out of the road!” and speeds off leaving me in a spray of rocks and dust.
I take my first breath since he called me a monkey and I cry.
“Hey! Leave them alone!”
Nobody on Seventh Avenue notices the man initially, except me who heard his tires from two blocks away. “Leave them alone!” he shouts again, louder this time. I’m looking at him with bewilderment and, as he keeps shouting, Annette has now noticed him. He is hollering at us and pointing his finger at the two of us, and we crane our necks toward him trying to make out what the problem could be. He is in a four-door sedan on his own. It’s a royal blue color and shines like new money. “Leave them alone! Leave them alone!!” Tom and Melinda do not notice. His shouts blend into the street noise for them.
But Annette and I notice, and now have a familiar feeling inching up our spines.
There are moments in life when your situation becomes clear. I imagine there’s a moment of realization for people who are drowning, just before they start to kick, flail and panic. There’s a calm inside that is disrupted when your entire system begins to realize that everything is not going to be alright. There are moments like this when something real happens and awakens something real within you.
This man has been watching us from his place in traffic. He has seen two white people and two black people approach an ATM and he has seen the white man frantically patting himself down for money. He then sees two black people: one in a mis-tied tie and the other in a giant Afro wig. The one with a bad tie has his hand tucked firmly in his pocket.
This man assumes that a nice white couple is being held up by two animals. He assumes the responsibility of hero. He will save the day by calling attention to this crime. He is shouting loudly enough so that people on the street turn to look at us. He is pointing an accusatory finger at me and Annette from the safety of his vehicle. We are urban crime personified. He has seen it on the nightly news, no doubt. How predatory black people are holding up whites at ATMs across the city. He is doing a good thing.
When it becomes clear to me what he is doing, an apoplectic rage builds up within me. But it’s the wrong kind of rage. It’s the kind of black rage wherein you need white people to validate you and I spit at him words to this effect.
“These are our friends! We are with them!”
I regret these words to this very day.
They were said by a boy who never learned that he doesn’t need white people to prove anything to anyone, to validate his existence. I used Tom and Melinda as a shield. A glowing white shield against the dismissal of my humanity. I go over what I should have said in my mind a thousand times over, even today. I should have just told him to go to hell; to mind his own business; to fuck right off. But I chose to have Tom and Melinda’s whiteness take the place of my self-respect.
Ohio had taught me well.
When Tom and Melinda finally noticed what was happening, they did nothing. They said nothing. I imagine this kind of thing had never happened to them before. But Annette and I unloaded for every time we’d been followed around in a store, every time we had been falsely accused. Every time we’d been dehumanized. When the man in the car realized he’d made a mistake, he offered no apology, just a middle finger as a defense against Annette’s cursing and my incoherent shouting.
I thought I had escaped by moving to Pittsburgh, but I’ve been learning ever since that I have escaped nothing.
When I look around the city in which I still live, I see a bigger version of what I’d thought I left back in Ohio. A shinier, busier version. A version that has a Civic Light Opera and all-night diners and beautiful museums. But there is no substantive difference. The neighborhoods are shockingly segregated, and black people who live here are among the worst off in the country economically. There is no safe place in Pittsburgh for black people and while I don’t believe that there’s any city in America where black people can truly exhale, I think Pittsburgh is one of the worst.
I never forget that I live in the citified shadow of Appalachia. The white population here is profoundly racist. We, as a city, have much work to do and I don’t know that that work will ever get done. A volunteer fire chief in recent months called our city’s football coach a nigger publicly because he was angry and there’s no greater metaphor for Pittsburgh than that. The word “nigger” just simmers below the surface of the city at all times. And, when they dig it up to hurl at you, they mean it.
Whites and blacks walk the same city in different worlds. I suffer no delusions about this. But, I stay on. I stay here because I’ve found love here in small groups of people of all races. That is the only thread of hope to which I cling. The trick is to remain insular in Pittsburgh. Move in rarefied circles. Avoid certain neighborhoods and areas whether you’re on foot or in a car. Just like Ohio.
I don't hate our city; in fact, it is quite the opposite. I have learned to love it in the way a child loves an abusive parent, tentatively, in fear and in hope despite myself.
I know I don’t belong here, but I don’t belong anywhere in this country.
I ask the Magic 8-Ball again, “Where do I belong in America?”
“Reply Unclear: Try Again Later.”
Brian Broome is a writing student at Chatham University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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