“Keep your head up, young lady,” the security guard in the building where I worked said to me one day.
I don’t even remember his name. But I remember him, mostly because he was kind, and because I think he knew why I went to the third-floor garage.
I didn’t always cry there, you know.
Sometimes I just rested.
Just a breather.
I just felt … whatever I was feeling, and sat with it there for 10 or 15 minutes. Just long enough to get my bearings. Gather my strength.
And then go back to work.
Maybe it wasn’t the best coping mechanism. But I was younger then, and felt deeply alienated at work. I was the only black woman there. I loved the work, but the effort of just being in that newsroom exhausted me.
I spent energy trying not to be loud, after a colleague described a black woman as “salty.” I’d never heard that adjective attributed to a human being.
I worked hard at deferring to others, after my boss said I was “taking” a colleague’s work. Once, right before a presentation, I overheard that same boss tell a colleague she had low expectations about what I might deliver.
I didn’t make it to the garage then—the usual crying spot. No time. Only minutes to spare before the big meeting, so the bathroom had to do.
Only the security guard saw, and it’s made me wonder about the way black people hold each other’s gazes in certain situations, and try to communicate, “Keep your head up, young lady.”
Sometimes I panicked and worried that if the security guard knew, then colleagues also might. If they did, no one gave it away. They seemed blissfully unaware.
Or maybe they were doing that thing I’d just begun to understand in America—the art of knowing, yet pretending not to know.
I’d learned it at the airport, at the gate for international arrivals. An officer bypassed dozens of people standing in the waiting area, and walked straight to me. There was the most brief moment—a second? less than that? —when she saw me. And I saw her see me. And I saw her recognize me as different and separate and suspicious.
I cannot make you believe or understand this. I cannot explain it to you beyond the words I’m using now, so I will just tell you what happened.
She approached me. No open accusation. A smile instead. A professional demeanor. A flurry of what seemed like casual conversation, except I make my living asking questions. And I recognize an interview when I see one. And a hostile one at that.
And when she was finished, she was still pleasant.
If you ask me for one specific thing, one single inappropriate thing that she’d said or done—something concretely … wrong—I’d have nothing to hold up to the light of your scrutiny.
But years later, I remember no one else in that airport.
Except for her.
I see myself so clearly. Smiling. Knowing but pretending not to know. And enthusiastically trying to convince her I was just like everybody else at the gate.
I learned it again on a train platform outside a station called Government Center.
Three young black boys were standing on the platform. Teen boys. Jovial. Young.
Younger than my youngest brother.
Maybe on their way from school.
I saw an armed policeman on the platform notice them, spot them, home in on them. He put his hand on his weapon, and walked through the crowd. He didn’t stop walking until he was near the children.
I was afraid.
I was afraid because the boys were laughing and talking. I was afraid because they hadn’t seen the danger.
When the train arrived, I stepped on. The boys stepped on. The man stepped on.
But as the doors started to close, the boys darted off the train. It was too fast for the armed police officer. The door closed, separating him from them.
They had pulled a switcheroo on him. The armed man watched them from the train, as it pulled away from the platform, where the children stood as if nothing had happened.
Turns out they had seen him all along.
I’ll never be as good as that. As subtle.
That’s why I needed that corner in the third-floor garage at work.
I went there after a laughing man in the newsroom said to another that he was “not about to go live near those Haitians” and their filth.
I’m not Haitian, but I speak like them, look like them, eat the same food, dance to the same music, come from the same region. They’re not filthy. Just poor.
I don’t know why I didn’t speak out that day in the newsroom.
Years later, when U.S. President Donald Trump called that country a shithole, I didn’t even blink. I was tougher then. Had learned about the way things are here.
But so many seemed surprised.
I wondered if they really had not known, or if we were all doing that … thing.
Now, I wonder about the security guard, the boys on the platform, and me–pretending not to know. I wonder if it’s time we stop pretending, and speak the truth.
We know what happened.
We shouldn’t have to carry it.
To submit your own contribution to this project, contact Samantha Joseph: [email protected].