Of Trains

On Sunday, I took a late flight back to Boston from San Diego. I was fortunate to get the flight that would get me back in Beantown at 11:30 p.m. Sunday, instead of my original flight that would have arrived at 10 a.m. Monday. I passed the time on the long flight by sleeping, listening to Prince on my iPod and reading the first two chapters of John Stauffer’s incredible dual biography, “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln” What struck me were three particular instances in which Douglass road trains. In 1838, he of course escaped to freedom on a B&O train. In 1863, he took a long, dusty train ride, again on the B&O to meet President Lincoln in Washington. And in 1841, while working as abolitionist orator, he had to be physically and violently removed from a first class car of a train when he refused to go to the segregated car. It took a half dozen men to, “snake out the damn nigger.” By the time they kicked him off the train, he had literally ripped his seat out of the floor in his resistance. Hardcore. Douglass probably took hundreds of train rides in his life, but these three are examples of his strength and the sacrifices he and others made for people like me. So I land at 11:30 and catch the shuttle bus from Logan to South Station. As I waited at the South Station train station for the train to Harvard Yard, a young black woman – perhaps 22 – arrived on the platform spewing profanity. She was high or drunk, probably both. She said something about Obama and how she hated white people. Aside from her and including me, there were 5 black people in our train car. The rest were white and Asian. The more we road, the louder and more profane she got. It is funny, when things like that happen, how everyone else communicates with each other. The other black passengers shook their heads and when we made eye contact, we non-verbally acknowledged how embarrassing she was. The white folks looked at us as well. With their eyes, they told us to do or say something. All I can do is shrug and avert my eyes to them. I was embarrassed. One black guy got off at Kendall Square and yelled at the girl. Said she was sickening and an embarrassment. A white woman got off at the same time – I don’t know if they were together – but the drunken woman started cursing at him for being a sell-out. But what were the rest of us to do?

         Do we – I mean the black people – ignore her? I mean, she was annoying and disrespecting us as well.

         Do we say something to her? Come to the defense of the white people in the car? They clearly wanted us to say something.

         In the end, we said nothing. No one said anything. We all just tried to ignore her. By ignoring her, we pretended that it wasn’t happening. Hoping that the stain that she was making on the race would not splash on us. I have been thinking about that girl all week. What would I have done had she been white? Of if she was offending a train full of elderly or disabled people. I have also been thinking about her in relationship to Douglass. About Obama and what his election means to America, and to black folks. We have come a long way since the days of Douglass. Obama is living proof to that. But that girl on the train proves that we still have a ways to go.

Read this book

Read this book


Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 2:47 am  Leave a Comment  

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