The thing on the ground takes its final breaths, and the vultures watch, from their bubble high up in the trees. They can see it–the loss of light in the eyes of the thing on the ground as it slowly falls asleep on the savanna. It breathes slowly and steadily, striving to keep its grasp on the warm air that passes over it. The vultures watch and from the branches they whisper to the thing on the ground, “It is safe up here in the trees; if you sprout wings and a beak you can be spared,” and the thing replies back, through a limited stock of air,
“What’s the catch?”
The vultures whisper back, “Your belly is enormous. You must eat like us, and fly like us, and plunge from the sky to the ground into other dying things. You may even do these things for us, sometimes. But if you turn, we will peck and peck, and peck at your body until there is nothing left, just as we will do if you refuse,”
The dying thing replies, “I am not like you. I can’t be a vulture,”
“It’s fun to pretend,” they say.
Anything that doesn’t exist within the bubble is reason for alarm or interest. Anything separate (from the vultures that is) needs to be acknowledged, needs to be bought or sold or stolen, or influenced, or destroyed. And anything that falls under the vulture’s acknowledgement has an option: meet the fate that they choose for it, or come join the bubble, under the conditions they choose for it.
In December, a group of eight men; five white, one black, two of middle eastern descent, came into the restaurant where I work, all loud, all dressed in Santa costumes, and all apparently drunk, demanding chicken sandwiches from the door on their way in. The manager quickly confronted and informed them that we were not open for another ten minutes.
“Well, can we just place our orders so they’re ready when you open?” asked one of the white men.
“Who do you think you are?” I said from the register, and one of the brown men turned and looked at me through his half closed eyes. I looked up at the “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hat on his head, then back into his eyes, and in an instant I felt antagonized by the drunken smile he displayed to me as he turned to be escorted out of the restaurant.
They stood outside and waited, and on the hour, the manager unlocked the door and the men loudly welcomed themselves in, the brown man with the Trump hat at the forefront, and lined up like presents in front of the register.
“You don’t look happy to see me,” he said, with the same smile as before.
“I’m not, if I’m being honest. What can I get for you?”
I sorted through the tickets, and continued a conversation I was having with the shift supervisor about our shared heritage. More people walked in. “Drop chicken,” the supervisor said to the line cook, and behind me, I heard the voice of the brown man in the Trump hat:
“Ay, drop di chikin, mon!”
We all turned to see him leaning over the counter and he repeated himself in an accent that turned the gas on HIGH and I opened my mouth to vomit inhospitality all over his face and his hat, and the supervisor stopped me–I saw in his eyes the same rage that one sees when they talk about someone else’s mother, and his lips must have gone dry because he licked them before he told me, “Get the food out,”, and the man smiled at me again, and sat back down, and I looked at the faces of all his friends, who continued conversations with the men at their sides as if they did not see the things I saw or heard the things I’d heard.
I turned back to the tickets and behind me he continued to mock us, forging an accent in his conversations, mindful to include his friends at the other end of the row. The supervisor gave them all their food, and told them to be respectful of our other guests, and they lowered their volume and ate, and after all the food had been distributed and no one else walked through the door, I went to the back, and watched all eight of the men cognizantly. They finished, and I was surprised that they cleaned up after themselves–even the man with the hat and the accent–and walked through the door lined up like reindeer, confident, and sure they hadn’t forgotten anything. And my mind had gone through the door with them; I felt no need to talk about what happened because we all saw the same thing, and I thought about it instead. I thought about his face and his friends, and the words on his hat and in his mouth, and in my recollection I removed myself from the situation and stood in the space between us, simultaneously close and not-so-far.
His ethnic insensitivity was displayed for the world to see; it stained his teeth, curved his mouth upwards and was printed on his forehead; in both the context and presence of a country and a people who, on a grand scale, are fiercely frigid and intolerant (not to mention, belligerent) towards his own ethnicity. I was awestruck at the flight of the animal that I knew had been dying on the ground, and yet, if it flies and pecks like a vulture, I suppose it must belong in the trees or on the ground with its head being made bloody by the insides of its dinner. His friends had no interest in me or my colleagues or any of our mothers, and were rather well behaved aside from their entry, but their complacency meant that nothing was abnormal in the dining room, that he was supposed to be pecking the way that he was because that’s what they did in their bubble, only his gut was big enough for all of them.
For if something was abnormal in the dining room, they would have responded, (save responding at all), at the strange hybrid their friend had made of himself. That could not have been anything new, I thought; that had to happen all the time, and my silent anger shifted, into a weird kind of empathy for the man. I could not help, in that moment, but feel that by mocking me he’d been mocking himself–I imagined that he’d been subject at some point to the treatment he’d subjected us to, the things that people of color felt all the time; the things I felt in that moment; whether it’d been over talk of other ethnicities or his own. He’d taken the vultures’ deal and accepted the conditions of the bubble, like that kid Oreo from middle school, and I saw him flying with wings that were too small for his body and the sharp point of his strange beak sparkle in the shining sun, and I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. But it was impossible, for when I returned to my hiding place in the back of the house, a few people walked in, and I’d learned that vultures come in different species.
