Racism, racial barriers, racial bias, overcoming racism
I crossed the road and veered right towards our sister building – a student hall of residence. I was billed to meet up with friends at the lobby. It was a rare sunny September day in London. The greens of Regents Park were teeming with sun worshipers who flocked to the Park in great numbers to get much needed dose of the sunshine this late in the year. As soon as I turned, I saw her laboring up the stairs of the train station. I guessed she was at least eighty five years of age. She had a hunchback, which left her bending painfully as she climbed one mighty step at a time out of Regents Park Station. At her snail’s speed, I wondered how long it would take her to get home. In one hand she had a walking stick to support herself, and in the other were a few bags that seemed too heavy for her age. As soon as she had ascended the last step onto ground level, she slowly stepped aside so as not to impede incoming and outgoing passengers at the station. She dropped her bags and stood, or shall I say bent over, supporting herself with her walking stick. From a distance, I could tell she was in pain from walking. People walked hurriedly by in typical London style. I could not help but worry how she was going to make it home. I slowed down, wondering whether I should offer a helping hand.
She hunkered down and picked up her bags. Slowly, she trudged laboriously towards Harley Street. I pretended to be watching squirrels squabbling over a nut in the tree. I hardly paid attention to them. My eyes and mind were squarely fixated on her. I could tell she was in pain by the grimace on her face. No doubt, she was a tough woman. Burdened by pain and the weight of her grocery, she soldiered on; one slow step at a time. Somebody has to help her, I thought to myself. I had only arrived in London a few weeks back, so all of my African norms and values were very much pristine; unscathed by the frenetic pace of modern life in cosmopolitan London. Obviously, this was normal to everyone else because they nonchalantly walked by; barely noticing the old woman and her harrowing labor.
“Let me help you Mam,” I offered. I could no longer stand and watch. Standing there and watching hoping that some else would do the dirty job would have left a bitter taste in my mother’s mouth. She always emphasized to my siblings and I to always offer a helping hand to the elderly and the disabled. My experience in the few weeks I had been in London had indicated that everyone kept to themselves in the big city; a code I was unwilling to subscribe to, yet. The burden of walking by and carrying on as though I had not noticed her would have stalked me for a long time to come. She sluggishly squinted up at me. All of a sudden, I could sense fear in her eyes. Tired and hindered, she tightened her grip on her grocery bags as hard as her eighty-something-year old hands could go. She became shaky; visibly petrified. She wanted to say something, but I could see fear choking her voice; snatching words away from her. Nonplused, I wondered what I could have done wrong. “Sorry Mam, is everything okay? I can help you with the bags to your house if you don’t mind,” I politely offered once again, stretching my hand toward her. “Thanks I am fine,” she managed to say. Her words were barely audible. Her shaking had intensified. I could tell she needed a breather; some rest from the standing, but she was not willing to let go of her precious bags; not under the circumstance.
“Okay Mam, take it easy,” I said with disappointment. As I began to walk away, I wondered why she would not accept my offer. Then, she dropped her bags and slowly angled her neck to take another look at me. I was leaving slowly, hoping she’d have a change of heart. I was looking back at her the same time she had turned to look at me. Our eyes met. Then, it struck me. I turned back and walked back to her. “I am black but I am not going to hurt you,” I said with righteous indignation. I did not have the time to be diplomatic. I had to say it as I saw it. “I mean, I won’t steal your bags Mam,” I clarified. “Oh no! It has nothing to do with that,” she shot back at me. She was not a good liar. Her eyes and demeanor said a different thing altogether. “Then let me help you Mam. My name is Victor. I am an African student. I live over there,” I insisted, pointing at my building. As I spoke, I miraculously managed a smile on my face. “Oh, I see a lot of students from Africa around here,” she said. A feeble smile sauntered across her face. “Yes, most of us live at the International Students House there and there,” I said, pointing at both buildings from a distance. “So where are you from?” “Nigeria.” “My father worked in Nigeria back in the day. I spent some time in Lagos as a child,” she said. Her smile was growing warmer and I could sense she was less afraid. “I lived in Lagos before moving to London.” “It was a beautiful place back then, many years ago.” I saw her eyes glow as she reminisced on the yesteryears. “It is different now. I still find it very beautiful, I guess in a different way than when you last saw it.” “I am sure it has changed a lot,” she replied.
