Friends told me, ‘DC’ meant ‘Dark City,’ so I packed my bags and headed for a year in “The Nation’s Capital” – Washington, District of Columbia, U-S of A. The day is a Saturday, 12th October, and The Million-Man March is scheduled for Monday.
Step off the plane with other ‘brothers’ here for the “Day of Atonement”, scoop up my luggage, and move for the nearest smoking zone. The stench of exhaust fumes permeates the air, and the DC day is thick, hot, sticks to my skin, and leaves a foul taste in my mouth. I’m puffing on a roll-up cigarette, and sweating in the heat in the taxi line on the street outside National Airport, when the white woman standing six feet in front, starts coughing, loud and exaggerated. She is turning up her nose, so if it rains she would drown, and looking back at me as if somebody just farted. “Excuse me!” she blurts out, fanning away at imaginary smoke, and unable to disguise the fear and loathing hanging in her eyes.
“Excuse you for what?” I say. “Move up.”
“I’ve got Asthma,” she spits out, “and I’m allergic to smoke.”
“Well, buy yourself a gas mask, lady. I believe this is a free country. What you’re smelling is car fumes not my cigarette.”
She stares at me blankly as the English accent trips from my lips. Then she snaps back her neck like some small spoilt stubborn child with angry tears welling up in her eyes. A taxi pulls up beside us later. She slopes in looking victorious. The East African behind the steering wheel, smiles up at her, cuts his eyes at me. I think of a scene from Driving Miss Daisy, but I haven’t experienced the “DC taxis don’t stop for black men thing“ yet, so I don’t understand exactly why they are ‘tripping.’
The ride to Fairmont Street NW is relaxing. The driver is jovial, talkative, winds down the windows to help me cool off, and even earns himself a sizable tip by carrying my luggage up steep stone steps to the house. I am renting a room from a friend-of-a-friend for a cool $500 a month. It is in a newly converted house in the ‘hood’ surrounded by more liquor stores and morticians than one would expect to see in a major European city. I am struggling to disarm the alarm system when a dog starts to bark in the basement and a huge rat scurries across the steps behind me.
“Damn!” shouts the taxi driver, “Look at the size of that rat!” I turn to look, the alarm goes off, and the dog in the basement is tearing the house down. “Damn rats!” says another man, walking pass. “Ever since they been digging that subway round here, whole place infested. Don’t even think ’bout no poison – they immune to that – a cat is your best bet.” Damn cats as bad as the rats”, the taxi driver bellows, pulling out into the street. “Just like you can be damned sure they building that subway so the white folks can move in round here”, the other man concludes.
The dog, I find out later, is a young golden-coloured mutt who will become my best friend in DC while her master and I battle-it-out over room-mate-dom. Come night in the Dark City and I am already rearing to let loose. There is a place downtown called the Ritz, I hear, playing reggae, rare grooves and funk on four floors. I phone for a taxi but none do pickups, all booked, busy, don’t want to come out this way. I walk, catch the Metro, and walk again from the nearest downtown subway station. But I don’t like the vibes in these streets. No one trusts anyone, no one makes eye contact, and everyone looks shifty. I long for the days before crack and guns, before black people became afraid of each other, and downtown the white folks are acting like I am “The Ultimate Nightmare Negro.”
The fact is DC is so neatly segregated that neither the races nor the classes need mix after work. Divided into four virtually independent sectors, after working hours there is no need to leave your neighbourhood unless, like me, you fancy a night out, a bottle of wine, or some other basic goods and services you can’t find in the ‘black-belt’. So, if you are working class and black in Washington, you don’t have access to much, except in relation to violent crime and crack houses. As for poor whites, they don’t live in Washington, but in the surrounding suburbs of Virginia and Maryland where they pay less tax. They can buy a decent bottle of wine anytime. And, incidentally, they certainly do not have to leave their bags with security at the front of the store before shopping.
All this in a 75 percent black city that is the seat of government and the nation’s capital must make some people jumpy. Having said that, when I get to the Ritz it is surprisingly relaxed and well integrated by DC standards. There is a large, very vocal, racially mixed young crowd grooving to everything from commercial ‘handbag’ tunes, to banging-beats, techno, R&B, drum-‘n’-base, soul, swing, hip-hop, reggae and dub. I dance to work off the jet lag before stumbling out into the streets hours later. It is four in the morning with a nip in the air and sweat turns my blood cold. But getting a taxi in Washington DC is not easy for a black man – especially not for a dark-skinned brother with dreadlocks. Every time I hold up my hand for a taxi to stop the driver speeds up or turns on his OFF DUTY lights. Everyone else has left and gone and the club has been shut now for over an hour. I can’t get a taxi. I don’t know where I am. I start to walk but end up in circles. Twenty-six taxis pass without stopping. I am pissed now, really very pissed off, and about to turn into the world’s worst nightmare. I start to walk again and spot a ‘brother’ asleep in a cab outside a smart hotel. I knock on his window.
