Featured Illustration: Yazmin Butcher
One of the times I’d been called a nigger…
I decided to go to a new meeting of a twelve-step group that I’m part of and I found a new one in West Los Angeles. The meeting was at a Jewish senior center called “The Mahood” on Santa Monica Boulevard and Corinth Avenue. Narcotics Anonymous, and probably some Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, rent space there. On this Tuesday night, the center hosted a “late-night” senior dance. The recreation room was filled with little old Jewish men and women, dressed to the nines in ornate gaudy custom jewels and sparkling broaches that caught the light like disco balls. They waltzed and square danced and separated by gender, men on one side, and the ladies on the other, like a middle school dance.
The dance had a ratio of about one man to every five ladies, so the ladies waited anxiously for their turn and the men danced all night. We, twelve-steppers, looked at them with nostalgia as if they were helpless little children at a day camp. They returned the look of empathetic remorse, like they had heard our stories through the walls. Our tattoos and leather and their wrinkled skin and polyester commingled without any disruption. Both groups looking on with compassion for the other. It was 6:30 and it was time to start the meeting, so we all departed to our destinations.
I entered the NA meeting room, and a man stood at the door with open arms. He waved me in with a smile. I, at first, hesitated, but he reached out his arm and pulled me in. His arms were strong and so was the smell of the cigarettes he previously smoked that lodged in his gray and yellow flannel and mixed with hints of Aqua Velva as he brushed his leathered whiskered cheek against mine and said, “Welcome.” His smile was infectious and so was the lingering smell of cigarettes that stayed with me as I walked through the room to the cold metal folding chairs to find a seat.
The room felt electric with smiled glances, loud murmuring laughter, and conversations of people catching up. In between the smell of burnt coffee and cigarettes, ammonia whiffed through the room, because the janitor had just finished up as we were coming in. The group seemed okay; it lacked color but I was used to being the only Black person in the room, so I didn’t fret. I felt comfortable, as I mostly do in the meetings. Most of the people I did not know, so I was excited about new prospects and connections. And sometimes when you don’t know anyone, you’re able to really open up about what’s going on. All of our scars ran deep and having a place to talk about them seemed to lessen the load. It just felt good knowing that I wasn’t the only one whose internal scars had manifested into self-harm through using drugs and drowning myself in alcohol — I felt at home. These were my people. No matter what color, background, or neighborhood they came from. The meeting lasted an hour and a half, and we all left the small room humming about spirituality, working through resistance, and our direct practices to keep our sober selves centered in a world that seemed to push supplements, short cuts, and chemicals for every and any situation.
I opened up about how I found my spirituality, how I dealt with the lingering pains, and how some scars took longer to heal. I talked about turning the other cheek, creating a connection with God, having empathy for people without spiritual practices, and how communication was so important — that if you just really listened to a person, you could save yourself a lot of drama. I spoke earnestly to the small group in the circle and it was also peppered with a little ego — after all, I was over a decade clean and sober, and I needed to show them that I knew what I was talking about and I felt it was expected that I drop some knowledge.
The flanneled man at the door whose name turned out to be Ray said that a group of people from the meeting were going out to dinner, or as we call it, “fellowshipping”. I thought, why not? I wanted to get to know these people a little better and I was searching for new connections, so I went.
We decided to go to a restaurant in Brentwood, not too far from the meeting center. I had been to the restaurant before; it wasn’t a great restaurant, but it was convenient and they went every week after the meeting. They had an ongoing reservation and a table towards the back near the window that gave view to the whizzing cars on San Vicente Boulevard. We all sat and they all ordered, of course, coffee, and I ordered tea. The meal was mediocre, but I’m plant-based, so I can never really judge my experience of a restaurant as good or bad for the regular eater.
The conversation was buzzing from our spiritually-centered meeting, and we spoke of our individual practices of the Eleventh step, which is a step highlighting prayer and meditation, conscious contact with a Higher Power, and differentiating between our will and our Higher Power’s will. The highs that I got now weren’t the same as the highs I got when I was using drugs, but they were both something that made me want to seek more.
