REFUGE WITH LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
by Mellody Hayes
“The only thing effective immigrant parents are doing is raising kids who will someday disrespect them,” I said to my date, Vincent.
He is French. And African. His mother had eyes the color cyrene, and his father hailed from an African country whose name I didn’t know. He said the name of the country three times, his French accent caressing and distorting the sounds to my ears.
Finally, I gave up and he frowned, stating that he was no longer surprised by how little geography Americans knew. I toss my synthetic braids behind my shoulder, amazed that after all these years in this country, he still doesn’t understand what it is to be an American. Our ignorance is combined with arrogance –that thereinis our American privilege. I willfully never bother to look up the name of his father’s homeland and we are still scheduled for date number three.
On date one, he dizzied me. No, I was not in awe. I mean I was literally dizzy from how he guided us from store to store, in and out, without any overarching sense of direction. My internal compass points straight to the spirit world and I haven’t yet found my true North in this one, so I am left to allow him to lead us through San Francisco’s Mission District. He takes me to a jewelry store–Love and Luxe–and I imagine he thinks that the positive association of the beauty of these objects will be conveyed onto him. But my mind is meta, watching him watching me as I watch us in streams of sociology, psychology, and evolutionary biology. French and African, the colonizer and the colonized. Black and American, claiming freedoms spiritual and material. Man and Woman, biology with a question of chemistry.
On date number two, we watch Last Black Man in San Francisco, a movie poorly billed as being about gentrification. The film is about “story”–creating yourself through a narrative that inspires and empowers. A story that organizes your pain into meaning, your time into purpose. Dismantling the flat-bootied stories we have been handed. Usurpers, upstarts, lyrical geniuses, creators of new language, we write ourselves into being, using symbols of power and privilege that dominants stories say we could have never own.
Over dinner, he tells me that his father has this cultural rule that one must never touch the father’s head.
“Yes”, I acknowledge, “the symbolic meaning is that one must never threaten to take the throne.”
But proper parenting, I tell him, has in it the seeds of insurrection. To be a good parent is to empower your child to think for himself and someday overthrow you, to disrespect you. This is especially true for some immigrant parents, I say, thinking of my own migrate childhood. My father is from the rural south, where he grew up picking cotton, putting it into guney sacks, sacks the women folk cut up to sew into sheets. These ambitious parents, if they did their job right, they push you far away from themselves through education and opportunities. Later, your best love becomes how to hide your dissimilitude, your consternation at their “backwardness.”
They love you, push you, support you into not understanding them. Love becomes tinged with tolerance. Or, as a Sri Lankan friend described of her mother’s weeklong stay with her, daughter now demonstrates her maturity by her forbearance, avoiding arguing, and not mentally overpowering her with the scientific knowledge she now wields professionally–that her parents lack. Fucking western education, steals the smartest, most eager and needy Black and Brown kids from their homes by estranging them from their families. The colonizer and the colonized…
His eyes and lips smile as reply to my comment and I see the gap in his teeth, the African sign of beauty–royalty. (We were all royal, ain’t that right?) I had used that gap to flirt with him on the dating app.
“Yes, I can see you in two weeks when your family leaves town, but don’t get braces in the meantime.”
His reply two weeks later, “I checked and the gap is still here–can we meet?”
“Sure, just be sure you bring the gap.”
I am mindful of the gap. Not just in his smile, but that narrows between us. I am from the land of children-are-made-to-be-seen-and-not-heard Mississippi, but he says he sees the African in me. We talk about our recent mutual overthrows of our fathers, both occurring weeks ago. He raised his voice, corrected his father aggressively, putting him in his place, clarifying that his father did not have expert knowledge on all topics. His elbow was on the table and I witnessed his bicep visibly flex as the energy from the recollected conversation flowed into him. And I—Southern, Holy Ghost-filled—swore at my father for the first time. My nephew had run away from my father’s home and called me in desperation. He was barely able to speak through his tears and terror, his fear at going back to the apartment where his older brother had beat him for his poor report card. When I called my father, he took no responsibility for the fact that his 14 year-old ward was wandering the rough streets of Long Beach in the dark of night. Still unaware that parenting means accountability, my father erupted defensively, “I wasn’t my fault when you ran away either!” Me, now the calm anesthesiologist, recently freed from residency, throwing off mental subjugation and gaslighting wherever I met its remnants, I cursed at him. F…ree.
