Kim Coleman Foote, Brooklyn, NY, is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, and experimental prose whose work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Black Renaissance Noire, Crab Orchard Review,The Literary Review, and elsewhere. Kim has received writing fellowships from the Center for Fiction, NYFA, the Illinois Arts Council, the NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction and multiple residencies. She is working on a novel about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and a story collection fictionalizing her family’s experience of the Great Migration from Alabama to New Jersey, where she grew up.
Kim Coleman Foote
Acknowledgement: First published in slightly different form in Reverie: Midwest Journal of African American Literature (Fall 2008)
Kim Coleman Foote
They were singing “Build Me Up Buttercup” when we entered the bar. I’d never imagined singing that song outside the shower, but it’s not what made me uncomfortable after opening the heavy Art Deco door. It’s not what made my friend and me leave before I could drink from my flimsy cup full of ice and Sprite. The first thing I noticed besides the music was the Christmas tinsel and multicolored lights that clashed with the inflatable palm trees. The second thing: no other black people were present.
That wasn’t so unusual; the bar was located on Chicago’s North Side, after all. When looking at the city on a map, I visualize a long-winged moth drinking from Lake Michigan. Its northern wing is predominantly white, its southern is predominantly black, and its thorax contains a smattering of Latinos. The moth’s miniscule head—roughly two square miles—hosts downtown Chicago: the financial and shopping districts, which includes the famous Loop and Miracle Mile. Downtown and Hyde Park, the South Side neighborhood where I lived, were the few places where I ever saw people of more than one race.
Martin Luther King, when visiting Chicago in the 1960s, declared it the most segregated city outside the Jim Crow South. It was the summer of 2005, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that designation still applied. I had just completed my MFA creative writing program, and after two years in Chicago, I still wasn’t used to segregation on such a massive scale. Just one time on many a bus, going to class south of Hyde Park, did I think I saw a white person; closer inspection revealed the person to be black, with albinism. My mostly black and mostly Chicago-born MFA classmates couldn’t understand why I complained so much about the city’s lack of diversity, when I lived in “the integrated neighborhood” (later, after buying a car, I discovered the other “integrated” neighborhood, sixteen miles north, and a few more pockets on the South Side). My perspective was alien from that of my classmates, and it was no wonder. I grew up in the much more diverse northern New Jersey, had lived in four states and in Africa by the age of twenty six, and had visited several states and countries, with plans to see more. Chicago is often described as a city of neighborhoods, and I’d noticed a fierce loyalty to one’s turf and a reluctance to venture far. The city might have been more than two hundred square miles, but I felt claustrophobic. That summer, I was applying like mad for jobs in the more cosmopolitan New York City.
Luckily, though, Chicago’s segregated twenty-first century reality hadn’t been like the Jim Crow South for me. I’d never felt the terror of being harassed, bullied, and murdered by so-called law-abiding citizens who seemed to fear an abundance of melanin more than they did their God. The terror of white men hiding behind white sheets and burning a cross in front of my home or blowing black people to bits in the segregated places where they worship their God. The terror of being cursed at and spat upon and pummeled for entering white-designated cafés or toilet stalls, or for sitting too close to the driver on the bus.
I had never experienced violence like that anywhere, in fact, but yet, I automatically tallied the people of color when I entered that North Side bar. For one, racism wasn’t dead and buried. White people still lynched blacks and dragged them from the stereo/typical pickup trucks; hatemongers could join the KKK through its website; police brutality and profiling against black people was fact, not fiction; and white people still received “not guilty” verdicts or less harsh sentences for racially motivated crimes, even those caught on tape.
Secondly, visiting the North Side was draining, even if it was the most convenient place for me to access cultural, entertainment, and major shopping venues. On the North Side, I felt either invisible or hyper-visible. I navigated a world of white skin, pointed noses, and flowing hair as though stuck behind a window. If people looked at me, it was for an instant. Just long enough for an elderly white woman to clutch her purse or for people to gawk before averting their glance. As though staring at me might hurt their eyes. As though I didn’t belong there. And what was I doing there, when most of the city’s black population lived south of downtown? Numerous times traveling north on the El on weekends, I’d found myself not only the sole black person but the sole person of color remaining in the car as the train left downtown. Some hard stares would be directed at me, as if to say, “Didn’t you miss your stop?” Then, walking the streets of my destination, more of those stares, and I could count on one hand the number of black people. With all that, I understood why black South Siders might be less willing to venture north of the Loop.
The only other person of color in that bar, besides my Mexican-American friend who I arrived with, was the security guard, a heavyset Latino man in a t-shirt and backwards baseball cap. Not so comforting, since I’d learned that the city’s black and Latino populations aren’t particularly amiable. My friend seemed to be an anomaly. She’d had black boyfriends (to the horror of her family), and she’d even lived in Africa. When I met her earlier that summer at a downtown concert, I was tickled to see her busting out African dance moves to the Ivorian mega-hit, “Premier Gaou.” We became instant friends upon learning about our mutual stints in Africa and our love of African club music.