“Can you take me to Fairmont and Eleventh?”
“What?” he shouts back.
“Fairmont and Eleventh!”
“I can’t hear you!”
“Well why don’t you wind your window down?”
“Where you say you wanna go now?” he grunts.
“Fairmont and Eleventh. Are you that afraid to pick up another black man you won’t even wind your window down?”
“Well, you see, some of us, a small minority of us, make it bad for the others”, he reasons. That’ll be ten dollars to Fairmont, brother.”
“I am a Tourist. I do have money in my pocket. I can pay you. Trouble is; if you were out here tonight, no taxi would stop for you either.”
“I know what you mean”, he admits with a sadness. “But I got to take the money from you first straight-up.”
“So where does it end?” I ask as I hand him the cash. He doesn’t answer that question, and we say nothing more on the short ride home in the early hours of Sunday morning. I thought I saw him on the steps of the White House the following day, but no, it must have been his double. “Just to survive we have to be enemies. That is how we are relegated to the status of third class citizens in the world.” In fact, I thought I saw many of the people I had seen on Saturday night/Sunday morning, but I cannot be sure for one million black men descended on Washington, DC.
In a day that America and the World will never forget, as far as the eye could see, darkness covered the land. The strong, frail, young, old, dark, light, gay and straight, black men kept coming. More than a million, myself among them, and we felt we would never be the same again. America would never be the same again. The world would never be the same. “A Day of Atonement” so many confessed: “a day of unity”, “a day of pure unconditional love”; “a day to be among my brothers sharing a warmth, sincerity and tenderness that we have rarely known.” I must admit, I over indulged in our African strength and beauty that even today words fail to express exactly what I saw and felt that day.
“Great day to be a brother, brother! Where you from? England? Damn!”
Most people go to the United States to become submerged in the ‘American Dream’. The English, however, even those of us in conflict with our heritage, often seem to go to America to become more English. There is a certain snobbery here. None of us wish to be seen as we see them. Nonetheless, for the first time in my adult life, I was being perceived in the streets as something I was not seen as in the country of my birth. In America, I am English. In England, I am simply BLACK and therefore usually a threat. More precisely, I am a potential threat in the white (and in some black) neighbourhoods of America too, until I speak. Then again, who isn’t a potential threat in a country of about a billion guns?
“Oh my God, you’re English!” they squeal, but by then it’s usually much too late to salvage any lasting dialogue.
So, seven months after The Million Man March, and I still can’t get a taxi in Washington DC. Now I understand just why we were marching. The other 9,999,999 men could not get a taxi to the White House either. I have decided to cut my vacation short instead, before I buy a gun and start shooting everything in sight. It is now Tuesday, 28th May 1996, and it has been a harsh, bitterly cold winter in America. I have a 10:08 flight to Mexico City and I’m still on the Metro to National Airport with just thirty-eight minutes to spare – but “it’s all good!” as they say here.
At Miami International Airport, Spanish speaking women cashiers drop cash from two feet above my waiting palm. I have flashbacks of some sari-clad Asian women in British corner-stores who refuse to touch anything black. I begin to rethink my travel plans but when I finally reach Mexico, it is a whole new obsession there. The short beady-eye cab driver picks me out from the mainly white crowd leaving Customs with nothing to declare: “Taxi, sir?” he smiles. I am so shocked I nearly collapse. After seven months of walking in Washington DC, even if I had no need for a cab, I would go along just for the ride.
“This way, sir”, he beckons. “Want to change money?”
I did, and I do, negotiating successfully in my limited Spanish. He does not carry my rucksack as we tumble down a corridor and out into a car park. He pays a Policeman five pesos and we are on the road, speeding like light. I tell him where I want to go and he is not at all happy.
“No, my friend. You don’t want to be in Almeida where you can’t walk the streets after seven at night.”
“But it’s near the Zona Rosa!” I insist.
“Who told you that?”
“The Guide Book says.”
“Listen, my friend. I take you to nice hotel. Near the Zona Rosa. Seville Palace Hotel next door, two hundred US-dollars, a night. The hotel I take you, one hundred twenty pesos include tax.”
“But I’ve made a reservation elsewhere.”
“I was quoted one hundred and ten elsewhere.”
“I don’t know.”
“I take you to good hotel, my friend. If you don’t like, take you to Almeida. No extra cost.”
The Hotel Uxmal Madrid at 15 Calle Madrid is indeed excellent. I am totally sold on Mexico after this very fine introduction. I came for four weeks and end up staying ten. I travel the country, north and south, and find no problems of colour or race. I can get a taxi at the drop of a hat. Nobody panics, holds onto their purse, or crosses the road when they see me coming. The only problem now is people tend to stare. They all seem to think that I’m Bob Marley’s Second Coming, and everyone wants to touch my hair.
“Bonito!” they sigh.
“Gracias!” I smile.