An interesting thing happens when you are the only black face in the room. For me, the last time around, it was poetry. Or at least, the beginnings of it. It started off, very shakingly in my journal, as TITLE: “Who are you looking at?” Verse 1: “When you see me, why do you look past me? No eye contact, really?” I know, sad. I used to write poetry when I was much younger, but the degree of vulnerability required (whether real or imagined) to do it well has discouraged me from developing in that area. So, the stuff that comes out when I attempt to write in rhyme is really not that great. I digress.
Being the only black face in the room is a curious mix of visibility-invisibility. You know that they can see you, yet they avoid eye contact. During the process of this experience, which may last anywhere from minutes to hours, you begin to metamorphosize. Into a void; a dark space; a black space; that sits heavy. A heavy presence. The only positive thing about this experience is that “people watching” becomes an official past-time. No one is talking to you, but they are certainly talking around you. So you sit, watch and observe. Listen in on some conversations, watch some facial expressions, or do as I usually do. Which is keep my head down and write. Every once in a while I catch the eye of someone staring at me. All good, I get it. Refer to title above: “The Only Black Face in the Room.”
I have observed much, in my time as an outsider. Much more than you probably realize, and a lot more than I tend let on. I consider myself a vault. No, a receptacle. Taking in, taking in, taking in. Every once in a while the garbage comes out, in the form of frustrated rants to close family and friends, but for the most part it just piles up somewhere in my subconscious. As the conversations swirl, I wonder how all these people know each other. Did they just meet? Or have they been acquaintances for years – maybe even best friends? And if they just met, why are they not interested in meeting me?
I recently started reading Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone). An incredibly insightful book, and although I am not quite yet finished reading it (it has become difficult to read for “pleasure” these days… every time I pick up a book I think I should be writing one), much of what he says resonates with me. For example, the fact that some people associate “brown” with a scent. He speaks of a former boyfriend who told him that “his sweat emitted a certain odour that probably came from eating lots of Indian and Arabic food.” (36) Al-Solaylee’s response was:
In fact, I ate little of both cuisines, since they require too much preparation and I was living in student housing with a communal kitchen at the time. Still, I felt so self-conscious that I made sure not to eat any remotely spicy food in the seventy-two hours immediately before seeing him. (37)
The reference to “scent” came up in a reading group I form part of, just a couple days ago, for This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. In her chapter entitled “The Pathology of Racism: A Conversation With Third World Wimmin” doris davenport says this:
… black wimmin don’t always tell the truth about and to white wimmin. We know, for example, that we have at least three areas of aversion to white wimmin which affect how we perceive and deal with them: aesthetic, cultural, and social/political. Aesthetically (& physically) we frequently find white wimmin repulsive. That is, their skin colors are unaesthetic (ugly, to some people). Their hair, stringy and straight, is unattractive. Their bodies: rather like misshapen lumps of whitish clay or dough, that somebody forgot to mould in certain-areas. Furthermore, they have a strange body odour. (92, my emphasis)
Now, I had to read this paragraph a few times to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. Was it my imagination, or did davenport read the hell out of white women? On my way to the group I thought, “Wow. Any white woman who shows up today will most definitely come offended.” But, when we had our group discussion it was concluded that davenport was merely “flipping the script,” and talking back to them (whites) the kinds of things they tend to say about us (people of colour, black women in particular). But back to this scent thing…
As I sit in a room surrounded by people who do not look like me, I wonder if the reason I feel invisible-yet-highly-visible has to do with more than a difference in shade or phenotype. When people breathe around me, do they imagine that they are inhaling in “something different”? Is that why they seem to hold their breath, or stay a few feet away? And if that’s what’s really going on, what on earth does a black person smell like? I am Jamaican, so would it be curry goat? Escovitch fish? Ackee and saltfish? Rice and peas? Banana fritters? And if I do smell like food from the islands, that can’t be such a bad thing… it’s delicious! Better than having a “strange body odour,” right?
Being the only black face in the room is an interesting experience to reflect upon because it happens so often. Not that I am blaming anyone for my awkward presence in certain spaces, or discomfort. I choose to put myself in certain rooms, and the consequences of doing so vary. Most people, who I know personally, are great. They don’t make me feel “different” or uncomfortable, but new spaces continue to present themselves as terrains of observation.
T. M. G.
Al-Solaylee, Kamal. Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone). Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2016.
davenport, doris. “The Pathology of Racism: A Conversation With Third World Wimmin.” Cherríe L. Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 90 – 96. Saline: Third Woman Press, 2002.