Downtown streets of Reykavik, October 2021
The weather that day was a gift horse, better than I had any right to expect. The forecast promised rain and cold/snow typical of Iceland for the entire trip, but with the sun peeking through the clouds it felt like a late Fall afternoon in New York City. I remember taking a deep breath as I observed what could only be described, from a New Yorker’s point of view, as a ghost town. The plaza held a calm trickle of people who moved with purpose in and out of stores. Mixed in with the locals who strolled past, other tourists stopped to take photos or gawk. Back home, a scene like this counted as pre-AM rush hour aka New York’s power nap, the time of day when it is on the precipice of bursting forth from its construction scaffold-wrapped cocoon. Beside me, my BFAM (brother from another mother) David chatted with me about our next move. We caught a late lunch and spent the rest of that day taking in the sights of downtown.
Toward the end of our trip we traded highlights. Mutually it was full of laughs, ridicule, bonding and emotional/spiritual recharging; the Omarion variant (the alter ego of Omicron) had just yet to be tagged in by Delta, and if we were going to perish by way of contagion typhoon regardless of how many vaccine pricks we’d taken, why not travel – anywhere – toward the eye of the storm? One particular note that had us big-chuckling was the backstory I made up for our volcano tour guides. To me they looked – and acted? – like a pair of conscripted fishermen who were rounded up at the dock just that morning (government official: [translated from Icelandic] “You wanna make ends meet this month?” He demanded as he pointed to the empty fishing nets). In temperament, one of them made the most out of the situation, settling into his ad hoc role with personality and cheer while the other was taciturn, surly, his mind on the water catching fish. We traded opinions on the cuisine, and while some of the dishes were a bit eclectic for my tastes (smoked puffin breast, sashimi-style whale, fermented shark), they were worth trying at least once. Ever the competitive Leo, David called himself showing me up by scarfing down both our portions of the whale to underscore my aversion. He hated it, too, but he just wanted something to brag about. When it came to lamb, the country could do no wrong. Every way I had it – sashimi style, in soup – put a smile on my face. However the dish that earned my chef’s kiss was the Tusk, a local, flaky white fish that I tried at another restaurant on recommendation from the hostess. Her eyes lit up with almost carnal pleasure as she answered without hesitation. I’m not gonna lie: after one bite, I needed a cigarette. At the apex of the recap, I shared my top-of-the-pile experience: “Knocking around on the streets, just walking around, you know?” He wasn’t prepared for that answer. Having toured the country twice before I went, David was the architect of the trip. With laser precision, he curated it to allow us a well-rounded experience of what made the country famous. Despite all that, I chose the “activity” least likely to make any damned sense in relation to that goal – which had taken days and no small amount of money to plan. Mirthful grin dissolved to resting face; calmly judging me, he asked me to explain.
Here’s the thing: could something so ordinary – the feeling of walking down the street – be described to the understanding of another person? Swap that out with attempting to describe inhaling a deep breath of steam in the shower; the first drops of an oncoming drizzle on your head a few blocks from home at night; sun rays planting heated kisses on your eyelids to wake you from a peaceful, dreamless sleep. In those private moments, you get a sense of yourself as a human being in relation to a greater communion with existence and that of others, near or far.
Out on the streets (commercial or residential) of New York City this private/public feeling is rarely, if ever, allowed. Added pandemic pressures aside, this has always been the case. Inside of where you call home belongs to you; outside belongs to society and the concerns that it blasts us all with to keep itself sustained. We’re all beholden to it in some form or fashion. Its anxieties become ours. The eyes which find me walking through my neighborhood in the streets of Brooklyn blink those anxieties and paint me with broad, predictable strokes. What seems to be the question is:
Where do you belong?
We can say that any of these questions to “not belong” is another form of arbitration that can exist or not if you choose to pay it mind, or care. Strangers passing judgment on each other is a human habit as old as civilization itself, right?
