I wasn’t in Seattle the day I turned twenty-one years old and was unable to spend it with my friends. That didn’t sway my BFF Tisha. Within hours of my return from vacation in New York City in early August she called me.
“Okay girl don’t make any plans for this weekend! We are going out for a belated celebration! Ain’t no way in hell my girl is finally legal and we not celebrating! All your drinks are on me!”
I sighed. Alcohol held little mystique for me. I did my share of drinking over the course of the summer of 2000. Turning twenty-one simply meant I could discard my fake ID for good. But I knew once Tisha set her mind to something it was going to happen. So instead of telling her that I’d rather stay in, drink tea and read a book I asked what time I should be ready on to celebrate on Saturday.
On a perfect Seattle night in August 2001 Tisha and I went out to Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle. Though I was reticent at first I was glad that I came out with Tisha and her older sister. I laughed with Tisha as we made our way to the club, the sound of our heels clacking on the pavement mixing with the yells of the men we walked past.
That night we went to Wazobia, a Nigerian restaurant that doubled as a lounge/club at night. I’d been to Wazobia number of time for dinner, eagerly cleaning plates of fried plantains and tilapia. My favorite dish was a stew called edikacko, a flavorful mix of fish, goat and spinach that reminded me of my Grandma’s collard greens. But cuisine wasn’t on the menu that night; we were there to see the other side of Wazobia.
As our trio walked in the DJ was spinning “Girls Dem Sugar, Beenie Man’s massive hit from the year before:
Dancehall and Afrobeats were the music of choice for the venue, so the crowd was predominately Continental African and West Indian. Tisha and I, already familiar with Caribbean rhythms due to our friendship with Raquel, loved the music. I spent a good thirty minutes straight on the floor, laughing and dancing.
To my dismay one of the guys I danced with continued to trail me around, thinking that the one dance we shared meant we were to be partners the rest of the night. I went to the bathroom but saw him looking for me when I emerged.
“So madam, may I have my dance now”, a French-accented voice boomed to my left. It was Idris, the Senegalese guy I made small talk with while waiting in line earlier.
“That depends”, I replied, “Will you help me get rid of him”, I asked, gesturing to the unwanted suitor.
“I certainly can do that”, Idris replied, holding out his right arm to me. I smiled, looped my left arm into his and walked out of the hallway.
Idris got his dance, but we spent a lot of time talking in the back of the club. Over a shared plate of fried plantains I learned he was five years older than me, multilingual and a year away from finishing his Bachelors in Computer Science. Idris was there with his crew, a group of polite and charming young men from Senegal and Guinea. So engrossed in conversation, we were surprised when the lights came on, signaling that closing time was near. Mamadou, Idris’ roommate who impressed women with his whining each time a soukous song came on, made his way to our table.
“Sista, you have been sitting all this time! Is he refusing to let you get up? We must have one dance before we go”, he stated emphatically, standing his hand to me. Idris laughed and waved him off. I was insecure about dancing with Mamadou, as he imitated the agile moves of Central African dance with an ease and grace that was foreign to me. But thankfully my soukous skills were not tested, as the DJ put on Jagged Edge’s club anthem “Where The Party At”:
I moved my legs from the empty chair they were stretched out on, slipped my heels back on and joined Mamadou.
Once the song ended Idris and Mamadou stayed with us, escorting us to our car. When Idris asked to see me again I said he would, and we exchanged numbers. My initial foray into nightlife as a young woman was pleasurable, but the shine wore off quickly. There were two reasons for this.
The first reason was what my friends and I experienced while walking. The uncouth and belligerent behavior we first encountered from boys and men in our community as we walked in the ‘hood didn’t go away with age. How you were dressed didn’t made no difference. Whether I was in sweats and trainers heading to class or low heels and slacks on my way to work, I was approached and disrespected the same. The nights I went out with Tisha that summer were marred by crudeness and insults.
“DAMN shawty, that ass is PHAT! Where you goin’ lookin’ like that? Can me and my boys come too?”
“Come get this dick girl’, another yells, grabbing at his crotch.
“Oooh wee, (a) fly ass red bitch and a thick chocolate bitch? I’ll turn BOTH of them bitches out!”
Back in 2001 the term street harassment didn’t exist. When I first heard the term in 2012 I was fascinated that someone had taken the time to give a name to what I’d gone through from the time I started wearing a training bra. For as annoyed and threatened as I felt by the way young men in my community talked to us, I never thought to call it harassment. It was just so prevalent and normalized that I viewed it as a tax I paid for being born a girl.
