Taking The Train While Black

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Today I want to write about an incident of racism I experienced when I took the train with Dee, an African-American woman who ended up living with me for a year. I think it’s an important story BECAUSE it doesn’t involve a Black MAN, but rather a small, very well-spoken, very charming Black WOMAN. In other words, these are the kinds of experiences that happen to EVERY SINGLE Black person, no matter their gender or size or demeanor.

The Train Incident: For those who don’t remember or weren’t reading BaumBlog in March 2019, I met Dee on the train going from Denver to San Francisco, a three-day journey. When I wrote then, I didn’t share the fact that Dee was taking the train because the doctor had told her that she had stage four kidney failure and if she didn’t start dialysis immediately, she would die. Dee had an aversion to dialysis and decided to fling herself on the mercy of the cosmos for one last adventure and bought a ticket on the California Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco.

So she was not well, although she was easily walking around at that point. (In fact, the doctor was wrong. While Dee’s health has gotten worse since we met, it’s been a slow decline. She’s now living with her mom in Colorado Springs.)

I had what they call a roomette, a very tiny sleeper. Because Dee was ill, I went to the conductor and bought a roomette for her, so she’d have a private place to rest and sleep.

The train had a long stop in Reno, Nevada. Dee and I were sitting in the observation car chatting when a man walked up to us. He said, “Excuse me, ladies, I’m a Deputy Sheriff here in Reno” — he wasn’t wearing a uniform, but flashed his badge at us — “and I’m looking for two women. There’s been a report of some suspicious activity on the train.”

I, naive idiot that I was (and probably still am), thought “Oh! I have to help this nice deputy find these two suspicious women!”

Then he said, “May I see your ID?” Snug in my blanket of white privilege, I still didn’t get that I was one of the suspicious women, so I cheerfully got out my driver's license. Dee didn’t have her purse with her, which meant that I would have to go back to her compartment to get it. Dee was not up to rushing back and forth.

I started to get up to get Dee’s purse when the middle-aged white woman sitting across from us stood and confronted the deputy. “Why are you bothering them? They haven’t done anything! Why should they have to show you their IDs?” I mean this woman was really gutsy.

At this point, the deputy changed his mind about needing Dee’s driver’s license. “That’s alright, ladies. I don’t need the other ID. Thank you for your cooperation,” and he left.

Dee and I sat there in silence. I was completely nonplussed. Had the deputy taken a look at us and decided that we couldn’t possibly be criminals? Did our brave fellow passenger scare him away? I never even thanked her for standing up for us.

Finally, Dee said, “It was probably because I’m Black.” I replied, “Maybe so.” I didn’t have the heart to agree with Dee’s “probably.” I didn’t know what to say. Dee and I had only known each other for two days. Should we talk about this? I never had a moment of worry during this strange encounter. What had Dee felt? Was she angry? Scared? Was she embarrassed? Should we just pretend it never happened?

There were several signs on the train, “If you see something, say something.” Obviously, someone thought Dee and I were “something.” Was it the conductor I bought Dee’s roomette ticket from? It cannot be that I was the first person in AMTRAK history to meet someone on the train and buy a roomette for them!

Did someone think we were drug dealers? A 72-year-old white woman and a small fragile black woman, both of us completely middle-class in our speech and manner? If we were drug dealers or involved in some nefarious plot, surely I would have bought her roomette in advance!

Dee hadn’t been nervous on the train. She was having a ball meeting people and chatting with them. Dee wasn’t just charming. She had charisma. People were drawn to her. Did one of those people report us? It was impossible to think of anything about either Dee or me that would make people suspicious, make them think we were “something.”

Except the color of Dee’s skin.

Maybe a charismatic black person is automatically “something.”

It was too disturbing to think about. I hardly knew Dee. She wasn’t saying anything. So I decided to pretend it hadn’t happened. And when I wrote a long blog about the trip, I didn’t mention the deputy sheriff.

In the year that Dee lived with me, of course, we got to know each other. She shared her thoughts on her identity. And she had thought deeply. She said, “Don’t call me black. Look at my skin. Look!” She held out her arm. “My skin’s not black.” Indeed her skin was dark mahogany, NOT black.

“And I’m not an African-American, either. I don’t know anything about Africa and I’m not interested in Africa. Where did YOUR people come from?” I answered, “Poland.” “Well,” she said, “Do you call yourself a Polish-American? And my people came here hundreds of years before your people! I am A DESCENDANT. I am an American who is a DESCENDANT of people who were enslaved. THAT is who I am, those are my roots. And the greatest crime of slavery was the tearing apart of our families. Can you imagine what your people, the Jews, would be like if their families had been torn apart for hundreds of years? We still haven’t recovered from that.”

Living with this Descendant, I saw the world in new ways. She shared with Carolyn and me her encounters with racism as they happened — in a LYFT, in SF General Hospital. I felt ashamed of my city. Suffice it to say that one of the reasons Dee decided to leave San Francisco was that she found the health care system here more racist than the one in Denver.

I think about Dee often these days. We’re not in contact anymore. I’m grateful that she shared some of her understanding of the world with me. I wish, when we’d gotten to know each other better, I had talked with her about the train incident. But truly, I repressed it myself. Only recently did it pop into my mind, now that the whole nation is openly struggling with its racism.

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Terry Baum is an actress, director, teacher, filmmaker, political activist, and award-winning lesbian playwright. Her blog BAUMBLOG is a “Top 100 LGBTQ Blog.”

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