Relatively speaking, I am not a kid any more. Simplicity has fallen to the wayside of life experience. Mining those experiences it’s clear that I have been thoroughly inoculated with the specific markers of toxic cultural bias (racism) and the passive-aggressive signs by which they are expressed from white-identifying/white-adjacent-identifying people towards groups of people who are/have been historically crammed into the category of other. We’ve seen enough videos: people of color being followed around stores, or being randomly asked to show proof of ownership for cars or homes they’re sitting in/entering, or police being called with the intention of a worst-case scenario unfolding à la Amy Cooper. Or in the case of Ahmaud Arbery’s lynching, taking it upon themselves to create worst-case scenarios in lieu of – or in anticipation of – police response. I’ve become well acquainted with the physiognomic qualities – the energy, the bearing of carriage, the posture – of a white-identifying person. I wish I was making this shit up.
And in some of those stares, the proof it carries isn’t up for discussion, but it is exhaustive.
Now one hears from a long time ago that white is merely a state of mind. I add to that, white is a moral choice. It’s up to you to be as white as you want to be and pay the price of that ticket. You cannot tell a black man by the color of his skin, either.James Baldwin, Black English: A Dishonest Argument (1980)
Traditionally, the cost of this ticket is conveniently omitted. It isn’t as simple or direct as being born with a melanin deficiency. To qualify a delusion of this magnitude it has up to this very day taken centuries of blood across oceans and continents; entire populations of human beings have been either decimated or been rendered extinct, torn from the earth and transmuted from their original forms into dust and footnotes in history books for being on the other end of manifest destiny. That supposedly-Christian-white-identifying-God-as-silent-partner-given imperative to ride roughshod over the earth and then go to heaven (like, totally go to heaven) after you die has empowered generations. As a result, the dualities of black and white (and really, every shade in between as a result of the two having to exist alongside each other) have an ironic historical interdependency, and take on the same themes even when applied to different outlets.
Cynicism and skepticism also take different paths. In practice, skepticism is a provisional rejection of a truth in order to include space for examination/investigation. Cynicism is a resigned acceptance in face of the work left to be done/challenge of it, of something that requires change. Scores of qualified, intelligent men and women have each in their respective eras dismantled in all but name the farce of race centuries ago, when it was understood, even then, that the ride this ticket pays for loops on itself, and if enough white-identifying people stop purchasing tickets, the ride will inevitably shut down for lack of participants.
“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching) and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to being white and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World and Me
The line for that ticket is still mighty long, and so the ride continues on.
As someone who falls somewhere between skeptic and cynic, I understand that I am not a part of the solution, and like Ta-Nahesi Coates (who is not a cynic, but a proactive observer/reporter of this insanity) has admitted that his lifetime immersed in the viscous poison that is race/racism has locked him in the old ways of thinking and self-protection, I feel a rote exhaustion, or tense-jawed irritation passing white-identifying people cringing away, or offering me a thin-lipped, nervous smile before they (safely?) pass. Two weeks ago a woman with her dog sped into the foyer of her apartment building when she saw me walking down the block, inadvertently toward her. Or in Park Slope, another neighborhood I used to live in, a man eyeing me with open, impotent hostility. I share these experiences with the painfully clear intention to underscore the fact that whether it’s aggressive or passive, there is no “benign”, no “innocent”, because all these actions serve the same primary function: to continue the ride. I read a small crop of news articles a few days ago that asserted the writing was on the wall for another Civil War, that the country’s social and political condition have both reached their respective nadir, creating a hotbed for what must be a nationwide upheaval with race being the standard bearer in the ranks on both sides. In my neighborhood and in the eyes of the people who reflect these concepts, should I begin to see the smoke signals? My chosen, perhaps only recourse is to deal with it on a macrocosmic, case by case basis.