The lights are low in the upscale Indian bistro but I am sure that our eyes shine with bloodlust as we recall these first swings at independence from patriarchy. These bold, late-in-life moves to be the person who sits upon the throne of our own minds. Laughing, I tease him, “You raised your voice, that’s like coming after him with a knife.” He smiles again and I see the slit of darkness between his teeth, a vacancy, an invitation–the space where whispered secrets first escape, slipping from behind white bars to be heard…
“You may be the last Black man that I date,” I confess on date three. We sit over Japanese food and he introduces me to the Japanese set menu omakase, which he explains means, “I let you decide.” He pours soy sauce into the small, blue, ceramic dish, mine first and then his own, as he explains how in his ten years working in China he vacationed in Japan frequently and became more than fluent in the cuisine. I confess that I am nervous because our initial match seems so good. He feels like the “everything” for which the old me didn’t even hope to consider as a possible option. And then there are the unexpected paroxysm of goofy, belly laughter that erupt from “serious me” on each date. I explain to him that stakes feel higher when on a date with a Black man. In my heart, I wonder if will we overcome Chris Rock’s dire prognostication. “Even if you meet the perfect person, it ain’t gonna be at the perfect time,” Rock jokes, “You’re married, they’re single. That’s right. You’re Jewish, they’re Palestinian…. You’re a Black woman, he’s a Black man.”
He is playful, charming, successful, and like me, he speaks Mandarin so—unlike the functionally monolingual American-Born Chinese I have dated, we can actually speak to each other in Mandarin. He is intense. His mind as analytical as mine, and when I listen and feel the powerful force behind his words and watch the way he moves in the world, I know that he is a natural leader. But around me he becomes the confessor and I his priestess as he tells me every truth. He hides nothing, wanting to be known and accepted at this price–a bargain, really. I mean, what is the going the cost of a heart that is recently broken, only months separated from his ex-wife?
In the car, his nerves bolstered by the sake we shared, he looks towards me with a downward tilted head, unable to look me directly in the eye, he breathes, “You are beautiful.” He is shy with me, and I hear it again as a confession from the heart. My peak compliment of the last man I dated was, “You are discerning,” because he saw my soul, my invisible parts, and superpowers. Part of me feels sad for this gentleman sitting across from me if beautiful is all he can see…
After the date, he emails me—“In November, if we are still dating, I want to go see this movie”. There is a link that I click on and I view the trailer for “Queen and Slim”. Suddenly I am catapulted into scenes of violence, tinged with the American’s contemporary story of race and police violence. Because movies about White police officers and Black citizens having a nonviolent civic interactions are not yet being made, the plot of Queen and Slim is that the Black man kills the police officer in self-defense and a romantic first date between a Black man and woman turn into “Bonnie and Clyde on the lam.”
After watching the trailer, I am filled with horror. My fingers move quickly over the keyboard, alarmed, and I write. “Look, there are are two purposes to storytelling. Storytelling reports and prescribes a reality. These have been the stories that they label as ‘Black people stories.’ Stories of violence, pain, and abuse. To imbibe them automatically is to continue to endorse them as a possible future reality. Unless you are an intentional visionary, like, say a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Gandhi, one is merely reiterating the stories of pain that will be lived out for the next 200 years. Unless you raise the psychology, emotional expectation of a positive outcome, the same outcome is destined, because it is the outcome that has been pre-rehearsed on our visual cortex, in our imagination when are dreaming.”
Spiritual writer David Dieda says that the superior man meets his woman’s challenge with unmoving love. Yes, I challenge and he is unmoved. He doesn’t respond to this monologue. And I see that in the reflex of fear, it had taken me taken me two days to appreciate the sweetness of his email. He had asked for a date in November, so many months away. Oh…in his visual cortex, his imagination, and in his dreams of a possible future…he sees me.
He is a tourist to this race story in America and wants to jump into the deep end first. Having grown up in the French countryside, the view outside his window sheep “baaing” (or what do sheep say in French?), he has the lookie-loo curiosity of an uninvolved foreigner. He rubbernecks on this race story and I wonder if he will slow my transport to more internal spaciousness with these topics ( “I’ve never made love to a Black woman,” he said and Spirit asks, “Is that really what I am?”)
The movie I would create for our collective imagination? Thousands of boring, civic and professional police stops happening everyday because both parties have babies and dreams to which to go home. We don’t have time to act out being each other’s worst nightmare; Let’s free each other from those projections. I want happy beginnings and endings for Black love stories. (Yet, my favorite love story—Love and Basketball, Sinea Lathan’s character was perfect and loved Omar Epps, but he left her nevertheless. And she had to fight for his love. Black woman warrior, always at work. But I have learned to allow and receive…)
On Bastille Day, he makes brunch for us. He knows how to make perfectly soft boiled eggs and he shows me the way to decapitate the head of the egg. He says that he wants to read Black Rage and I ask him why.
