Head-Roc’s Mouth: Race and Musical Chairs on the S2
An occasional feature in which esteemed D.C. rapper Head-Roc shares what’s on his mind.
When people tell me I've accused them of racism in instances where I've highlighted injustices that descendants of enslaved Africans deal with every day, I respond by saying, “Well, I didn’t say it was racism… but since you’ve brought it up, prove to me it’s not.”
Everything about society stems racism, and I find it mind-boggling that people still possess the complacency to say otherwise.
Sadly, it takes horrific events like the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin or 68-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. to remind Americans that racism against black people in the U.S. is still alive and festering. Because these events are usually so brutal and overwhelmingly unjust, the response and attention they receive are, rightfully so, often emotionally extreme. Similarly, the response and attention in the media is overwhelmingly sensationalistic, and in most cases inflammatory.
In my opinion, the reason why is because we as a society don’t address the racism we see every day. We are afraid to. We have been bullied into believing that laws on the books ratified as a result of our country’s ongoing civil rights saga represent the final chapter in America’s dark history—a founding, expansion, growth, wealth, and global dominance rooted in the promotion of white supremacy by way of subjugating all other races and cultures.
I was inspired to write this piece by an experience on the S2 bus on 16th Street NW headed northbound in the late afternoon on Saturday, May 26. I boarded the bus downtown after transferring from the 32 bus, which I caught at the Potomac Avenue Metro station after being dropped off by a friend. We parted ways after attending noted community activist Maceo Thomas’ annual Memorial Day Weekend potluck cookout, east of the river in the Fort Dupont Park neighborhood.
I don’t always sit in the very back of the bus, but I am certainly no stranger to it. In fact, I always look to see if one of my two favorite seats is available—either of the last window seats in the back. They sit higher than the rest of seats on the bus and provide what I think is the best view to watch D.C. go by as my make my way somewhere. Coincidentally, these are my daughter’s favorite seats on the Metrobus too, and when they are occupied she shows her disappointment. Usually this means sitting in the back of the bus somewhere close to these seats, and eyeballing the occupants until they leave. Then, we go get the seats for ourselves!
On this day I was alone, and one of my favorite seats was available. As the bus made its stops in downtown I watched it fill up the way it normally does. From front to back, as we make our way up 16th Street NW, the color gradient goes from white to black. Not perfectly, but pretty much so. On this trip, there were four of “us” in the back of the bus. By “us” I mean black men: two of us in the window seats in the very back, a brother sitting in one of the side facing seats on the driver’s side, and another brother sitting in the next group of seats facing forward on the same side. The back of the bus was not filled at all. There were at least two sets of two seats together that were available to be taken by anyone riding the bus.
The front of the bus, however, was filling up fast. As we made our way along the bus route, I watched the usual game of “which seat to take now that there are no completely empty rows of seats on the bus?" It’s like watching a game show. You could bet money that the seats next to the people with darkest skin color, especially in the case where they were male, would be the last seats taken. It’s not a new game either. It’s been going on ever since black people were “legally” allowed to ride buses in America.
At a certain point in the trip it became obvious that the only available seats left for people who wanted to sit together were in the back of the bus with us, the four black men. Now, when many are faced with the option of having to sit next to or in a group of black men, they opt out of doing so. They’d rather stand and be uncomfortable, even as the bus fills up from the back doors located just past the middle of the bus on up to the front. Not many people in D.C. will venture into the dreaded back of the bus to seek comfort in a perfectly good seat in the midst of fellow Americans who are of African descent.
On this day, I noticed that a mixed couple standing on the platform by the rear doors. With the front of the bus filled up to the point where there were no two seats together, they were faced with the critical decision: either stand or venture to the back of the bus and sit among us, the four black men. I watched the man and who I assumed is his lady—I could be wrong about that—look back at us and then turn their heads the opposite way, toward the front of the bus, which they just walked through to get to us. Perhaps they had made a mistake and missed two seats together on their way back...
I watched the couple do the exact same sweep of the bus three more times. It was obvious they were looking for a place to sit together. One of the brothers sitting near me—the one sitting in the row in front of the side-facing seats——also noticed them assessing the seating situation. Of the four of us, he was the closest to them. In an act of kindness, the brother offered his seat to the couple and moved further to the back of the bus, just in front of me.
The couple politely refused the seats, even as the brother politely insisted as he got up and moved to the side-facing seats in front of me. They still refused. I said to the brother, “Man, they don’t want to sit next to us.” I didn’t really think I said it that loud, but I did intend for the brother to hear what I said. In retrospect, I think I offered it as comfort to him for his random act of kindness.
