Category Archives: Blackness

Swan Lake

This past week I saw a pair of trumpeter swans a’swimming on Swan Lake in Wyoming.

Since identifying the lake as a destination on our hike, Tchaikovsky’s Swan’s Theme has been firmly lodged in my brain. When we reached Swan Lake itself I dramatically sang what I knew of it from the shore, one of my companions helpfully picking up the tune, my arms spread wide, for once not really caring whether I disturbed the people or creatures around me. (And hey, it’s important to scare off the bears!) I even made a fair attempt at a lesser-known section that leads up to the repetition of the leitmotif.

A few moments later an older white couple walked over to us, one of them smiling and then enthusiastically thanking us for our performance and appreciating that we managed to stay on tune. She laughingly claimed that the pair of swans across the lake, which I actually hadn’t seen before I began singing, beat their wings against the water to applaud us as we sang. (I later joked that they were probably beating their wings in frustration, thinking “goddamn it can people stop singing that fucking song at us already?!?”)

I’m fairly certain that out of our group of four in which I was the only non-white person, this woman did not expect me to be the one who’d first encountered Swan Lake when learning an adaptation of the theme during piano lessons at age 6 or so; the one who is probably most personally sad about Tchaikovsky’s life trajectory and deeply moved by his music in that light; or the one who would, upon returning to reliable and secure wifi, download a good recording of “Swan Lake,” listen to it incessantly, marvel at the Swan dancing en pointe in YouTube videos, and tell their partner happily of their newfound appreciation of ballet after having stuck primarily to non-ballet classical music and opera for the past three decades and that they’ll go to the ballet with her more enthusiastically than expected after all.

You see what I don’t

Lunch time, and nothing at all sounded appealing. It had been a rough morning, and I was looking for comfort. I headed out, bee-lining for an overpriced garlic miso fried chicken rice bowl and a bottle of Mexican Coke. In my adulthood I’ve realized that comfort food sometimes doesn’t so much mean food that is comforting as it means food that is so delicious that even when your emotions have decimated your appetite, you can still eat it.

As I walked down the block I felt the pull of the bookstore just a few blocks further ahead. Books are another reliable source comfort. But then I remembered my Black friend behind the counter there on MLK Day, her complaint earlier that she was the only Black employee there and they scheduled her to work that day of all days, her white boss patronizingly insisting “No, you HAVE to buy local” when she overheard us talking about how it can be hard to get yourself into a local independent bookstore and buy (the more expensive) books there as my friend rang up my $26 plus tax copy of “Between the World and Me.”

Besides, just yesterday I’d lamented to my partner about the ever rising stack of unread books on my night table¬† and the other stack on my bookshelf and the rest scattered alphabetically throughout my bookshelf and committed (once again) to not acquire any more books until I’d read all of those.

That stayed in mind as I turned the corner and walked past tables of books, records, old TIME magazine covers with photos of Black celebrities & notables, and even Black Barbies, all carefully curated by an older gentleman who always wears excellent flat caps. I saw this all out of the corner of my eye, determined not to look too carefully at the books on his table lest I buckle to temptation.

That only worked the first time walking past. On my way back, fancy fried chicken in hand, my curiosity got the best of me and my eyes slid over the book table.

He knew he had me. “I’ll make you a good deal,” he called out. I smiled, said thank you and made other noncommittal noises, trying to pull my eyes away before I saw anything I liked.

He clocked me quickly, saying “I’ve got a lot of Baldwin,” (yeah, I’m an obvious queer), “and Soledad Brother by George Jackson” (was it the fro?)

I slowed my step, then turned back, saying “You caught me with the Baldwin.”

He had three titles by him, none of which I own or have read (I’m so very behind on my reading.) “2 for $8,” he said. I grabbed Another Country and The Fire Next Time. “Not all three?” he asked. I said nah, I’ll stick with these two.

He pointed towards the top of the table, said “Well check out that one,¬† History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880.” I shook my head, reaching for my wallet to pay for the books I’d already chosen, but he continued, “It’s one of the most comprehensive books about our history out there.”

Our history.

I fumbled for my money, playing off how unexpectedly moved I was that this older Black man saw and so matter-of-factly named the Blackness in me that I am so hesitant to claim, thinking it’s not mine to take.

Handing over my eight dollars, I thanked him for the tip, said I’d keep the history book in mind (and I did, in fact, looking it and its author up when I got back to my office, while writing this.) And I thanked him for stopping me, and for the two Baldwin books. He returned my thanks graciously.

As I turned to walk away, another older Black man standing next to me called out to get my attention. I turned to him and he said “tuck your wallet in, you don’t want someone bumping up into you and taking it,” reminding me of nothing so much as my father looking out for me as I walked out the door as a kid.

I thanked him, thanked the universe, and walked away, my day looking decidedly up.