“You have to know about the past, to know the struggle,” he answers.
“Yes, I agree, but how are you going to make your vision for the future stronger than your knowledge of the past?”
How to walk into a new future, hopeful, confident, without being constricted by fear from the past?, I ask him. He’s not Black American, why put those psychologies and programs in his head when he can live free? Why curse himself with this particular ghost —to be haunted by doubt in his next pitch meeting. Are they judging me? Are they holding within them the psychology that oppressed others? Why imprisoned himself in stories and expectations of the past instead of furtively creating a new future. Perhaps his mind, free of circuitously winding self-doubt and suspicion, can find more a direct path out of the maze in which I once found myself lost.
Does he think he can sample this indignation—oh, so righteous—and not have his brain changed? To take a hit and not be affected by newfound paranoia? This newbie wants to take on the high of the freedom fighter, of the cause so morally superior. Does he actually think he can stay whole without being connected to community and in spiritual traditions of love? I feel him wanting to storm the gates, to take in all that ammunition. Grabbing his shaved head, feeling the bristles his salt and pepper hair poke my hands, I squeeze his face tightly I say, “Stay French.” Be free of this particular American drama, stay confused by it. It should never make sense to any of us.
I am confused by why I fought relaxing into the soft rhythms of being with him. With friends, French and American, we do a twelve-mile hike in Point Reyes and my new hiking shoes allow no flexibility in my foot’s stride, causing a muscle spasm in my hip. I hide the pain, keeping it to myself as we lunch at the beach, but during the final miles, the pain deteriorates my walk into a limp. Meanwhile, he is still full of force and energy and seeing my injury, he asks to carry me the last bit of the way. My heart fluttered at the offer, but I declined. The idea wafted in my mind as a vision, so delicious, of being carried like a playful teenager, being uplifted, and my spirit experienced it as joy. But it felt so silly to grown-up me, this notion of being on his back, and I even worried that he might reference this moment of my frailty and weakness in our future. I was embarrassed to receive such an intimate gesture in the presence of the group. Later, however, after soaking in the Epsom salt bath he drew for me and letting him knead the spasm out of the muscle, he held me, not on his back, but in his arms as I slept the sleep of the exhausted.
Once so independent, having sampled this thing called togetherness with him, I feel changed. I am shocked by the joy in his face as he looks at me. Witnessing his smile is a complete experience–I feel moved and sated both. I love the sight of the muscles in his back as he raises out of bed, tired yet determined, to meditate with me at 5am. I am amused by our linguistic play as we say goodbye to each other in the morning in Mandarin—I tell him to work hard and he wishes me a good day in the operating room.
I remember a slow moment on an overnight UCSF call shift, between kidney transplants and emergency spine surgeries, lounging at the front desk with our multicultural crew. We were “shooting the shit” until our 7am release to go home. The topic of interracial dating came up and, remembering the smile of one of my dates, I remixed the classic “Once you go Black, you don’t go back.” With a faux moan, I offered, “Mmmm, once you had the curry, there is no hurry”. And the OR nurses and staff each chimed in with their own, each from their own cultural background.
“Once you had the lumpia, you want some up in ya.”
“Once you had Chinese, you’ll be hungry in five minutes.”
And the show stealer, “Once you go White, your credit is right!” And we roared with laughter until the next kidney transplant had to be started.
But what of this French (mixed with Burkinabe) kiss… “Once I’ve tried the brie, will my heart be free”? I always wanted to live in France, to experience the freedom that Baldwin and Baker said they discovered there. But he found me here…
Can love ever be free of sociology? Of power and of its shadow game —an attempt to escape feelings of shame and social vulnerability?
Love is free, but public commitment can be a power game. My thinking about why some people choose their partner changed completely when a White girlfriend told me the following story. She and her Black boyfriend were in Martha’s Vineyard, walking down the street together. She turned to him, with what I imagine was Olive Oyl hero worship and said, “I feel so safe walking down the street with you.” His response? “Really, I feel so safe walking down the street with you.” And then it hit me—the utter physical vulnerability some Black men may feel and the experience of safety and possibility that even the most “woke” brother may feel with a White partner to sponsor them into safety. Asylum seekers, like Salvadorans in San Francisco churches, finding refuge from the ravages of social violence. Like political satirist Baratunde Thurston’s TED talk about race implied—that police stop may go more smoothly with a social safety sponsor in the passenger seat.
