I'm Not Going Back to Africa
A year ago I boarded a bus on East 18th Street headed to downtown Oakland. I sat in the back of the bus, reading a book. A black woman in her early 40s, clad in a cowboy hat and boots, blue jeans and a brown leather jacket, entered the bus. She wanted to get on the bus without paying.
“I was on the earlier bus but I jumped off to help an old man,” she told the driver. “He fell while trying to cross the road, but no one went to help him, so I got off the bus to help him.”
What a sweet lady! In this America – where once 166 people walked by as a man died on a sidewalk – this lady stepped off the bus to help an old man, knowing she might not get on the next bus for lack of fare. The driver must have thought so too, because he let the saintly lady on free of charge. She walked straight to the back of the bus like Walker Texas Ranger walking into a bar looking for a hoodlum.
“Why are niggers sitting in the back of the bus?” she asked, standing right in front of elderly black man sitting next to me.
The old man ignored her.
“Did you niggers hear me? Why y’all sitting in the back of the bus?”
If there is one thing I have learned after 15 years in America, it’s that such tense situations call for a joke. My brain began to urge me to write one before Sweet Lady explodes. Think Rosa Parks, think Rosa Parks. Sweet Lady has a point: This man looks old enough to have been on the bus with Rosa Parks. Think Rosa Parks.
“Yeah,” I said. “Rosa Parks is turning in her grave right now. She went to jail so we can sit in the front of the bus and we choose to sit in the back?”
“Are you trying to be flirtatious?” Sweet Lady asked, staring straight at me.
“Flirtatious with what?” I asked.
“With this conversation?” she said, pointing back and forth between her and the old man.
“Rosa Parks went to jail so we can sit wherever the [hell] on the [freaking] bus we wanna sit,” the old man said.
“Good point,” I said.
“Shut the [hell] up, nigger,” Sweet Lady barked at me. “You think just because I’m a woman you can talk to me like that? Uh? Open your [freaking] mouth now, nigger.”
Did I mention that Sweet Lady was dressed like a cowboy? I decided that it’d be wise to get off the bus. Remember she has no fare? I know she is acting stupid, but she can’t be so dumb that she’d expect the next bus driver to buy her [BS] story.
I stepped out of the bus. Followed by Sweet Lady, who immediately got in front of me and began walking backwards, waving her finger in my face. For a cowboy, she had really long nails.
“Open your mouth, nigger, and see what happens. You ain’t got nothin’ to say now, do you, nigger?”
I didn’t. But she wasn’t done with me.
“Don’t you ever talk to me like that, I swear to God, nigger. First of all you ain’t even American. You need to take your ass back to Africa, or wherever the [expletive] you came from.”
What I didn't dare tell Sweet Lady is that in fact living Oakland is the closest I have come to feeling like I’m back in Africa. Oakland rarely makes me feel homesick. I like the fact that things aren’t always in order. Oakland has potholes that shame Nairobi. Like in Africa, some government projects in Oakland make absolutely no sense. I have seen three steel benches conveniently placed on the sidewalk so I can sit with my back facing the busy, hooker-ridden International Boulevard and enjoy the breathtaking view of a chain-link fence, a flight of stairs, or a blank wall.
A few months ago, after I told a panhandler I didn't have a dollar, he barraged me with insults that included "your rich ass is acting like white people." The irony is that the man probably had more money than me. (Notice I didn't call him "homeless" because, who knows, the man might be living in a mansion up in the hills). Although I was dressed in a suit and tie like a "white man," I was coming from a job interview, my 30th attempt to end 10 months of unemployment that had led to an overdrawn checking account. Walk with a woman in Oakland and you’re likely to run into some guy who’ll read her - in your presence -- a list of compliments that might include the things he’d to her sexually.
These upredicatable occurrences make Oakland the most exciting American city I have lived in. To me, Oakland is like Africa: You never know what is going to happen two blocks down the street. That’s why I laugh on the many occasions I have been told to go back home to Africa.