I decided that I had to leave my new spiritual group of friends and head home because I had work in the morning and had to drive home to Culver City. On my way out, I walked through the bar, still buzzing from the great conversation and my new elevated mental state. I smiled, as I normally do to the people whose eyes I made contact with. At the end of the bar was a woman, maybe fifty-years-old, with weathered skin and dirty blond hair. She looked at me and snarled, “What’s so fucking funny?” I chuckled under my breath, shook my head, and decided to ignore her.
I was standing outside with my valet ticket in hand, waiting in line with all the others. I caught sight of a sign that said that the restaurant validated tickets. I hurriedly went back into the restaurant and had it made up in my mind that I would say something to that lady to shut her up. I saw the lady and she spotted me with an even angrier snarl, and I simply said, “Apparently you.” And I walked off, heading to the validation area, licking my finger and giving myself a point on the invisible chalkboard of comebacks. I was pleased and it made me smile. I turned to look over my shoulder and before I knew it, the woman came charging at me. My eyes widened and I could barely catch my breath, out of instinct I lifted my arm and shielded myself from her. She grabbed my arm and started digging her nails into my arm and saying the nastiest things she could say — “You, nigger bitch! You fucking nigger bitch, I’ll get you.” Her eyes swirled, like they were searching for something other than me. She murmured more things but I couldn’t make them out and they seemed like gibberish. I screamed, “Don’t you touch me,” and I pulled my arm from her grasp. Her eyes were still dancing; I didn’t know what she would do next and before I could think, my instincts took over again and it was like I was on the tennis court. I swung my arm backward, then before I could stop it, I smacked her with the back of my hand and it connected with her face. I realized then: this lady is fucking crazy. And, all you could hear was SMACK!
The restaurant grew quiet and everyone turned to look. She screamed, “She hit me!” Her cheek grew redder, validating her claim, and my hand stung from the perfect swat. The eyes of the restaurant patrons turned into what I imagined to be an angry mob, with their blue, green, and hazel eyes reflecting in the fire from their torches that only I saw as they jeered my way. I had never been more afraid.
I stood frozen, wild-eyed. I was the only Black woman that I could see in the whole restaurant, and my NA group was too far away to stand witness for me — that I was over a decade clean and was spiritually centered, level-headed, compassionate, and not a threat. The cold reality of my dark skin became the only thing I noticed besides all the white skin that to me looked on with accusing eyes. I was frightened, and I didn’t know what to do. I stammered “But she…” and they looked on, their torches getting warmer as they seemed to move closer. I visualized a rope being thrown over a tree limb while this crazy white woman turned into the victim and beckoned their white camaraderie with her tears and woes. Next thing I knew, the woman swung and hit me. I had a second to think, and I stopped the something inside me that wanted to haul off and finish the ass-kicking I was going to issue, but something Black and ancestral said, “Get the hell out of there, girl. These white folks are going to roast you.” And then they said, “Girl… you know you don’t fight with crazy!” I listened and fled the scene — fast.
Was there a lesson to be learned? Yes. Did I play a part in it? I did. Was my part deserving of what happened? I don’t think so. But what broke my heart most was the feeling of knowing that I cannot make mistakes because the stakes are so much greater for me, because of the skin I’m in. But what I didn’t know was that my scars ran deeper than I thought. I did not trust that the system would support me. At that moment, I realized how unfree I really was, and that the scars that I have are not even personally mine. These scars have been passed on from generation to generation, from old folks in small rooms, sitting in their worn chairs, talking about how white people have done this or that, and how powerless they felt because they had no one that would believe that what they were saying was the truth.
The scars that traveled from the cotton fields to the South Carolina swamps through the great migration in hopes that the North would be better and to the homes in small towns near Philadelphia that my grandmother cleaned and the doors my grandfather held open. To my mother whose Afro bounced as she headed towards the LA sunshine while she wore a pin that read, “Black is Beautiful!” To me, this little West Los Angeles kid of the seventies that had no idea how many chains she was carrying because the rattle had become silent until she was able to hear. Yes, my scars run deep.