Susan Crain Bakos is an older, white, female liberal. A few years ago, she wrote a column announcing that she'd given up on white men and now preferred the company of black men. She wrote that she deliberately chose black men because of the racial difference and because black men not only had "more energy, style and edge" but were also "gentlemen, something which white men no longer are".
Well, she's now written another column. It turns out that she acted on her decision to only date black men by moving to Harlem and socialising in a Harlem bar. At first, things went well. The bar, St.Nicks Pub, was a bubbling hub of diversity:
On that Saturday night when I first went with friends to hear the Africa Band, I thought the pub — Harlem! — welcomed me. And I rhapsodized about the experience to friends. Striding into St. Nicks on a balmy August night, working my embroidered denim Halle Bob skirt with the deep front slit, I felt Harlem gently kissing my thighs. Nelson, the bar manager, smiled at me and brought folding chairs up from the basement to arrange seating for us because, he said, “I want you sitting here where I can keep an eye on those pretty white legs.”
I was surrounded by the kind of crowd that I imagined assembled in small Harlem jazz bars during the Renaissance and again in the 1940s and the 1960s, time periods when the excitement in the air was inextricably linked to a sound appreciated by sophisticated people who sought out diversity. Africans and African Americans, whites, Latinos, European and Japanese tourists — a mélange of ages, races, sexual orientations and interracial couples — they were jostling against each other in this tiny crowded space without animosity ...
But as time passed problems emerged. There was crime:
It was always a place where cash disappears from unwatched handbags, a jacket or cashmere shawl tossed casually on the back of a bar stool may be sold to another patron and “salesmen” come through hawking everything from tube socks to portraits of the Virgin Mary. Between the casual theft and the men who asked, “Will you buy me a drink? Lend me some money? Help me buy a new car?” — Yes, a car! — I had stopped carrying more cash than I would spend on two drinks and a cab home. Drugs, of course, were available for purchase in the backyard, which usually smelled of pot smoke.
There was jealous hostility from black women:
... the undercurrent of anger that I’d seen as an occasional flash in a black woman’s eye turned into more open hostility. The African-American girl bartenders, especially on Sunday nights, brazenly overcharged white customers and told them to leave for “being disrespectful” if they complained. Black women “regulars” made loud negative comments about white women ...
There were political resentments:
One of the regulars, an educated, successful black man, lectured me repeatedly: “America must apologize for the original sin of slavery and offer reparations.” “The prisons are full of young black men caught with nickel and dime bags,” he declared, “Incarcerated on the three-strikes-you’re-out rule.” “Reverend Jeremiah Wright! Why is he being pilloried for saying what black ministers say every Sunday in Harlem!”
There was violence:
...the violence was escalating, too ... There were stories of one musician slashing another in the backyard, of fist fights among drug buyers and sellers, of guns waved but not shot. One Friday night, I was in the pub when some thugs came in and roughed up some other thugs. Most of the African-American regulars bolted for the door; the white people stayed.
Then there was Mykul, a thug who knocked her to the ground to steal her handbag:
Mykul, my assailant, is a thug; and I was naive to have ignored that.
I discovered during chatty conversation at the pub that Mykul—pronounced Michael—was a hairdresser who initially learned his craft while in prison. Liberal white woman that I am — was? — I believed in rehabilitation, so I made an appointment with him at Big Russ’ Barber Shop on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. And I even returned a second time.
I’m sure he stole my wallet on that second hair appointment, though he blamed a gypsy cab driver for its loss. I wasn’t going to make a third appointment. Then the shakedowns for more money began. He called asking me to pay more “because you would pay it downtown.” Apparently desperate to cover the debt with his drug dealer, he’d told me he had — or maybe just to buy more drugs — he stepped up his game.
When I hit the concrete with the back of my head and the small of my back, I knew that I was forever changed. I was mugged once before, but it wasn’t personal. No one I actually knew by name had ever raised a hand to me. Born and raised in East St. Louis, Ill., I had nevertheless lived my life — until that night — in a world where men do not hit or shove women.
She found herself friendless:
No one outside the pub that night would loan me a cell phone to dial 911. Crying, I went inside and borrowed a phone from Melvin. Two uniformed cops responded to the call, a man and a woman, young and as unsympathetic as the patrons at the bar — who hugged me in greeting most nights — and now wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“Nobody knows you,” the cops said. “Nobody saw anything,” they said.
“It’s always like that in there. Someone gets stabbed in the backyard and nobody saw nothing, nobody knows nothing."
... The next day, a friend who has written about Harlem said: “I am sorry you lost your idealism and innocence; you held on to it far longer than most people do ..."
Often I think that African Americans give us too much power. White people aren’t the primary force keeping them down. Thug Life is. I haven’t seen Mykul since that night in May. If I did, I’d probably find a safe building and hide. The physical sense of violation I felt when Mykul attacked me was so profound that I could not understand how my neighbors could stand by and offer no help, no sympathy.
She began by glamourising the diversity of Harlem, but her own experiences there led her to observe that:
Harlem is no place for a woman without male protection.
Having cut herself adrift from her own community, she found herself in a place where she no longer felt, in her own words, "emotionally safe".
Hat tip: Pilgrimage to Montsalvat