Sunday, October 23, 2005

Invisible man

(May be going over previously covered info so bear with me)

One of the first things I noticed when I first came to Toronto back in the early 90s was relatively speaking how unfriendly folks were . Coming from Barbados I was taught that it was rather impolite to stare at people. In fact as a youngster if you were caught by your parents just staring at someone for no reason you might end up getting your ears pinched or two slaps pitch upside ya head.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comAnyway from the first day I got here I just realized two things. People stared a lot and worse than that they never gave any greetings like Good morning, good evening or even a hello. Imagine that! People staring at you like there was something wrong with your appearance or worse just looking straight through you like you aren't there, like you were invisible. Like you don't even exist. Not even the common decency sometimes to turn away from staring when they noticed you noticing them. Some real brazen bold faced people aint it? A whole bunch of real 'unmarley' people and just for the record being 'unmarley' aint got anything to do with liking Bob's music or even being one of Bob's three thousand 4 hundred and twenty six pickney. Its was just a local bajan way of pronouncing unmannerly.

There was just something so cold about the big city. Something so less community oriented and so individual oriented or was it just that its fast paced nature didn't lend to extending the common pleasentries? Whatever it was it was a different experience for me, one which I might add took awhile to get accustomed to. I still had this deeply inbred nature to want to say Good Morning whenever my eyes connected with random strangers for quite a few weeks after I first came here but as time went on and my greetings were greeted with no response or looks like I was crazy, I was weaned away from this act.

However in the midst of being surprised by this lack of exchange of pleasantries one act of bonding really struck me as being a throwback to what I was accustomed to. That act was the black head nod.

You know the head nod one black person gave another black person who he/she didn't know as they passed on the street. It happened rather frequently back then. It wasn't a verbal means of communication but its meaning was profound. A sort of knowing nod like 'yes brother I see you and you are not invisible to me' or 'a keep your head up son'. It was the black fist, good morning, ' my yout wha ya a say', a pound, a hug and a handshake all rolled up in one and it made me realize back then that despite everything I was not alone in this city. Not that if I got into some sort of distressing situation this complete stranger had my back because we were of the same race but still it was a reinforcement that black folk were/are all brothers and maybe I'm reading a bit too much into it but in a sense it was an act of caring. But greater than this it was just an means to let you know that you were seen. We were going through the same grind, the same hustle, the same struggle but someone had noticed you.

It was an instant act of bonding.

Fast forward a full decade to those days and I'm left wondering what happened to that black head nod? Has it completely disappeared? Nowadays for me its as rare as a warm winter day in Toronto. Like Biggie said 'things dun changed'.

Nowadays my black brothers and sisters are just as apt to stare vacantly through me as if I wasn't there as are anyone else in this city.

Why? What caused that change? What has made us invisible to everyone including our own now? Is it that less of us are immigrants who are accustomed to being friendly from growing up in our birthplaces abroad? Is it that more of us were raised here and have just being immersed in the local customs? Is it that the black head nod has outlived its usefulness? Is it a sign that we are all just weary? What gives?

I have no answers, but its something that I've noticed as the years has gone on. It doesn't affect me the way it probably would have back in the day as I've become accustomed to just the overall unfriendliness of this place where you can live next door to folk for years and never have a conversation with them or where your chummy co-worker can walk right past you on the street because in his/her eyes once you are outside the office there is no context for recognizing you and you are just another random black person.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comA so it a go!

We are all invisible men like Ralph Ellison spoke about. But sometimes I wish it was different. At least the black head nod kept us black folk connected by a thread that said I may not know you but I feel connected to you, I can still feel your pain, relate to your struggle and just show you some love with a greeting. Well maybe I'm exaggerating and the black head nod didn't mean all of that but at least it meant every once in a while someone else saw you and you weren't invisible.


Brotha Buck said...

I came from the midwest, Iowa. Black folk ALWAYS spoke when passing. It was natural when we moved to central Texas to speak to other black folk when passing. But strangly what weve noticed is that black folk here plain won't speak to each other. In fact, they will completely look away to avoid making eye contact. This hurt my wife at first because she is very sociable. And whenever family comes here to visit, they always ask us, "whats wrong with the black folk here?" Mexican folks don't speak to black folk either. Funny thing is, the most country of Bubbas, those I'd imagine would like to hang me almost always speak. Funny, so I can relate to your post.

BajanQueen said...

Coming from Barbados I know exactly what you mean. It's only natural to speak to someone when you pass them on the street.

Whenever I go out and happen to make eye contact with a person I always make sure and smile, it's not always returned and sometimes I wonder why do I bother.

People seem to have forgotten that human contact is essential to out development.....I can't understand why it's so hard for people to be nice?!?!?

Mr. Righteous said...

Things has changed so much since then, the youth them will ask “ what the ….you looking at, You know me?! , the media reports, the increase in violence…. Maybe people just plain scared. I say give the lil smile, give the back head nod, most people will be surprised at first, but the next time they will probably be expecting it and respond, you never know you might just make someone’s day

Campfyah said...

nice way to start the week. You are so true. People these days has just lost the human connection and human touch.

I still find myself speaking or at least nodding to some people as I pass the streets, the latin Americans have some friendliness left in them and many will respond especially the men and the older folks. I guess this is the realitiesof life today.

dorna! said...

Mr Righteousness got it right. These days you've got to be careful who you acknowledge lest you get shanked and it's not just a North American thing.

I got a nasty turn when I returned to St Lucia after several years 'away'. Everyone seemed so cold - so aggressive. It felt like you had to be ready for battle at a moment's notice.

Desiree said...

