“When trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks” –Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
I recall reading Rhys’ novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” when I took graduate courses. Though the course focused on women and outsidership, I would always turn the assignments to how I, as a Black American (and the only male taking the graduate course), could relate to the situations presented in the novel.
Oh! how I was immediately thrown into an outsidership just from taking the course, and always asked, “As a male, what do you think about. . .” And the questions would drift away moments before a new one would be asked. I should have expected it. But I was young and naïve. Hilariously so, I was the token male and they perceived my experiences and perception as a global male response. It’s easy to place someone who is obviously different into an outsider position. I’m reminded of my youth as a student (and probably any other time I’m around a group of White people, including my genuinely good friends) and how teachers would always single me out and ask my perspective about slavery or anything else regarding Black history–as if to say that I was born with secret information of the Negro agenda or something.
I was an outsider.
I was an outsider and I still am. And I’ve learned to use it as fuel to move my vehicle. Others though, aren’t as fortunate. I always knew I was different and I was constantly reminded of it. And, some of the comments I’ve received during my 30-some-odd-years on this earth, are so ignorantly based that sometimes no response is necessary. I used to find some of these ignorant people (who’d single me out because I was different than them) quite amusing. But as I age, my tolerance for ignorance (especially on the verge of bigotry) has become reprimandable. And, when I’m tired of reprimanding these poor souls, I simply ignore them. When I say “ignorant people”, I’m referring to a group of people who simply do not know any better because they have not experienced other cultures. And, when I say “culture”, I use that word in its truest form and define it as “a person’s way of life”.
One of the most hilarious things I recall was picture day in elementary school. Everyone would get a free plastic comb from the photographer so that the students can do their hair at the last minute. Always, and ignorant teacher, student, or photographer would say, “Oh, I wish I were Black, so I wouldn’t have to comb my hair!” and then hand the comb to someone else, bypassing me. I shake my head and laugh when I see my childhood school pictures with my hair sticking up everywhere (as a result from recess or gym class fun) as if I just woke up. I believe that as an outsider, no one wants to be singled out for their uniqueness as if it’s a phenomena, or a bad art exhibit, or the new albino apes at the zoo. Importantly, being Black really isn’t unique when I think about it.
When I started traveling to Puerto Rico as a tourist, it was my own special place. I never invited anyone to come with me. I made friends, learned some of the great places around the island to visit where tourists would never go. Then, I decided to move there. I appreciated Puerto Rico because it had (what I thought at the time) was the same diversity or shades of colors as I found in NYC; however, it had the outdoorsy-ness I could find in WVa, except I could do it year-round due to the great weather in Puerto Rico.
But reality soon set.
I discovered that vacationing was quite different than living in a place. I also realized that the quality of friends that you choose to hang with during vacation is quite lower than those I wanted to associate with on a regular basis. And it made sense. But this was something that I didn’t think about.
I wanted so badly to become good friends with everyone (I felt I had befriended) I met when I was a tourist. But there was an unspoken disconnect when I moved to the island, informing me that it was a “me” and a “them” situation. As much as I fought it, I was forced to hang with the (as they call those from the states as an attempt to make folks from the States feel like “the other”) Gringos. Granted, I’ve forged some amazing relationships with the Gringos, but that wasn’t my intention. However, I grew to realize that my White counterparts in Puerto Rico were accepted much quicker than I had been; appreciated much more so; and weren’t discriminated against to the Nth degree like I had been. I understand that living in a different culture things will be different, however the day when a young man walking down my street asked me for money and I denied him, I knew. . . I just knew that I was in a world that was not my own. As such, I could never change it.
When I said “no” to the young man who asked for money, his response was, “Oh, you live in Condado area and you won’t give me money? You’re just a fucking monkey with money!”
Immediately I saw red. My pulse raced. Anger filled me. I had not been called a racial slur since I left my homestate West Virginia. Importantly, I had no clue that this would be the first of many times I would be discriminated against or called slurs. Yes, Puerto Rico was just like West Virginia but with palm trees and sand. The same complacent, undereducated, bigots followed me.
I looked at the young man, smiled and said, “Yes. I’m a monkey with money. But YOU are a monkey without money.”
He said nothing in response. I walked home. I recall speaking to the other Black Americans who live on the island, and at some point, they had similar experiences.
I find it fascinating how people are eager to pull a racial slur or attempt to demean them in an attempt to force them into an outsider position as a safeguard of their own insecurities and to preserve their own emotions. I refused for that to happen.
When someone from the States thinks of Puerto Ricans, they think of the individuals from Westside Story, Rosie Perez, or Jennifer Lopez. The commonality is that these are fair-skinned Puerto Ricans. No one admits that Puerto Ricans are of my complexion as well–a medium- to dark brown, a group of people who have also experienced racism on the island, but deny it out of trained cultural politeness; a group of people who, too, have been placed into an outsidership (and denied existence) by being referred to as “the morenos”. But alas, it’d be difficult to find someone to admit that this label is forcing someone into an outsidership simply because of their skin tone.
I was speaking to some of the Gringo friends and many of them don’t share the same experiences. Most of them are White and by default no one sees them as a threat. Most often, when I’m with my White friends and we are out to dinner, the waiter will give the check to the person I’m dining with. And, many times, I ask the waiter, “Why did you give the check to the White person? Do you think I am not paying for it? Can not afford it?” And, then I smirk at how I’ve made them feel uncomfortable. Simple gestures like what the waiter had done are unseen or unanalyzed by most people. By default, a waiter hands a check to a male; by default, a waiter (most often) will hand the check to a white person. At least in Puerto Rico as if to say I’m of a different rank, a lesser rank.
With Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” we realize that poor Antoinette is renamed to “Bertha” by her evil husband Rochester (a prelude to novel Jane Eyre), and he begins to notice her Black/Caribbean features more than her European features and locks her in the attic until her death, claiming that she’s not mentally stable. What we realize here is once man decides to name (or rename) something, he decides to take ownership of it and does not care for it in the same fashion.
The Sargasso Sea is the region within the North Atlantic Ocean, known for its deep blue waters and underwater visibility; the same region that separated Antoinette from her homeland to a strange land where she did not belong. It’s an ongoing fight–attempting to fit in. Friends know which buttons to press but they don’t press them. Importantly, genuine friends and loved ones don’t make others feel like an outsider simply because of their race, class, or gender. And, if we do appear to fit into society, there’s still the mental aspect of it. We can easily say to friends “But you were always a part of the group…” However, it leaves us questioning, “did you ever feel like a part of the group?” And I believe that is what is of importance. The outside interferences of ignorant people is simply minute compared to how one copes with it, and feels about it.
The Sargasso Sea is what separates us from being, or feeling, connected. Sometimes it is imposed by others; other times it is self imposed. Do we swim across this sea? Or do we simply perish trying to find our way home?