However, in my private mind – the part of myself I let loose sometimes when in safe spaces, such as my apartment (exercising or practicing movement, or, on occasion, in bed with a lover, or in the kitchen engaging in the therapeutic bliss of cooking some recipe I found online) – I’m merely a human being/work in progress. The progress I make on the way to my ultimate goal to craft my reality with the things most important to me and in turn share my light and peace with others is what defines me as a human. This private mind was allowed public expression in Iceland, a rare opportunity to be real in open air without defense and scrutiny in what at this point must be the first time in decades.
I’m originally from the southwest Bronx, where the demographic is inverted. Yet, even there, society’s anxiety and restless paranoia touch people of color. Their eyes rake over the body from head to toe, assessing each corner. The question is not, “where do you belong”, but:
Who do you think you are?
Scrutiny is a burden – psychologically, culturally, emotionally, spiritually – but also a centuries-old thorn embedded/normalized in the Black community. Historically, being watched is a pragmatic function of bondage, as slavery was enforced primarily through vigilant observation and violence. Instead of being corrected, America’s less-reputable habits often become repurposed, and this now-telescoped lens (a thin pretense at keeping its distance, however imagined that distance may be) has long magnified every move, deed, and fed it through the cross-referencing mill of white-facing norms at large that seeks either to erase or appropriate – sometimes both – depending on its needs. Within the citadel of Black agency, this scrutiny has been reverse-appropriated and taken on, just to name a few, the forms of the Almighty/despotic/vindicating/necessary screenshot-status post magic of Black Twitter, the coup d’oeil of the childless auntie who uses it to flawlessly assassinate your character in one pithy sentence if you dare to come for her, the father who already knows the corners you cut without having to confirm what he asked you to do, and the implacable experienced majesty of the grandma to guide us all out of the wilderness. Someone is always watching – so don’t sleep/make sure your shit is correct – and when those eyes like what they see, one can be duly rewarded. On the other hand, Black scrutiny drives wedges where it can responsibly bridge them. Our self-censure taken to its utmost extent compels our members to push the envelope of what is safe, sane, legal, financially expedient or moral in an attempt to stay ahead of (or stymie) those watching.
The above question splinters into rapid-fire aspersions which linger even after the line of sight has been broken, because it’s understood in NYC or any other place: the streets don’t hold anyone’s hand, and trouble can potentially circle back. History shows that Black victimhood can come cheaply or at cost, and innocence has the barest market value on the pavement. In some ways, the questions in Black gazes cut a little deeper; the answers which come to the surface beg fresh examining each time, because anyone worth his salt knows he grows in perpetually shifting earth. Throughout my life, based solely on my appearance I’ve drawn quizzical looks and have been questioned about my ethnic background. I am faithfully mistaken for Latinx, or as not “fully Black”, which leaves me facing barriers within barriers because I am a person of color but still viewed, culturally, as an outsider. In other words, out from under the umbrella of white-identifying racist ideology (is there such a place?) there is no utopia to be found here, either. Not yet. Pressures are communal, yet each in his own bubble. Most times, the anxiety is diffused with a fraternal head nod or in some cases, even the kinship of walking by in silence, while comforting, is no less heavy.
An insular society less than 23% of New York City’s population was a wonderland compared to such claustrophobic issues. While melanin deficiency is uniform in Iceland, the people there didn’t seem to wear that detail as the crux of their existence and in turn project that onto everything and everyone in their environment. Perhaps because there is little room for that kind of burden to live amongst them; uninhabitable lava fields take up 80 percent of the island’s livable space. Or perhaps because their homogeneous culture has spared them the schizophrenic ails America pretends it has overcome. Whatever the case, being out of the smog of Western identity tropes gave me an avenue to walk down without any dead ends. In nine days I’d seen enough of the country’s beauty to get an excellent picture, but the landmark that stuck with me long after was a place to simply be. The halcyon images of nature are already fading into my memory’s recesses, but walking with my whole self in the sun surely won’t.
All images are personal photos and may not be used without permission/credit to photographer.
Thanks for reading!