It was she who suggested the bar. My initial instinct was to grimace and launch into a diatribe about my dislike of the North Side, but she endorsed the place. I decided to trust her judgment and be adventurous as I was since the sixth grade, when my family moved from a predominantly black town to an Italian-American one with a small population of immigrants from around the world. My closest friends in middle and high school came from in ten different countries. Despite cultural differences, we found much in common—enough to do our homework together, share teenage giggles, and dine at each other’s homes to sample the range of cuisines.
Staring at that crowd of white patrons, I told myself to forget about my previous sojourns to the North Side. I didn’t like being prejudged; why should I do the same? So I placed my order for the Sprite and begged Buttercup not to break my heart, along with everyone else.
As soon as my friend and I grabbed a booth, she approached me: a smiling white woman about five feet tall, with a blond beehive. I smiled back, admonishing myself for entering the bar on guard. But her cigarette-roughened words prickled my skin.
“So, whadda you call a black man who flies a plane?”
While my lips remained poised to respond to the greeting I’d expected, my friend jumped up from the booth, frowning.
“How dare you say that? That’s so disrespectful. How can you just walk up to her and say something like that? Apologize!”
I felt trapped in the booth between her and the lady, but I was glad she’d sprang into action, because I was befuddled about how to react. I’d never been called “nigger” by a white person (or by anyone, in any of its forms, for that matter). Except for a white teacher who assumed I’d ace our high school’s annual singing/dancing competition because “your people are good at that,” no major racial comments had ever been directed at me. Now that the moment had arrived, I felt more disbelief than bitterness or anger. Another part of me was pleased that my friend was seeing it.
Earlier that evening, we shared drinks at a South Side lounge. I didn’t feel comfortable there either, despite the black crowd and neo-soul music, and it wasn’t because my friend was the only non-black there. It was because hardly any other women were present. Trying to ignore the male patrons’ visual undressing, I struck up a conversation with my friend to distract from my squeamishness. Race soon became a topic of discussion. After sharing some derogatory remarks her family had made about her black boyfriends, my friend, a born-and-raised Chicagoan, confessed that she’d never really understood how it felt to be black until she appeared in public with her boyfriends. Streets she’d traversed casually became full of silences and stares. Once-kind strangers became rude.
When I told her I was well aware of these experiences, having had them first-hand, she expressed astonishment. She seemed to think black men were the only targets (not to mention black men themselves, who are shocked by my “white woman clutched her purse” stories). My friend, with her pale skin and long, wavy hair, had taken for granted how she could blend in physically amongst white people. North Siders didn’t go out of their way to ignore or fear hear, as they did me. She especially enjoyed barhopping in their neighborhoods, hence the choice for our second that night.
Those who don’t carry the burden of racial discrimination sometimes have trouble believing it still abounds. So in that bar, with its gaudy decorations and the beehived woman as stuck in time as her hairstyle, I was glad to have my friend as not only my witness but my sudden champion.
The woman backed away from her, pouting.
“I was just trying to be friendly, geez!”
Seeming to take my silence for concurrence, she looked at me as if for empathy. I turned away, watching my cup of Sprite make a puddle on the Formica table.
My friend’s voice got louder. “That’s not the first thing you say to someone if you’re trying to be friendly. Apologize!”
“Look, I’m the owner,” the woman said. “I didn’t mean anything by it, honest. It was just a joke!”
Rolling my eyes, I glanced back to see her skulking away.
My friend paced before the booth, seething. She spouted off about demanding a refund for our drinks. Then she declared that she would tell her extensive network of friends to boycott the place. She even wanted to write a newspaper article.
I continued to remain silent, pondering the timeliness of the situation. One of the things my friend and I discussed earlier that evening was the many ways racism can manifest. I remembered explaining: “Sometimes, it’s masked in humor. And when you get upset, they tell you, ‘You people are so sensitive. Can’t you take a joke?’”
The beehived woman walked back towards our booth and stopped at a safe distance. Waving her cigarette, she called out, “It’s a pilot!”
So, she’s not as incorrigible as the white men who burned crosses, or the white men and women who picnicked with their kids in front of the black men they’d lynched, burnt, and mutilated. She’d done nothing that would constitute a crime. The same goes for people who presume I like hip-hop or presume I can do anything well with my body beyond my brain, and people who try to touch “those things” on my head (my hair) without permission. Because what crime is there for greeting someone in a sophomoric way that references their race, gender, spiritual beliefs, sexuality, etc.—as opposed to a “hello” or “welcome” or “how are you”?
My friend ranted all the way out of the bar, but I decided it wasn’t worth the anger; I would just pity the woman for her backwardness. I left my sweating Sprite untouched on the table. Edging my way between the drunkenly dancing patrons, I envied for a second their freedom to bask in the cheesy music and decor and enjoy their night out. But then again, I had better music back home.