In this short story, Berlin-based legal scholar and creative author Nelly Sarpong writes on a fictional encounter with a racist at a train station, revealing how difficult it is to react in a situation where the dignity of a Black person is under assault.
It was 5: 45 pm, I was packing up and getting ready to leave when our boss called us for a quick emergency meeting. “Seriously, now?” I thought. I was exhausted and could not wait to get home, take a cold shower, watch YouTube videos and sleep. The thing you should know about these meetings is that they always say it’s a quick meeting but it takes ages. Just as I had thought, we stayed in the meeting for almost an hour. Luckily, I had already packed, so I jet out of the office as soon as the meeting was over.
I got to the train station, panting. I was on time. I wondered why there were so many people at the train station then I noticed the public transport timetable displaying repeatedly that all trains would be delayed as a result of construction on the roads “Seriously, now?”. It’s as though I was not meant to get home today, if I had known this I would not have used my Usain Bolt skills to get to the train station.
I took out my phone and started skimming through it. Then someone bumped into me. I apologized thinking I might have been standing in her way, as I had not been paying attention to my surroundings. I realized I was not standing in anyone’s way and there was so much space around me. Then she looked at me and spat into the rail tracks. “Seriously now?” is this the place to spit, couldn’t she have waited, I never understood why some people did that.
Anyway, I just turned towards the opposite direction and went about minding my own business. Then out of nowhere someone screamed, “Nigger!” I was sure I heard wrong, the person could not possibly have said that, but then I saw the two men who had been standing in front of me, chatting loudly a few seconds ago gaping in the direction of the woman who had bumped into me.
I turned to see her looking directly at me again. She had the most furious look on her face, actually, it was a mix of disgust and anger. Then she shouted again in case we missed it the first time. “Nigger, we don’t want you here. Go back to your country,” then she spat again. For a moment I looked behind me thinking she must be talking to someone else, but I quickly realized, I was the only person with African heritage at the train station this evening. The gasps of some people and the silence which had made the word echo had convinced me I was hearing her right.
So before I continue, you should know this about me, I have always counted myself as a very vocal person, everyone who knows me will describe me as anything but timid. If anyone had told me that I would be quiet in a situation like this I would have told them they had no idea who I am, but here I was petrified, it’s as though my larynx was blocked and as a result, I could not speak.
I thought she was done but that was just her warm up. She pointed at me, probably to make sure I knew she was talking to me; “I’m talking to you”, she said, “You don’t fit here, can you not see your kind is not around. You are occupying space that does not belong to you”. I still could not speak. “Seriously, now? Is this happening me”? I felt like crying, but I did not. I felt like telling her all the things I was thinking inside, but I did not. I felt like screaming at the top of my lungs, but I did not. I felt like making her feel exactly how she was making me feel, but I did not.
No one at the train station had made an effort to say or do anything. I could tell everyone was uncomfortable with the situation but not one person said a word. I just stood glued to my spot. So many things were running through my mind, anger, fear and sadness. I felt demeaned. She spoke in a manner that you don’t even speak to your dog when it has been naughty. She was still screaming things at me in anger and disgust.
As I looked at her, I thought of how far we had come as a people. I thought of how far we had come as a generation. I thought of how much I had grown to appreciate the diversity of life. I thought of how I loved being black. I thought of what I had achieved as a black person living in Europe.
Then I thought of her. I thought of how much she didn’t know me. I thought of her background. I thought of how little she must know of the world and the beauty of the people in it. I thought of what she was used to seeing as the norm. I thought of the anger she had built up in her. I thought of what must have pushed her to have such hatred for a whole race.
I thought of the people standing here, gauging my reaction, watching her, and then me. I thought of how they must feel. I thought of why and how they had not stepped in. I thought of the energy I would be putting out into the world if I meted out what she had just meted out to me.
I thought of the community I was representing in this very moment, the symbol I was, at this very moment. I thought of the first people who had been called Nigger and what it must have done to them. I thought of how they were treated. I thought of how their souls had been crashed. I thought of how they were robbed of their identity. I thought of how it must have broken them. I thought of how the first people who had been treated like this and called Niggers, my ancestors, would expect me to react in this situation. As I thought my anger, fear and sadness were alleviated.
Then I looked at her and felt nothing but pity, I looked at her and wished she knew better, she didn’t but I did.
So I walked up to her, she hadn’t realized she had dropped something as she was screaming, she took one step back as I approached her and then I saw it, a glint of fear in her eyes. I picked up her asthma inhaler from the ground and gave it to her, she looked at me, stunned. The train had just arrived so I entered, turned to look at her and smiled.
Then I said to myself “I know who I am”.