Asylum seekers all. Maybe that’s what we are. I see the utter vulnerability of some Black American men, hidden in masculinity, and I wish them that shelter. For my White girlfriends over the years, they experienced refuge the first time they dated a Black man and realize that they could be “thick” instead of overweight, learning that they could love their ample asses. They got to be refugees from the crazy idea that all women are meant to be waif thin. Their walks even changed. Mentally I noted, “Are you poking your butt out instead of trying to tuck it in?” Free…
For me, it’s can you shelter my dreams in your hope, faith, and confidence, even your male privilege, while I work to bridge the gap between my previous beliefs and my growing knowledge of the possibility we can create? Can I date to walk around in your freedom? I won’t wear the pants, but can I share your worldview, that says ease, abundance and that life is a yes to me? Share a window into your reality so I can expand my sense of privilege, question the solidity of my old stories, check the reactions of a previously doubtful and vigilant nervous system?
A year ago, I went on an amazing first date with a Mexican-American lawyer, smart, sexy, athletic, who after explaining minutiae of the tiny laws that govern our society said that these laws were why Black and brown people “will always be on the bottom.” His societal prediction made it our last date. I studied sociology of equality as a college student at Harvard, with book shelves full of documentation of the inequality in education and healthcare. I know the past and the present, but I disagreed with him about the direction of the future. Nah, Boo, your dreams of the future don’t belong on a pillow beside my own.
“You’re complicated,” my French-African had said on our second date. And I laughed my laugh, the joy reaching high to the ceiling. See, I am giggly and bubbly between metaphysical discourse. “No, it’s good,” he reassures me. His utterance of “good” is guttural and expanded, “goooood” with umlauts and thick like camembert. He shook his head, relieved by the rarified paths my mind takes. His countenance looks befuddled, almost scared, as he mentally recalled conversations with others. His eyes widen, eyebrows raise, and he is nonplussed as he declares, “Simple people confuse me.” He is spiritual, brilliant, a physical savant, energetic, and driven. And in his matching complexity, I experience refuge.
On date number one he had read me cold. “You are a strong woman who only recently learned to be vulnerable.” The accuracy of that statement melted and scared me. And after each one of our dates, I told myself I wouldn’t see him again. I dissuaded myself by saying that something was missing. But I was unable to resist each subsequent invitation. I would arrive, adorned with makeup, sporting high heels, glad each time his wide smile and open heart greeted me. My own heart has been in a multi-staged surrender. I remember my old mental image of my singleness—I was a gazelle that I would continue to run; the lion would have to take me down because I refused to be caught. I was alone, evading the predator, alert, regal, free, and definitely not weak enough to fall on the savanna.
But recently, talking to me while he roasted salmon for our dinner, he stopped mid-sentence and said, “Between seeing you, I forget how beautiful you are,” and I think, ”I could get used to this.” The softness of being connected. The feeling of needing and wanting. Letting go of arid self-sufficiency and defensiveness, my mind shifts out of sociology, psychology, and history, and I am merely aware that I want to be his. It’s on a sun-filled Sunday afternoon, that I fall from my mind and into my heart as I feel him sleeping against me. Watching his muscular chest rising and falling, wisps of qi sawing in and out, my mind and heart feel calm. I told him to nap and he was asleep in seconds, and I laugh inwardly at the amount of peace he says that I give him.
On our most recent date, we sit in the dark, watching The Farewell, a funny Chinese movie about the cultural differences in how to show love for someone. Knowing that I am likely to arrive having forgotten about dinner, a pattern leftover from my habit of busyness, he has snuck cherries into the theater for me. Letting language, shifting light, and laughter wash over me in the darkness, I pop rubies of juicy summer into my mouth. When I finish that Tupperware bowl, he finds my hands in the darkness to place another container of rubies in my hands for my joy. I find myself full. Instead of eating more, I reach out my hand for his and interlace my fingers with his own, feeling my heart held, carried, and uplifted.
About the Author:
Dr. Mellody Hayes is a Harvard College graduate and UCSF trained physician-writer who lives in San Francisco. She works as anesthesiologist with a focus on palliative care. Founder and CEO of Ceremony Health, a psychedelic medicine clinic, she is passionate about creating peace and health for all people.