I think that is more a big city ailment than anything. I'm in a smaller city, and moved from yet a smaller one before being here. People do respond to 'good day' 'good morning' ... etc. But there are some that don't, people have become paranoid to speak to strangers to the point of not responding to a simple greeting. Paranoid for various reasons ... criminals, psychos. Those of us that do greet and be friendly are starting to look like the odd ones. - How sad.

Inside Man said...

I think it's relative to where you are at. In small setting people tend to speak to each other of the strength that most of the folks are familiar with each other. If you live in an area where there is not a high concentration of black people then you may be more likely to receive acknowlegement from those you cross path with. But here on the east coast black people are everywhere. I'm from Baltimore (probably one of rudest cities in America) and there are so many black people that you would be doing the head nod until you caught a cramp. I do hate the fact that so many of our own are so defensive against each other. Is it so hard to be kind??

The biggest problem I have is people who don't speak that partially know you. Like co-workers, classmates, church members, etc. We may not be close friends but don't act you don't see me on the regular. I've definitely had my hand left hanging on many occasions.

*And ladies, just because a brotha says hello doesn't mean he's trying to get your phone number.

Ben Hyde said...

Being white and middle aged I can't speak to the nod thing; but...

This sociable to strangers on the street thing is very regional. I grew up in New England and New York City. In NYC you always engage the store clerks and often strangers in verbal banter; in New England you almost never do. In Finland they react to banter as if they are seriously considering calling the police.

I remember the first time I was in Chicago, 11pm, walking down the deserted street. Another person passes me, no light so no chance of eye contact. He says, in loud cheerful voice: "Good evening!" Scared the pants off me.

In New England people are extremely guarded about entering another person's personal space. It's cold; and it confuses people from other places.

There's an analagous thing about how close to each other people stand when chatting. In New England it's like 2 ft; but in California it's like a foot and quarter; so sometimes you see a California talking to a New Englander; slowly chasing them around the room.

Miss A said...

I'm from the hospitable SOUTH! That's right, you always get a smile and a "Hey, how ya doing?" around these parts!

I moved up north in 2002 and what a slap in the face! People straight faced and making sure they don't look at you. If you look at them, man, you betta know them 'cuz they gonna think you up to something.

I moved back to the south in 2004 to be closer to my family. It's so much friendlier here! I love it! But... I love the north too. Took an adjustment, but that's what life is about... adapting

BTW... I'm here via luke cage!

ThandieLand said...

Hahaha... I know that black head nod very well and also African-Americans have the habit of referring to all black ppl they deal with in groups and organisations as Brother This and Sister That. They don't say Mr or Ms really.

I also learnt that this simple act annoyed the hell out of some white ppl. It made me laff hearing white ppl were offended by and expressed frustation at this one little thing black folks did. It was not until later that I realised it was not such a little thing after all.

They would ask: why do you all do that? He is not your brother, why do you all do that? You just met her you don't know her, how does she get to be your sister? Lawd I did it on purpose.

Ya man! I tell you ...Jdid you right boy, black folks in North America generally find a way to convey to you that they understand and it will be ok. LOVE IT! As a set of black people I love and respect African-Americans. These ppl have come a long long way through some terrible times and still have room to reach out. Too often you only get to hear the bad things.

ThandieLand said...

Oh and I have not lived in US for a while now ...since I don't know if it will be different now. It is sad the nod is disappearing though.

smallislandgirl said...

I still live in the caribbean so the greeting strangers thing is still present here i hate it when i tell someone hi they look away so inpolite so if i greet someone and they don't answer I usually say loud enough for them to hear maybe they deaf or what? or i'll say some people have no manners!

Angry Dog said...

Man, I definately relate to what you're saying--and here are people saying that Canada is friendlier than the US? Here in the US, especially in the small town I live in, the black head nod still exists...probably because we're a smaller town and smaller in numbers, but when I hit up NYC or some bigger city, that doesn't exist and people do stare right through you. Must be a city thing.

Abeni said...

I just finish reading Small island by Andrea Levy.One of the things the main character mentioned was the joy of seeing a black face that would look at you and smile etc.Made you feel not so alone.

nahmix said...

Yeah, I definitely feel a general decline in friendliness from our people, but I always have to remember...I usually have a scowl on my face!

Slow Metamorphosis said...

In Jamaica you HAD to speak otherwise you would get one fist and then another one from your parents when you got home....its just common courtesy.

obifromsouthlondon said...

dude you couldn't be more right about the head nod thang. some white guy asked me if it was some secret code or something lol.

yeah seems like it's on the slide. or we've joined the throng. *sigh*

Amadeo said...

Went through this on all fronts but the one that hurt was brothers with locks...I remember dudes with locks would always speak. You might even get quizzed or something now I speak and people look at me like "Who are you!?!?"

Burke said...

I can definitely relate to what you're saying. I always speak to people when I make eye contact with them regardless of who they are, and most people acknowledge the greeting. However, I do hear people talk about how people here (Northeast US) are not very friendly.

What really gets to me is when you greet people within your own dept. at work and they walk right by you without acknowledging you. Just last week I said good night to a co-worker that was leaving to go home, and he didn't even respond. Of course I called him a few choice words behind his back and said he won't get the chance to do that to me again. Would you believe that a couple days later he was leaving as I was talking to another co-worker and he said goodnight or something to that affect, and I purposely did not respond. Not that it was right, but I figured I'd give him a taste of his own medicine.

4panist said...

People have made so many good comments what is left to say? To Abeni, I loved that book, did you? To those who made the reference to small town big town thing, I agree. And the fear factor can not be ignored. But jdid did make me think and I realized that I have reduced the number of head nods and good mornings I've given over the past ten years. Still, when unexpectantly I receive one, it does make my day, so I am going to make a conscious effort to improve my friendliness quotient. If I get hurt, you all know why. For those of you who remember the group Take 6, I'm going to try and "Spread Love".