American Belonging

We got there and weren’t sure which of the two houses was the “last on your left” as per instructions we got from our host. They both occupied that same curved stretch of bay at Cape St. Claire. We decided we weren’t going to come out of the car until we were absolutely sure of the house our friend had invited us to for lunch.

Let me explain

When we were entering the town, we saw a large group of kids and their parents gathered for a sports event at a school field. My husband asked me- You see anyone black? No- I said, scanning the lily-white crowd as we drove by at a crawling speed. No one in the neighborhood looked like us, not on the sidewalks, not in the cars, not at the shopping center we just passed.

You get that way in America. My African-American husband was born into this pot of unblending ingredients served on a platter of all-men-are-created-equal. My African mind was untrained in this reality, but over the years I have learnt to scan my belonging in this land of perilous fight and bombs bursting in shades of skin.

By the time we got to the place of our invitation, our minds had reached that unspoken place of acute caution. We did not need to discuss it. We felt like deer in hunting season, tuned to every snap of a twig in the woods, heartbeats held down by guarded breath. We were a black couple in an all-white neighborhood. And we were not safe.

We knew that our sighting causes white folk heightened anxiety. It’s a very long and sordid story, America will tell you. This is October 2019, and I, still out of sync with American belonging in many ways, not quite Black not quite Other, just African without a box to check, found myself caught up in this psychosis of white melanophobia.

I clicked the lock to open the door and heard my husband’s voice snap with swift and immediate urgency- honey, stay put in this car!

He wasn’t taking chances. He asked me to text our friend and ask which one of the houses it was. It seemed the ghosts of Botham Jean, and Philando Castile, and Sandra Bland… were staring us in the face. They knew how a moment of pure innocence like turning into the wrong driveway can turn fatal in a blink. So no, we were not overreacting.

We sat and waited for our friend to text or call back, knowing that the longer we sat there the more suspicious we looked. I said- Isn’t it disturbing, knowing that someone could be watching us from any one of those windows and calling 911 to report two strange black people parked where they don’t belong? Preston said nothing.

I stretch out the scenario to fill in the void from our black silence. And the police come- I said, beginning to enjoy the drama I was scripting out in my head. And then all hell breaks loose!- I continued. Preston looks at me and cracks that acid laugh, like a fracture, not quite sure if this should be funny or not.

I stop talking. We both stare at that scene as it plays out in our minds. There’s need for comic relief. I say dramatically- There’d better be someone filming this! Preston takes his hands off the steering wheel, raising them high with equal flare for the dramatic to show the imaginary police he’s not carrying a gun. I laugh hard, hollow, and stop. It hurts. There’s a wind in our ears. A chill the color of chalk.

Preston says- We’re going to drive out slowly and look for the address while still in the safety of the car. I nod in agreement. We start to back out of the ungated driveway, and then I see the address we’re looking for. We drive back in closer to the correct house. We’re relieved.

We look out and see our friend come out to the porch. I open the car door, fill my lungs with the ocean’s air and wave with unexpected joy.

She waves back with a big grin. She’s with a friend we had last seen at our wedding years back. They’re both the color of friendship. When it comes to true friends, we wave the star-spangled banner in all its shades and let it give proof through the night that our humanity is still there. We later tell them this wrong-driveway story as we lounge around enjoying freshly baked cookies and coffee and welcome the cuddle-up chill of Fall together.

*This post was first published in October 2019.

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