A volt of vultures perch themselves high in the branches of a nearby tree. Twenty-two pairs of empty eyes direct themselves to the ground below. The vultures are waiting for everything to turn black in the eyes of another, less fortunate animal, so they can open their wings and enthusiastically plunge themselves into earth and body. It’s in these moments before it closes its eyes, when the animal on the ground might have its final experience of the discomfort found in being seen; it likely has felt this powerlessness before, being the object of observation but not included in the communications of those who are observing him, and all it takes is one vulture to seize the opportunity to satisfy himself, because immediately after the rest of them will also swoop down to the distressed thing on the ground. But there is also power in being seen. There is power to be found in finding yourself to be the blackest thing in the room, for you can be any number of things while the rest just get to be themselves.
I had my first experience with the vultures when I was eleven years old and starting middle school in a neighborhood that was not my own. Before then, I spent much of my time on the block–my elementary school was a couple hundred feet away, my closest friend lived downstairs, and almost any time I went anywhere of any considerable distance, I was with my sister or my mother, and the destination was almost always a friend or family member’s house. Everybody knew my name and I knew everybody’s face. Everybody was black. The only white people I remember being remotely familiar with at this time were the Hasidic Jews, who had their own cops, businesses and blocks that black people stayed out and off of, and I only experienced them when they walked on my block with police escorts in large groups to and from the synagogue on Troy Avenue.
But there I was in a classroom in Sheepshead Bay, feeling for the first time in my life the need and desire to scan my surroundings for faces that looked like mine, and also, for the first time, feeling the powerlessness of being observed by the ones that didn’t. And like the leading vulture, one classmate moved in to ask questions, inviting others to come and peck away at my body:
“Can you talk black?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why don’t you talk black?”
“I don’t know, I just talk. That’s just how I talk,”
and many similar conversations, many of which included comments on my hair, the shape of my nose, and presumptions about my upbringing, among other things. This feeling of identifying with the dying thing on the ground is one that I believe I share, in varying degrees of similarity, with many other black people, especially those who grew up and developed their own sense of blackness in white spaces. This first experience of being the only black person in the room, although I wasn’t aware of it yet, came to be my earliest lesson in the existence of difference and sameness, based on how someone looked and not, as I thought, what they liked.
My classmates were very similar to me in experience of childhood; many of them also had spent their lives surrounded almost exclusively by people who looked like them. They were just as unsure of me as I was of them. However, the questions they needed to ask seemed to be the ones that were the most sensible to them, while to me they made no sense at all. But despite our shared ignorance of one another, their questions suggested that they thought they knew things about me that I didn’t, and if I was never taught these things then where on earth did they learn them? They were like me on an individual level, but as a volt, not only did they share confidence in their knowledge of a blackness that did not belong to them, they also shared a sameness in their difference to blackness of any kind, which allowed them to maintain the security they found in situations that resembled the ones they grew up in. They knew I was different, but they didn’t understand why, and I didn’t either, but outnumbered, I had little room to ask my own questions, because one does not challenge the comfort in the commonality of everyone around them when they are the only one who is different.
I was skeptical of my classmates’ sameness because it represented how different they all were from myself, but as I get older, my skepticism becomes more and more about my own difference from them. Such experiences, now, are as empowering as they are discomforting–the power lying in the detachment the only black person in the room has from those around them who are far less pigmented. As the only black person in the room, one is guaranteed visibility in the shadow of a society that wants them to be invisible. The inability to avoid being seen is part of what makes these experiences so uncomfortable, but it’s also what makes one powerful in these situations. Your difference from them is exclusive and unique, and just like their numbers may be discomforting to you, your solitude is equally discomforting to them. People will always have their preconceived notions, both vocal and silent in nature, but in a room full of strangers those notions are only based on what can be seen in the face, and often, a solitary black person in a white space will be expected to be everything they are not. The solitary black person can be anything, while everyone else just gets to be white, and the vultures will stay hungry, as the thing on the ground continues to breathe.