I wince at the memory of a particularly nasty incident Tisha and I experienced a few weeks later. Even after all these years I blame myself on some level for what happened. We knew better than to speak to men from our ethnic group in public if we sensed they were attracted to us but the feeling wasn’t mutual. But the 5’9 guy walking with his friends near us was polite, so I thought me might be a good guy…
“Evening ladies, how ya’ll doing tonight”, he asked, grinning at us. I made eye contact and returned his greeting.
“We are good, just glad to be out enjoying the night”, I replied. Tisha and I didn’t break stride though. We didn’t want to linger on the street any longer than necessary. And that was when his demeanor changed.
“OH, so you BITCHES think you’re too good to stop and talk to a brotha? This is why I hate fuckin’ with Black BITCHES, YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO ACT”, he thundered as his boys laughed and gave him a pound for putting us in our place. I was LIVID, immediately tensing with anger. Tisha, noticing the change in my body language and slowing of my gait, gripped my arm.
“FUCK THAT CLOWN”, she whispered through gritted teeth, “just keep walking.” Fully aware of what the verbal confrontation could quickly escalate to a physical one if I protested, I heeded Tisha’s words. But he continued yelling abuse at us anyway.
“Triflin’ ass BITCHES! Yo, they weren’t that cute anyway”, he said, turning to his friends. “And look at how close they’re walking together, probably a pair of dyke hoes anyway! Hey come back, I wanna know which one of you licks the pussy!”
Tisha looked back, shooting him an icy glare full of contempt and disgust. It wasn’t the first time we’d been accused of being lesbians. Firm in the belief that their lust was a blessing we should be grateful for, “brothas” would respond to our disinterest with that assumption. What other reason could we have to reject such fine specimens of manhood, who felt no shame in yelling and cursing at women in the streets?
Thankfully our pest didn’t follow us, satisfied with taunts alone. But my hands were still shaking as I held the glass of Malibu rum and Coke I ordered as soon as we made it to the bar. In spite of my generations’ dismissal of the power of words, I knew there was something very toxic and spiteful in the dehumanizing language AA girls and women were subjected to within the community.
I could be in sweats and Nikes coming from class; headed to work in modest heels and loose slacks;standing in line outside of a club in four-inch stilettos and a fitted dress, and the result would be the same. I couldn’t force basic courtesy and decency from boys and men in my community who were not trained(and didn’t want) to do so. I viewed my travels to and from work school as necessities; night life was not. Completely eliminating unpleasantness in public wasn’t possible, but if I abstained from going out to party with friends I could at least reduce it.
The other factor that dampened my enthusiasm for partying was the risk of violence at certain venues. On a few occasions my crew broke precedent, opting to check out clubs that primarily catered to the hip-hop crowd. That was a mistake! Running for my life in heels wasn’t my idea of a good time, but the odds of having to do so were high at clubs who played hip-hop and whose clientele was predominately African-American and under thirty years old. Unless you wanted to get shot, stabbed or caught in the path of stampeding patrons it was common sense to avoid them.
Even now I’m ambivalent when I hear claims of racial bias leveled at clubs where hip-hop isn’t welcome and/or strict dress codes banning “urban” gear are implemented. I can concede that some level of racial animus may be in play. At the same time hip-hop and loose dress codes do tend to attract the destructively violent, “shoot up the mothaf*$#@&’ club” crowd in my city. I couldn’t judge the club owners who shied away from the risk of hosting the events or the “NIMBY” mentality of neighborhoods who gave them a chilly reception, for their aversion matched mine.
Tisha shared my disenchantment with night life. “This is wild“, she said as we chatted on our Nokia cell phones in September”,it hasn’t even been two months since your birthday but we are both ready to retire from clubbing!” I laughed with her.
“Yes I know. But really, it’s not like we are missing out on anything”, I replied, and I meant it.
The next month I stood in an empty one-bedroom apartment, the smile on my face brighter than the noonday sun. It wasn’t just any apartment, it was my first rental.
“Are you sure you want to do this”, Idris called out as he emerged from the bedroom, his inspection of the unit completed. “Living on your own is very different from living with your family. You know you will have to furnish the unit and buy everything from scratch”. I shook my head at him and smiled.
“Yes, I’m aware”, I said, laughing at him.”I already bought my bed, a futon for the living room and a TV. You are still going to be free to help me move, right?”
“Of course, do you think I’d let you do that alone”, Idris asked, extending his arms out to me. I walked into his embrace, then we locked up and left to grab dinner.
Three years after graduating high school I was content. Turning eighteen, securing full-time employment, picking my own place of worship and leaving my Grandma’s house were experiences which served to move me closer to where I wanted to be; but were not enough for me to say I was independent. It was only when I tasted the sweetness of self-sufficiency that I could say I was an adult, and the exhilaration of that day has never left me.