“Grab my bags. My place is just over there,” she finally offered. I leaned over, grabbed the bags in my right hand and offered her my left hand for extra support. She took my hand. We chatted garrulously about Lagos and Kano as we walked to her house. I found she was well versed in Nigeria and the rest of Africa. She told me they lived in Nigeria, Zambia, Ghana, Botswana and Lesotho back in the day. She squeezed my hand kindly as we neared her house. When we got to her front door, I helped her up the steps. She slowly rummaged through her purse which had been hanging quietly on her shoulder and dug up her key. “Do you care for coffee?” She offered as she squeezed the key in the keyhole. Her old, weak hands shook as she performed the herculean task of opening the door. “No thanks!” I replied. “I won’t take no for answer. You have to come in,” she insisted. “No Mam!” I said, holding my stance. I stepped in a little, just to drop her bags on the side table near the door. I did not want to spend too long in her house due to my ‘blackness’. I was worried that if anything should go awry for any reason, I could be an easy target. “Now you are being silly about this race thing,” she accused me. She understood why I did not want to stay. Grudgingly, I stayed. “I don’t drink coffee Mam. Water will do,” I said closing her front door. She took hr grocery bags to the kitchen.
Her house was impeccably furnished. A gorgeous chandelier hung off the ceiling, illuminating the living room with exquisite finesse. The walls were impeccably adorned with paintings that reeked of ‘high end’. Slowly and carefully she returned, negotiating around the couches in her living room with a cup of water in hand. She sat opposite me and said, “I am sorry.” I was not expecting that. I glared at her. I was trying not to embarrass her, so I did not know what to say. “I mean about earlier on. You were right. I guess at my age I can admit things like that. After all, I haven’t got much time here, so they can’t send me to jail,” she joked. “Sometimes you don’t quite realize you have thoughts like that in you, but with all the stuff in the news you know…it gets in your head and before you know it, you find yourself worried and scared when facing a black person.” I had never seen such sincerity. At the time, a lot of stabbings and thefts at knife point were going on in London, and most of the arrested perpetrators happened to be black. “It is okay Mam. I understand; with everything going on,” I said trying to put her at ease. “No, it is not. I should know better than treat every black person like that; after all I lived in Africa for a long time.” “We all have things we have to keep working on you know,” I said. “At my age if I have not figure things like this out, then I must be dumb. I should know better. I am sorry Victor.”
She did remember my name. “Mam, it’s over. I accept your apology. Age has nothing to do with it. Like you said; with all the things flying around in the news your perception can be easily high jacked, in a very subtle way.” “I know you are trying to give me a way out, which is nice, but the truth is that I goofed.” “Your goof is forgiven Mam.” She smiled. “It is good to talk to someone, you know. My husband died a year ago. Cancer! It has been a torrid time without him around. I can’t wait to be with the Lord; to see my husband again. Are you married?” “No, I am not. I am sorry about your husband,” I answered, trying to imagine the depth of her pain. “Thanks. I sure miss him.” We sat in silence for a moment and then she said, “Come around and talk to an old woman when you have the time. I promise I will let you in despite your skin color,” she said jokingly. “And I will come right in despite your skin color,” I replied.
She insisted on walking me to the door when I was leaving. She squeezed my hand firmly. Her eyes were filled with kindness and tenderness. “You must visit Victor,” she said. Her tone was imbued with authority. She sounded like my grandmother extracting a promise from me to come and visit her. “I will come by Mrs. Robinson. It is a promise.” She waved as I descended the stairs and headed towards Great Portland Street. I did go back to visit Mrs. Robinson once or twice a week, sometimes with a friend or two. It was always refreshing to see her, and she always made sure she gave my hand a gentle squeeze before I left, and even though she knew I’d come back, she never failed to remind me to do so, which I did. One afternoon, I went over only to be greeted by movers. Mrs. Robinson had died. Her son who lived abroad was selling the place; the movers told me. As I walked along the same path knowing that I would ever see her again, a stream of tears threatened to invade the corridors of my eyes, and soon it was descending down my face. I was glad I met her. I am still glad I knew her for a short while before she passed away. Most of all, I am pleased that I did not walk away from her with a notion that did not truly reflect the kind and loving person she truly was!
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