Tuesday, August 25, 2020

a moment in the day: forty acres

Walking Nicholas a couple blocks from the house, my eyes ahead and all around, always ready to make a street cross when someone approaches, I hear the man coming up behind me. He's talking as he comes. Nicholas is stopped, sniffing. There's a family with a stroller directly across the street from me. 

"I just want my forty acres," the man says. 

I haven't turned around to see him, but I know who he is. At least I met him once before. Last November, just after Halloween. Our encounter then happened in the same way, me walking Nicholas, him coming up behind me, talking about wanting his forty acres. 

"I have rights. I'm tired of this. I'm sick of it. I should have rights." 

He's talking to no one and he's talking to anyone and he's talking to me. As I turn, our eyes connect. He stops on the sidewalk. 

"People think Black lives don't matter," he says. "I matter. I have rights." 

He's at least ten feet back from me. He's wearing his mask, too, but it's down around his chin. 

"I just want my forty acres like Lincoln promised." 

I know his reference: forty acres and a mule. A promise the Union made during the Civil War, that every family unit, including people freed from slavery, had a right to redistributed land. 

He keeps talking in a mostly uninterrupted stream, as he did the last time I encountered him. "Why they want to live together? I don't want to live together until white people can answer me this question: why should we live together if white people got no honor?" 

My body all up and down wants to flee, pull on the leash and walk the other way like I usually do if someone unmasked gets too close, but I don't. I'm not sure he'd understand why I was distancing myself, and I don't want to disrespect him. It feels more important to stay and listen. 

"White people is why we have this horrible man in the White House. White people got no honor. I want to take Gay Pride back from the white people. I'm gay and they took my rights away. " 

He says it all with no real expression on his face. When he tells me white people have no honor, he doesn't sneer at me or spit the words out. It's more like we're companions and he's sharing a simple fact. 

"My boyfriend wasn't Black, he was white Afrikaner. He called them kak, which means shit in Afrikaner." He gets an impish little twinkle when he says this. A little bend of smile in his mouth. "I call them cock-casians. Because they're dicks." 

I nod my head. I want to tell him there's truth in everything he says. At my feet, Nicholas winds the leash around my legs, looking up at the man. 

"It's because of them we got Trump. We've got to get rid of him." 

"Yes," I say, "I agree." But the prospect feels heavy and impossible. I don't have much belief in the possibility of good things anymore. 

I want to say more. Back in November, I said I was sorry. As if I could possibly adequately apologize for everything my people have done and keep doing to his people. I don't remember quite what I said. I think that when he told me, that time, that white people had no honor, I just said something flimsy like, "Can I just tell you, I am so sorry." I wonder if there's any way to say it better, or if saying it is just a white person trying to make a white person feel better, but he doesn't leave an opening.  

"You deserve respect too. it's because of you that we found the guts to speak up about our rights. You should remember that. Black, gay, women, we all deserve rights. Dykes on bikes, man! Don't forget. I have faith in you." 

He starts to walk away. Just like that. And I haven't said anything to him but yes, I agree. He steps past me and down the sidewalk. Nicholas pulls the other way on his leash.

I call after the man, "I have faith in you too." 

"Thank you, thank you," he says to the sidewalk in front of him and he continues on his way.