A man, black like me, sat down alone at the end of the bar. He came in and waited for 10 minutes, then ordered food to feed two people and ate half. The place had been otherwise empty and closing time was approaching. I started cleaning up and sending things to the kitchen to be washed. He sat for another 10 minutes after he’d finished eating, the other, untouched portion beside him.
“Are you closing soon?” he asked.
“In like a half hour,”
“Okay, no problem. I’m waiting for my friend–she was supposed to meet me here but she’s running on C.P. time.”
“She’s running on what?”
“Colored people time,” he said, and I laughed at the joke, thinking nothing of what had been said. “She’ll be here soon,”
I nodded and resumed removing the equipment I didn’t need on the line.
Fifteen minutes before the ‘Open’ sign was to be flipped, I heard clearly the sounds of the Avenue and turned to see the man rise from his seat and happily greet the white woman at the door. I thought of his joke, I thought of myself, I thought of him, and I thought about the black woman that I assumed he was talking about. I brought equipment downstairs.
“C.P. time” refers to the stereotype that black people are always late to their appointments and engagements. I’d known this was a thing, but I hadn’t known that that’s what people were calling it these days, and when I went downstairs and relayed my internal confusion to my co-worker, he told me that Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is married to a black woman, Chirlane McCray, had made the same joke to Hillary Clinton just a few days earlier on TV. I went back upstairs, and continued cleaning the line, watching the man gaze at the woman eating the cold food that’d been waiting for her for nearly half an hour.
The purpose of a stereotype is to marginalize and maintain the stereotyped group’s position in society by limiting society’s expectations for them, and they are often untrue; designed and perpetuated by members of an outside group, often the vultures, up there in their bubble. I thought of the Mayor, and how the conditions of his marriage meant that black people existed in his section of the bubble, yet, he was still very aware that they were typically outside of it. He acknowledged blackness, and although someone had checked him (he and Clinton were talking to a black actor), the prejudices of other residents of the bubble had been reinforced in the moment he made the joke.
And a black man had repeated the joke to me, about a white woman, and I thought it was funny, under my own assumption that the subject of it was another black person. I wondered why he thought the joke was ok for him to make. Would he have made it if we didn’t look alike? Maybe he thought like me–that by making a joke that reinforces negative stereotypes about black people, he was taking the power away from it, rendering it ok to make and ok to laugh at. Or maybe he’d been like the brown man in the Trump hat, bound by the conditions of the bubble in exchange for a beak and tiny wings. In any event, they walked out at closing time, on the hour, and I stood scrubbing the stainless steel surface, reflecting on my own laughter and how deeply I regretted it, for whatever reason, wishing to be made clean.
My own thoughts on blackness and the bubble danced convolutedly inside my mind for months to follow. I needed to know why and how another black man made me feel the way I did, what those feelings meant about me, about him, about my idea and meaning of blackness and that of people who I was unfamiliar with yet felt so attached to. I had supported his internalized prejudice in my laughter. Maybe it belonged to both of us. But that is not the point.
The point is that I was alright with the prejudice, internalized or otherwise, so long as I was in the comfort of people who looked like me, and once I learned that a member of the trifecta in the dining room was not black, I immediately regretted it, hopping a fence of morality and pride, regardless of the context, and finally, the nature and the depth of my bias had been revealed to me and I felt ashamed.
And I began to consider that maybe the brand of blackness I subscribed to was manifested in the scope of white society and at the expense of it; that maybe I’d become so tired of tugging and warring for my right to be that I’d become defensive, and in my rejection of the white bubble I’d shipped my mind to a new one, where everything was black inside, occupied by people of a similar brand of blackness as narrow-minded as my own, but my body had remained outside, pulling on the rope.
My efforts to be unapologetically black budded from a desire to be; black people, as well as all people of color in this country, have always longed for the ability to be. But it seems that it does not work that way–I mean, nothing is stopping us, really; constant thought of one’s own race equals constant thought of one’s own position in relation to everyone else. Many of us cling and tug on the rope, hoping to pull to the ground on our side of the line the institutions and ideologies of American society, in the shape of monsters that were created to pull us into the fissure just as well, and fail to realize that if you let go of the rope they will fall on their asses. Of course, they will get to their feet and come after you, but to be something other than white, here, is to lift your fists to block your face. No one can stop you from being. The wings with which dark, dying things fly are imaginary, hidden in its low breaths or in the beaks of the birds pecking at them. The vultures are still waiting, and will always do so as long as they need to, regardless.