This story is alternatively titled, That One Time I Almost Fought a Racist Grandma. She was taller than me, but I think I could’ve taken her.
Thanksgiving dinner saw my little family take a drive down I-20 to see relatives in Columbia, South Carolina. There is little to do in Columbia outside of shopping and wearing USC Gamecocks tee shirts while shopping. So the family went shopping.
Our aunt took us to Columbia’s historic downtown, a charming Main Street with faded shops and white tent flea markets. We visited Mast General Store and I nearly bought seven pounds of candy from the dozens of barrels packed with Chico Sticks, Coca Cola gummies, licorice, Fun Dip, and other old school favorites. The thought of a dentist’s bill made me chill on the sweets.
The store fronts along the street were dusty but artfully decorated. One men’s clothing store displayed a pimptastic zebra-print men’s dress shoe. It came with a matching belt, so we HAD to go inside. The room was tiny, no bigger than 600 square feet, crammed with racks of suits with pinstripes of which only Steve Harvey would approve. A middle-aged man and a tiny elderly woman wearing a Christmas sweater greeted us. We all exchanged hellos.
I should pause here to describe who “we” were. “We” were the only black people in the room. We were six deep, split evenly with tall males and short females. Africa manifests itself strongly in my husband’s family, in skin colored richly like fertile soil and dense, coily hair that lends itself to the manes of locs worn by my husband and his cousin. One of the men wore a gray sweatshirt hoodie and windbreaker pants. One of the cousins, the one with locs, is built like a running back, because, well, he is one. My afro bloomed wild and happy as usual.
Funny how you never categorize all the ways you might seem threatening to another person until someone treats you like you actually threatened them.
We headed to the back of the store where we marveled at what appeared to be Bishop Don Magic Juan’s armoire. Gators, snakes, and eelskin, oh my! And…manta ray skin shoes? Oh. Yes. I lightly grazed a steel-toed wingtip, feeling the coolness of metal against my finger. “Handle with care,” a septuagenarian voice wound itself around my hand, and I snapped to attention. I didn’t recall picking anything up. Syrupy smile on her face, Grandma stood no less than five feet away from us, talons gripping the clothing rack for dear life. The younger man also minding the store was still near the counter, busy doing storekeeper stuff. Her eyes never wavered from us. I hadn’t even realized she was stalking us.
I wondered aloud, quite loudly, if those eelskin shoes were actually worth $490.00. Grandma stayed fixed on her perch. Staring. Smiling. So I figured, when in Columbia, do as the potentially racist do: I pointedly turned my head and stared. Unsmiling.
It turns out there is little variation in the land of pimp wear, so we left before my staring contest could become epic. A cousin’s stride was a little too brisk for Grandma; she warned, ” Walk slowly, please.” Nobody was running.
My baby girl had lost a shoe in the back of the store. I went back in to get and Grandma followed me all the way to the end wall. When I picked up the shoe, she motioned for me to walk on the opposite side of the aisle of raggedy Iceberg Slim reject suits. I looked her right in the face and stalked out the way I came in.
True to Southern hospitality, she wished us a good day as we filed out. I had lost all my home training and let the cat hold my tongue before I started something foolish with it.
I don’t know why Grandma felt the need to watch us looking at her gaudy footwear and argyle printed fedoras. But I know it angered me.
I have never been so closely and blatantly studied in a store. But this is America, after all. And if black people can be followed and unjustly arrested in a New York Barney’s, then why not a country-bama closet in deep South Carolina?
There is a need, a yearning, really, to put a name to this sticky tarred feeling I cannot dissolve from my gut. I want to call it racism, profiling, something familiar and comforting to explain the unexplainable. This is why I took stock of our “negatives”: dark skin, too many black people at one time, dreadlocks, maleness, muscles, afros, hoodies. What made us worthy? In the end, it doesn’t matter. You will always resemble a criminal if that’s what people have deluded themselves into seeing when they stare at you.