By Lydia Nayo
Governor Newsom’s call, in March 2020, to shelter in place felt, and still feels, like a no-brainer: the easiest place in the world to be is in my light-filled, colorful home of 20-odd years.
Here, surrounded by things I love, with my partner of more than three decades, I could imagine weathering the storm of a viral pandemic. After a day in the world at large, I shrug off the world as I drive up narrow, winding streets, past the remains of eucalyptus groves studded with examples of Oakland’s diverse, sometimes quirky architecture. Bring it, governor, we got books, we got music, and we are between two regional park staging areas. We can shelter happily and safely in place.
Home has always been sacred, the most private of places. It’s where the bra comes off and the feet are bare.
Where I imagine that all risk of harm is beyond my purple front door. When I climb that last run of the 54 stairs between the street and my front door, and turn the key in the lock, I expect safety. Refuge.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not a curmudgeon. Yet. I love engaging with people socially and working with people. I relish a good meal shared with friends. I delight at finding new restaurants or haunting old favorites. Meeting folks for breakfast is one of my favorite decadences. I share confidences over tea with yoga buddies, enjoy long catch-up walks and talks with kindred spirits, pausing to catch some unexpected, amazing Bay views. I laugh heartily about the vagaries of coupled life with female friends. Out in the world. At their houses.
I’m not, however, an easy host. I have never been comfortable with my culinary skills, and I am nobody’s housekeeper. It takes a lot for me to relax enough to have family and friends over for holiday meals; I have a low-grade fever of anxiety going until the last person takes the last container of leftovers out the door and the work of resetting my house begins. I do it because I love these people. And need them.
What I do not do easily, or hardly at all, is invite White people into my personal space.
Time spent in the world that racism built can be a minefield for an African American woman: one never knows when a grenade of hurt will be lobbed, or by whom. Or how much damage will be done.
The seed of my reluctance to open my most private of spaces to white people was planted during my segregated Philadelphia childhood. We moved into the neighborhood in the middle of White Flight. Eventually, white people who crossed the threshold of the overcrowded row house my family of seven shared, came only to either collect insurance premiums, or pass judgement for some arm of social services.
Indignities involving white people pocked my childhood. My earliest memory of being dehumanized dates back to third grade. My Black teacher thought I’d be a good candidate for a magnet school for gifted and talented children. I had to be evaluated by two white (male) psychologists, cause it wasn’t easily believable that little brown me was worthy of the Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School. I still say I was one of the eggs broken, in 1960, for the omelet of equal access to education. Which still isn’t a reality.
In the lifetime since Masterman, I have had innumerable encounters with racism and its centering of whiteness. Some stung, some glanced off me, and still others have threatened my sense of myself. Some left scars that require healing repeatedly. Consistently home, however it has been configured over the years, is where I have retreated to escape from, recover from or avoid the impact.
Like the fellow student who asked what I was going to do with Georgetown University law degree. I no longer even recall his name, but I remember that he was convinced that a law firm wouldn’t hire me, a slightly older Black woman, after graduation. He was the prize the firms were looking for: white, male, and second generation lawyer. Back in my apartment, I grieved his assumption and wondered if he was right.
Like the remark made by a white colleague at Loyola Law school, where I taught for six years. I swallowed my generalized hosting anxiety and invited the women’s caucus in for a meeting.
“All your art is Black art,” she said, her voice tinged with a kind of wonder. She wasn’t wrong. My home was, and continues to be, brimming with two-and-three-dimensional art by and/or depicting Black people. And of course, the photos of my predominately Black family have pride of place. I wondered, in quiet moments, why that surprised her so.
Racism can be death by a thousand cuts. Small moments of swimming upstream from assumptions made that have only to do with my blackness.
I do not know the price of the avocados, any more than any of the other half dozen people standing in the produce section do. I do not have an international accent, whatever that means. Folks just have a limited perception of how Black people sound, thanks to the entertainment industry. Yes, I went to Georgetown University’s law school. Howard University is a good school, but not all black people who go to school in D.C. attend the Black law school.
The times I have been asked if I know Ms. X, who lives a half-mile down at the other end of the winding road I live on. I have never lost a bet that Ms. X is African American, like me. I rarely am asked about Mr. Y, who is not.
It takes energy. Deciding whether to decode, explain, justify, or ignore a remark, a slight, or a slur involving another group.
Reminding myself that no harm was meant becomes a prayer, oft repeated, so that my fancy restaurant breakfast isn’t reduced to ashes in my mouth. Getting my reality challenged by White people who want to discount my assertion that an encounter, a comment, was about race. They have heard similar comments from people, and it can’t be about race, since they are White, right?
Finding outlets for rage, disappointment, sorrow and amazement. Outlets are important, because racism isn’t my whole life: I’m mother, grandmother, friend, professional, spouse, and sister. I run. I practice yoga. I read fiction like it’s a day job.
I know every white person I interact is not a foaming-at-the-mouth racist spewing hate. Those people don’t seek out my company. However, not knowing who is likely to say or do something, benignly intended, that dehumanizes Black people in general, or me, in particular, can be heart-breaking. If I let it.
Home is my respite from the risk of encountering and then having to respond to anybody’s unconscious bias. Where I do not have to parse whether what she just said was just an entitled lack of awareness of life beyond her chosen circle.
Home is where I am all the multitudes that I contain, not limited by someone’s lazy imagination or prior experience with a person with whom I share a skin color.
At home, I am my most authentic self. I got this pandemic. I’ve been dealing with the pandemic of racism for almost seven decades, after all.