Greetings to the Black woman I met on the path at Willard Beach in South Portland on Friday, July 16. Our brief encounter has stayed with me because I regret my choices and hope that by reflecting on them I can do better.
This is a story about how intentions don’t matter nearly as much as impact matters.
It was late on a warm, muggy day when I arrived at the beach. My husband went ahead with two little grandkids eager to get on the playground after a long car ride. After reorganizing the car a bit I hurried to catch up with them and found my way to the path by the outdoor showers. It was wet and puddly and there were wild roses crowding it on both sides. Meant to be a two-way path, but only if both parties skirted the puddles in the center and scraped the edge of the roses.
I was about halfway up the path when I saw you at the other end. You had almost shoulder length curly dark hair and a blue print dress. I’m not sure how old I thought you were but definitely an adult and definitely younger than me.
I kept to my edge of the path and continued as you began walking toward me. When we were about six feet apart, skirting our respective edges around the puddles, I said, “Excuse me” in what I thought was a polite tone. I thought about stopping to let you pass but I didn’t. As you passed me you said distinctly but quietly, “She’s everywhere I go.” There was no one else nearby that you might have been talking to or about, though I suppose it’s possible you were on the phone talking into a bluetooth device I couldn’t see. My impression was that you were speaking both to me and about me.
Doing the work to examine my own racism within a system of enforced white supremacy that has benefited me for 64 years, I found these feelings: surprise that you spoke; hurt that my “excuse me” wasn’t viewed as the polite expression I intended; annoyed that I was being lumped in with all the white women hogging all the paths; compassion for the weariness in your tone; confusion about what, if anything, I had gotten wrong; fear at the iceberg that your brief sentence is the tip of; exasperation that a Black person in the whitest state in the nation expressed annoyance at being surrounded by whiteness.
Reflecting on my brief utterance, it occurred to me that the words “excuse me” can be weaponized with sarcasm and undoubtedly are by passive-aggressive white women.
Reflecting on how my body took up space that could have been yielded, I realize that my upbringing in a society dominated by white privilege was worse than useless. As the older person and the one who was already on the path, I assumed my right to keep using it.
As a white person, I have never expected a person of color to step off the sidewalk to let me pass. But I look like a whole lot of people that not only expected it but might use violence to enforce it. Even a woman definitely too young to have lived through the Jim Crow segregation practices that traumatized my young parents in Georgia in 1955 probably knows this in her bones.
Even if she was not the descendant of enslaved Africans, but possibly part of the diaspora communities from Somalia, Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo that now live in southern Maine. Because Jim Crow doesn’t care what country you were born in or what language you learned to speak as a toddler. The fact that you don’t look white is the only salient fact for segregationists.
So I want to apologize to you, Black woman on the beach path.
I wish I had paused on the path and let you pass without comment. I might have said “hello” as you passed by, but I wish I had not said “excuse me.”
Thank you for saying what you did. Without it, I would have quickly forgotten our brief encounter.
I know the history that a Black resort owned by the Bruce family was thriving until 1924 when it was stolen from them by the City of Manhattan Beach.
I know that when I got up this morning both Huntington Beach and Proud Boys were trending on Twitter, because of a white supremacist rally yesterday in another southern California beach town. Some history on that location, as reported by Mark McDermott in easyreadernews.com:
in early 1926, the most ambitious Black resort of all, the Pacific Beach Club, which was near completion in Huntington Beach and intended to be “the grandest escape of all” for Black Californians, complete with Eygptial Revival architecture, was destroyed by arson. The project had been headed by Ceruti and was clearly intended not only as a resort but as an act of economic activism, a statement that Black people would not only have a place at the beach, but build the “Queen of the Pacific.” It had all gone up in flames. Though no arrests were ever made, the Ku Klux Klan’s very active presence in Southern California at the time caused many to believe that they had started the fire.
Whose head is the natural form?
I’m going to remember your words — “She’s everywhere I go” — the next time I have an opportunity to hold space for a person in a Black body. And I’m going to do better at using that opportunity, because I sincerely want to, and to honor the work that you did for me when you spoke up. Because only impact matters.