I’ve been looked at in many ways in my life. As a student (first in Mr. Petrozelis’ class in Junior High at Simon Baruch), as a son (by my mother), as a naïve/"booksmart" fool (my grandfather), as a nigger (a shortish but memorable listing), as an athlete (most of my teachers in High School), as an intelligent charmer (an insightful few) but nothing compares to the look of the Rwandan.
The eyes pass over you, into you, through you, beyond you. They see the skin tone (too light for a Rwandan but after two weeks this changes), the flesh (fattened which means ripe for the picking), the clothes (I always wore the same thing – jeans, short-sleeve shirt, ¾ timberlands), the hair (or, in my case, the lack thereof which caused me some grief cause there were no bald people there), the gait (New York all the time – fast paced, heavy footed, directed, driven, driving) and my interaction with European whites in the country or Eurites (uncompromising, guarded, aggressive and a little loud, when necessary). Now, I add "in the country" because I believe had the interactions taken place in Europe or America, they would not have taken on the character that they did - the people, personality and exchange. To be clear: I am not saying that all European whites in Rwanda acted a particular way. I am simply saying that many that I encountered did have kind of an interesting attitude. My witness to it and engagement with it was not as a Rwandan, however. Rather, it was as a New Yorker and African American who was not really going to tolerate too much while visiting the motherland.
Now, the Rwandans appeared to like my last descriptive about not suffering fools but were simultaneously shocked as they had never seemed to see a person kind of like them treat Eurites the way I did. Now, truth be told, I was not going out of my way to be especially mean to Eurites in Rwanda but there was a common French and/or Belgian attitude in the country that would have been unacceptable to any Manhattanite (of any race). Indeed, one woman I met from Brooklyn there let into one Frenchmen who attempted to return some meal in a manner that went way beyond demeaning with comments of "these people" and "No wonder things are so bad here with people like this". Hells no.
For example, in one hotel, I waited on the cue to pick up my key at the front desk. Some Eurite had walked in from the Bush – literally, stepping right in front of me and attempted to check in. To this, I said “excuse me” and mentioned that I had been waiting on the line (very politely but direct, if you get my New Yawk meaning). After ignoring me, he requested a room – in English, and as they say: “it was on.”
As for my response, picture something like a combination of Chris Tucker, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor and Mike Tyson. I just let into the guy - at that point, something got summoned from the depths. While berating him, I stepped to his side, grabbed the key that the concierge was about to hand to him and demanded that I either be given my room key or that I would take his room, which I was sure was going to be a nice one. At the same time, I said to the Eurite that his behavior was extremely rude and that I was not going to let this pass without reparation.
Now, I was very clear about my word use and to be honest at that moment I viewed the Eurite not as any white man but as The White Man – yes, someone in the ol' characterization of the 1930's, 1940's, 1960's, 1970's...... - the oppressive individual that had enslaved Africans and African Americans, the oppressive individual that had raped my relatives, denied them jobs and prompted the police to beat in their heads. It was amazing how quickly I let all of the politeness of Western society go. Before I knew it, I was calling him a “cracker” and that “Africans were not going to take any abuse.” Yes, Africans not African Americans. Now, I do not think that the guy knew what a cracker was nor that I was only part African but the point seemed to be made and taken. Indeed, a group of the staff were not exactly crowding around but they were watching and smiling broadly from diverse parts of the lobby, which was kind of odd but appreciated.
The response from the Eurite was pure anti-black hatred (the “how-dare-the-kaffir-step-to-me” look), mixed with a small amount of fear. As the armed guard and manager stepped forward, I think that for a second both he and I had a feeling that they would end up siding with each of us. And, for a millisecond, I thought that I had definitely overstepped my bounds and that while I saw nothing but black faces around me, I might have miscalculated the sympathy, appreciation and back-up from my brethren.
Quickly though, the situation became clear: unlike the states, the brothers immediately took my side (the American trumped the French/Belgian under the new regime and African-Americans trumped Anglos). After acknowledging that I was indeed on line and that I was to be serviced next, he was escorted to the back and the staff just kind of looked at me in a “I can’t believe he spoke to the white man” kind of way. Now, truth be told, it was not all left to chance. I had spent the better part of several weeks schooling the staff on American history, black history, Hip Hop and thought that I was respectful to all individuals in the hotel. The result: after a lifetime of being on the wrong end of the indignant corporate response, I finally won one.
Somewhat a daze, I took my key and went downstairs to get a drink. At the bar, there was a buzz as the different waiters and ever-present ladies of the evening looked my direction and smiled. As the waiter came over to take my order, he said that the drinks were on the house as well as a small appetizer. When he came with my beer, he put down a plate with a wide assortment of cheeses. Recalling the conversation upstairs, I realized that I probably called the guy cracker like 10 times. What better to go with the cheese, I thought remembering one of my favorite comedians - Paul Mooney. The strangest things happen in this place.