“I traveled 70 states; thought moving around would make me feel better.” – Solange Knowles, “Cranes in the Sky”
My ancestors built this country, but I feel so much safer outside of it.
Two years ago, when I turned twenty-nine, I became resolved to see the world. I was determined to go, do, and be more than what white America said I was capable of. I knew this would require sacrifice. I’m not wealthy, and I don’t have extra to spend. So, I’ve been living a disciplined lifestyle, buying only what I really need. As of today, I’ve tucked my small brown body into the corners of many countries, from Cuba to Dubai. By connecting with Black and brown people throughout the globe, I’ve found a freedom unmatched.
But last week, on my journey back home, my heart broke as I was forced to deal with the hypocrisy of a country that blatantly devalues Black people, but claims justice and freedom for all.
In Morocco, these were my notes:
Running through the souks, locals lovin’ my melanin, admiring awe-inspiring architecture, drinking all the mint tea the city has to offer….I’ve never been to a country where I’m called “Bella” and “Beautiful” across gender lines as much as Morocco. Skin color, body shape, hair style & my loud-ass laughter.
Twenty four hours later, in an airport in Virginia, I was surrounded by three police officers and forced to exit the terminal and banned from United Airlines altogether. The Black girl magic that shone in Morocco was too loud, too bright, too strong, too much for this broken country.
As dope as Morocco was, I knew what it meant to miss New Orleans. I was ready to be home where there was a beautiful, brown man expecting me, a night of dancing until the wee hours of the morning and a soft bed that knew my body’s print. All three of which I desperately craved after an enjoyable but demanding trip.
But, instead of boarding my flight home I was wrestling with a dream deferred. One of United Airline’s finest had given me the wrong gate number. In retrospect, this was ironic. He was so self-assured when I asked, “Can you tell me my departure gate? I just don’t want to get lost.” He rolled his blue eyes in annoyance. He circled the code on my boarding pass with his index finger as if I couldn’t read. “Gate B-40, go that way,” but “that way” was wrong.
A shuttle ride later I was running up two flights of escalators to gate C-27. I got there just in time to see the doors of my flight closing. I was frustrated, but hopeful, as a warm Black woman touched my shoulder and shared that customer service could likely get me rescheduled and out tonight.
I didn’t attempt to mask my discontentment as I approached United’s service counter. Nor did I think I had to. Airports are full of frustrated people bemoaning their delays and cancelled transfers.
To the left of me, a white woman is doing just that:
“How hard is it to do your fucking job?” she asked. Her flight to London is five hours delayed. She’s staring in dismay at the team behind the desk, demanding a change. They’re sullen, but cooperative.
Her scolding becomes background noise as I hand my boarding pass to a sweet-faced employee, and she begins to type in my information. After about five minutes she looks up and says, “Ma’am, there’s nothing we can do for you tonight. Maybe we can fly you out tomorrow morning…”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “There are three airports in the area and you mean to tell me that I can’t get out after United’s wrong directions made me miss my flight home? This is unacceptable! Fix it. Do right by your customers.”
A white United employee rushes over to reprimand me, “Lower your voice right now!” she growls.
I reply that I had a right to be angry just like all the other displeased customers around us, who happen to all be white.
The young white woman to my left chimes in, “You all are so damn inconsiderate. How does United even stay in business?” Nobody flinches.
The employee who told me to quiet down then turns toward to me. She snatches my boarding passes out of her colleague’s hands, slams them over my face onto the counter and yells, “Get out of here, girl! We said there’s nothing we can do. Go, go…GO!”
I’m irate by her blatant disrespect and in a reflex reaction to something being thrown in my face, I pushed a large tumbler sitting between our two bodies her way. It bursts open as it hit the desk and hot coffee splashes all over her work uniform.
She shrieked as if I had brandished a knife. This makes me even angrier. “Get me out of here tonight! I am not playing with you people. Fix this shit,” I said.
In the corner of my eye, I see a group of white men get up. I see their faces turn red with disgust. I turn to address them. “I don’t care if I’m disturbing your peace. I am unafraid. I am unafraid!”
The white attendant yells that she’s calling the police. I look at her and continue, “I am unafraid. Call them.”
Soon there are three officers on the scene for 5’3, buck fifty pound me.
The Black officer tells me I’m trespassing at this point because there aren’t any flights for me right now. One of the two white officers approached me in kind. He explains that he’s very empathetic to what’s happening but that I’ll have to go downstairs to arrivals to handle the dispute. He then says, “This isn’t on topic, but I really like your Black Women Are for Grown-Ups shirt, I’ll have to buy that for my wife.”
I share that I create these shirts. That I’m a writer, an educator and just a good person trying to get home – certainly not the monster that I’m being painted.
He responds, “When I don’t do my job I end up on the front news of the paper. Here, there is no accountability, and for that I’m sorry.”
But there was accountability. There was deference for every distressed white customer at the service desk. Just not for me in this body. I am too weary to say this out loud.
He grabs my heavy bag, walks me to the shuttle and offers me a hug. I take it. I linger on his shoulder a bit more than I should. I weep. He let’s me because we both know something evil happened back there. Something that can’t quite be put into words.
Once back at arrivals, I head to the ticketing counter to re-book my flight, but a United employee lets me know that my ticket home has been refunded without my consent and that I am banned from flying their airline again. She’s an older Black woman with kind eyes like my aunt. She offers what she thinks might be comfort:
“I’m so sorry ma’am. You don’t have to take my advice, but maybe next time you’d do better not to let your anger overtake you…” she says.
I slowly walk away and bury my emotions. After all of my careful planning, all my saving in advance, I was buying a new ticket hours before a flight.
My best friend drives from D.C. to Virginia to pick me up. He reminds me that I’m entitled to my rage and we jam out to Solange’s “Mad.” Singing at the top of our lungs, “Why you always talking shit, always be complaining…I got a lot to be mad about.” My mother texts me Psalms 28:7 and urges me to calm down. My sister-friend buys a bottle of my favorite red wine and we put one in the air to cut the stress. We both wake up at 3:30 a.m. so I can make my 6:00 a.m. flight back to New Orleans, hassle free.
Once on the plane I took a deep breath and began to process it all. How much I’d sacrificed to save for this trip.
I saw the rolling eyes of the United Airlines employee who dismissed me when I asked for gate clarity.
I relived the violence of my purchased boarding passes being slammed in my face.
I heard the shriek of the white woman who called me “girl” and then playing victim when I reacted.
I saw the red faced white men literally standing against me to avenge her.
I saw the three uniformed cops coming my way, declaring I was “trespassing” just for standing where I was.
I thought of the fatigue of my friends as they worked to keep me sane through the trauma I’d experienced.
I processed that with one fatal move I could have become another hashtag.
I’m a young Black woman who wanted to see the world, but this is my world, and all at once it was too much to bear.
I put in my headphones. I turned on Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky,” sung “away, away, away…” at the clouds, and cried all the way home.