I am leaving one of my preferred study spots in St. Louis close to midnight on a weeknight. The sidewalks are shady because the trees crowd the streetlights. I pull out my car keys; I step into the street; I am walking on the street-side of the parallel-parked cars. I prefer traffic to dark bushes. At least I can see headlights coming.
I am running in my neighborhood late morning on a weekday, headphones in, uphill and paying attention to the strike of my sneakers on the pavement. Ahead, a black man is backing away from the sidewalk; he sees me approaching. He stuffs his hands in his pockets, drops his shoulders, draws his elbows back so his chest opens. His movement begs not to threaten me. It is daylight and I read his reaction with my eyes. Sometimes I blame St. Louis for these dances, but I know it’s everywhere.
My friend gets spit on. There is a way that she fears stopping at gas stations in small towns. If I cut my hair, changed my clothes until I was no longer a gender norm, I would be policed the same way: verbal, emotional, physical assault and fear. A queer poet writes every night I drove through Kansas/ with, I swear to god, a pink barrette in my pocket/ in case I had to split second decide/ if WOMAN would be safer than THIS.
We talk about discrimination and social justice once a week for a semester until we are not sure there are answers. All the women say, “I cross the street to avoid men at night” and my black professor says, “I cross the street just so she doesn’t feel scared.” The endless choreography of crossing paths, if you put us on a stage, we would look like pain and fear and disconnect.
I am drinking tea in my aunt’s apartment on the thirteenth floor in Chicago; cross-legged in my pajama’s, I have moved from the New York Times on the table to MSNBC, listening to Melissa Harris Perry say Trayvon’s name over and over again like a eulogy. She says, I used to be afraid to have a daughter, but now I am just as afraid for young black men. Her voice reaches the pitch of injustice and men like Trayvon dance to it: how they stand, how they walk, how they anger, how they shrug and avoid me. We all have something in the back of our head: waltz, tango, merengue, we were taught this dance. We’re moving through a series of back and forths; we are guided by avoidance and fear, and society gave us this choreography.
What I want to ask myself when I wake up is how I am going to change the steps, break across the stage and open my arms up, throw myself down, say, We were not meant to be this afraid of each other.