The man in the couple heard me and mentioned something about not being afraid to come back and sit among us. I repeated what I said and adjusted my statement (and tone) to address him directly, “You don’t want to come back here and sit with us, brother.” We went back and forth a few times, and in the process the man motioned his lady to sit in the seats offered by the brother. Then he came to the back row of seats and sat down right next to me.
He asked why I made him out to be racist because he and his lady didn’t take the open seats in the back of the bus with us. I explained to him that I did not call him racist, but that I did say that it was obvious they weren’t comfortable sitting among us. I pointed out that I watched him scan the bus four times front to back, after having walked through the crowded bus to get to the back, and that they opted to stand rather than sit with us. I told him how even after the brother offered his seat to him and his lady that they still refused to sit. I told him how it was not anything unique to him, but that it part of a systemic negative opinion of black people—black men in particular—that makes people who are not of African descent reluctant to even be in close proximity to us. In other words, we black men deal with this kind of thing on a daily basis.
We had a bit of a back and forth about the sequence of events and their reasoning regarding their preferred seating choice. In particular, we disagreed on what motivated the vrother to give up his seat. I tried to educate him: The uncomfortable look on the couple’s faces moved the brother's heart, so he offered it to them. The man insisted it was not and then proceeded, with the brother right there next to us, to explain why the brother gave up his seat. I said we should let the brother tell us why he gave up the seats.
Turns out it was for the reasons that I had pointed out. Even after the brother relayed the reasons why he offered his seat to the couple, the man persisted that he was not scared to come sit in the back of the bus with us. I simply told him that he was not being honest.
The man then told me how he was from San Francisco and that he was aware of such prejudices in his town, and that he would never participate in such behavior. He told me how he sympathized with how black people struggle in this country. It was at this point that the brother who gave up the seat to began to speak.
Now, all three of us are talking and going back and forth. Once we established finally (again) that the brother gave up his seat because he saw the couple was uncomfortable coming any further back, I took the opportunity to let the man know that black people live everyday with this “knowledge” and “feeling.” In fact, I let him know, and everyone else on the bus, that it indeed “hurts our feelings” that people so obviously and fearfully avoid sitting next to black men on public transportation. I was honest.
Throughout the bus I could see various reactions from other riders. In particular, there was a white couple that had taken seats in the back of the bus with us just behind the back doors. They were looking back and listening to our conversation, producing very out-of-place laughs as they appeared to be having their own discussion about what was going on. I pointed out to the man now sitting next to me that this couple was doing that because they were uncomfortable and probably were looking for way to join the conversation, but did not know how to, thinking that their expressions would create a pause in our action. It did not, and we ignored them.
I was emotional but was cool. (My musical mentor, Dwayne Lee of GODISHEUS and Da Mixx Band, always tell me to “be cool!”) I backed out of the conversation between myself, the man, and the brother for a moment to stay cool. When my ears caught up to the conversation again, I heard the brother recommend the couple a book to read about the experience of black people in this country fighting against overwhelming racial prejudice. The book he recommended to them was The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
I almost burst into tears. I asked him to repeat himself. He confirmed he had recommended The Warmth of Other Suns. I immediately went into my backpack and pulled out the book my ex-wife had recommended I read. She said it gave her valuable insight into just how brutal the mistreatment and sabotage of Africans and their descendents in the US was—and she was already very knowledgeable about the topic. I am about halfway through the book and I have had it for months now. I should be finished. I can only take it on a little at a time because I get so emotional reading the story of how my people have survived in the U.S. despite the will to defeat us in every way—even unto this day. And that includes all attempts by popular society to shush and ridicule us when we call out the ugly truth of prejudice against descendants of enslaved Africans.
The brother and I took up a dialogue about how we had connected based on the fact that we both were fans of the same book, not to mention the uncanny coincidence that he would mention it randomly (or not so) in the presence of people he had not met before, and that I would have the book on my person.
Somewhere in the conversation the man from the couple moved a few seats up to sit with his lady, but before he left I let him know that as an artist I work on race and social justice issues. I handed him a copy of The “Empower DC” Project, which I also passed along to the brother (with whom I also exchanged contact information). Turned out he is an artist, as well.
The bus arrived at my stop and I stepped off. As I walked past the front of the bus, the driver, a black man, gave me the biggest grin and thumbs up. It was a teaching moment. The kind that needs to take place in very corner of this country on a daily basis when prejudice, injustice, and Racism rear their heads. This is how we have always moved America forward. Collectively, our ancestors paid the price to show us the way and it’s time to honor them by implementing the lessons learned from our victories…as well as the defeats. To remain silent or complacent is always a defeat.