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Empire State of Disillusionment

In September 2021, I moved to Harlem. This was my first time outside the auspices of both my parents’ and alma mater, and it kicked off my real education as a Black woman in the world. Back home, in Austin Texas, I was used to the shared understanding that everyone must find a way to coexist in racially diverse spaces.

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In New York City, I struggle to fit into the social milieu of the people around me, regardless of race. I understood I felt limited or boxed in, but it was the Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf” that gave me the language to articulate my experience:

" i usedta live in the world

now i live in harlem & my universe is six blocks."

Each New York neighborhood brings its own flavor of alienation, but the common thread between them is a feeling of dehumanization. In Harlem, Blackness is not novel, so my race wasn’t something I had to constantly consider when being perceived by others. I expected living in Harlem would be freeing since I wouldn’t have to account for race. But when so many of the folks around me are Black, my womanhood feels magnified. As a result, I feel less in control and more like a sexual object. When strangers talk at me on the street, it is almost always about my physical appearance, and only after they have scanned my body up and down.

Late one night, not long after I moved to the city, I stopped at a bodega. As I opened the door to leave, a middle-aged man began describing me to the other men in the room, saying, "It's so nice to see a natural woman these days; all these females are fake, with their makeup and their weaves." In that moment, I was not a person; I was a part of the architecture of the bodega, no different than the fluorescent lights or stocked shelves. Rather than draw further attention to myself, I scurried back to my apartment. Later, in Brooklyn, a man followed me down the street, paradoxically calling me "empress," as he demanded a first date.

Going downtown is different. Unlike Harlem, where I blend into the crowd, my mere presence seems to disrupt the downtown white status quo. The response to my disruption was willful ignorance, as though people are deliberately looking through my body. On worse days, I get run off the sidewalk by groups of white folks walking shoulder-to-shoulder, unwilling to accept they are obligated to share the world with other people.

A few months ago, I was in a theatre to see a play. I was the only Black person in the audience, a single brown dot in a sea of white. Through the entire experience, it was hard to ignore the feeling everybody else was trying to ignore my presence, lest I remind them of their segregated space.

The stress of being hyper-visible in certain spaces and invisible in others are two sides of an unfortunate coin. Despite my southern aversion to cold, I wanted winter to drag on indefinitely; cold weather means heavy winter coats that more easily conceal my frame from objectifying onlookers in Harlem. Feeling invisible in Chelsea and Soho, however, reinforces my impulse to hide, so much so I feel uneasy asking my roommate to take out the trash.

There have been glimmers of ease, like when I eat dinner at the home of friends I've made or when I dance with other Black women as I walk to the train. But usually, it seems I’m racing from point A to point B to avoid having to exist in the space that lies between. And it only makes me miss the South all the more.


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