My Seat at the Table

A tale of racism.

Bernice L. McFadden | Longreads | August 2021 | 15 minutes (4,049 words)

I discovered through DNA testing that my first maternal ancestor in the United States came from the country in Africa now known as Cameroon. This Cameroonian ancestor was a member of the Bamileke tribe — an ethnic group which originated in Egypt.

The table and the chair were invented in Egypt around 2500 B.C. Egypt is a country located in Northeast Africa and not in the Middle East as people have been misled to believe. Do you find it ironic that gaining a seat at the table has become a metaphor for the advancement into spaces that are historically and predominately white and male and generally resistant to Black and female representation?

Recently, Black people and women have been crashing those homogenized parties, bringing with them their own chairs or filling vacant ones at those proverbial tables.

Some of the gatekeepers feign acceptance of the racial modifications of these platforms, while others have no qualms conveying their disdain or outright outrage at the presence of a Black person at said table. For example, on Jan. 25, 2012, Jan Brewer, the former governor of Arizona, stood on the airport tarmac and chastised, like a child, one Barack Hussein Obama — a Black man who was, at the time, the sitting president of the United States of America. Moments later, when Brewer was asked about the incident she said, “He was a little disturbed about my book.”

Other gatekeepers are covert with their contempt, preferring to close their arms around unwelcomed Black people in an insincere embrace as they sink a blade into their backs.

I have a longtime friend. She and I are BFFs and are as close as sisters. She is white and Filipino, and we have been friends since 1979, when we first met at our mostly white boarding school in the rural Pennsylvania town of Danville.

We are both the eldest of four children, both raised in two-parent households.

For most of our relationship, race was not a topic of discussion. However, that changed in the early 2000s when she came to New York to spend a weeklong holiday with me. She’d spent the day in Manhattan, catching up with friends and taking in theater. Over dinner that evening, she shared that she’d had an extra ticket for the play she’d seen but hadn’t considered inviting me because she assumed I wouldn’t be interested in a staged production that did not have Black characters.

That statement stalled me. I asked if she thought that because I was Black, that my interest lay only in Black-centered entertainment?

She said yes.

I was stunned by her misconception of me and Black people on the whole. I asked if she, a biracial woman living in America, was only interested in European and/or Filipino art? She confessed that her interests were indeed diverse but couldn’t explain why she presumed it did not hold true for me or others who looked like me.

I explained that contrary to what she’d been told, Black people are not a monolith. I told her that we are diverse in every conceivable way.

This was the conversation that set us off on a journey about the myth of race, systemic racism, and what it’s really like to be Black in America.

At our school I was just one of a handful of Black students. On Saturdays, we girls, Black, white, and other, would walk from school into town, to lunch at the Arthur Treacher’s or the Hoagie Shop. Oftentimes, we would go to the local Woolworth’s to buy books, candy, and millinery supplies for sewing class. Even though I knew my white classmates were secretly slipping nail polish and lip gloss into their pockets and backpacks, it was me and the other Black girls that the store employees followed and hawk-eyed.


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Sometimes I spent weekends in the homes of my white classmates, those day students who lived in and around the town. It was always a treat to get away from campus, to sleep in a cozy bed and eat a home-cooked meal.

At the time, my family and I lived in a crowded two-bedroom apartment. The kitchen was tiny, leaving little space for a dining table large enough to accommodate a family of six. So, we children ate our meals in the kitchen while my parents ate in the living room, on the couch, plates in their laps.

My father believed that children should be seen and not heard, especially at the dining table, so talking was not permitted during meals. In contrast, the parents of my white friends encouraged and participated in mealtime discussions.

It was at one of those family dinners that I remember how my BFF’s father, a tall, slim, kind man with glasses, responded aloud to a question that I had not heard posed:

“Of course, the white race is the superior race.”

To this day, I do not know who asked the question or if in fact a question was actually asked. Perhaps, this man, who had always been nothing but kind and welcoming to me, found it necessary to remind me that even though I was in his Victorian home, sitting at his dinner table, eating the food that had been lovingly prepared by his Filipino wife — I was inferior to him.

I cannot recall if my friend and her siblings fell silent, or if my friend, her siblings, or her mother looked at me for a reaction or in consolation. I remember that I kept my eyes lowered to my plate, that the grip on my fork tightened, and the leisurely pace of my heart launched into a sprint. I was 15 years old and the situation my family had warned and prepped me for as a Black person living in white America had arrived yet again.

Before that incident, another incident took place in Brooklyn in the waning days of autumn when I was on my way home from middle school. On that day, I exited the subway on the south side of Prospect Park, in a neighborhood where very few Black people lived at the time. There, I was followed by two white teenage boys who pelted rocks at me, shouting, “Nigger, go back to Africa!”

A year or two before, my younger brother and I were walking down Rockaway Boulevard in South Ozone Park, Queens, a neighborhood that in the ‘70s was still majority Italian. As we made our way to our grandparents’ home, a group of white teenage boys and girls stalked us for blocks, hurling soda cans, bottles, and racial slurs.

The fact that my BFF’s father chose that moment to express his deepest held beliefs about his racial superiority is not beyond me. Indeed, my presence at his table was conditional — permitted only because I made his daughter happy and he enjoyed seeing his daughter happy because his love for her was unconditional.

Do I believe his declaration was meant to wound and degrade me?

Yes, I do.

Not only was I hurt, but being an empath, I also absorbed the humiliation on behalf of his Filipino wife who had not batted an eye at the insult.

Do I think that my friend’s mother believed that she, a Filipino person of color, was less than her husband because he was white, and she was not?

Yes, I do.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Indian anti-colonial nationalist and spiritual leader, believed that Europeans were the most civilized of the races and that Indians were almost as civilized as Europeans and Africans were wholly uncivilized.

Perhaps my friend’s mother held similar beliefs.

Nevertheless, I would return to that house and eat at that table again and again, without further incident. But I would never forget the shot fired because the wound it left would not allow me to forget. The memory is lodged in me like the bullet it was intended to be.

I would return to that house and eat at that table again and again, without further incident. But I would never forget the shot fired because the wound it left would not allow me to forget. The memory is lodged in me like the bullet it was intended to be.

***

Some years after that dinner, my friend and her family traveled to the Philippines to visit her maternal family. Not too long after her return to the United States, she and I met for dinner at a Manhattan restaurant. I sat across the table from her and listened, enthralled as she recounted her trip in vivid detail. Near the end of her monologue she mentioned that when she ventured out without her Filipino mother or another Filipino family member for a walk or an excursion to one of the many marketplaces — she was baffled about why strangers addressed her in Tagalog, which is perhaps the most widely spoken language in the Philippines.

I frowned, asking, “Why was that so confusing?”

“Well,” she said, “because I don’t think I look Filipino.”

“What do you think you look like?”

“American.”

I am keenly aware that people who look like me — people born Black, without “the complexion for the protection” as comedian Paul Mooney described it — understand that when people say American, that means white. Those of us born in America who are not white are hyphenated to stress that we are not real Americans, but hybrids — like broccoflowers and limequats.

My BFF is tall, beige-complexioned with almond-shaped eyes, and long straight black hair. To me she looks Asian, but I admit, she could also pass for Native American. The one thing she cannot pass for is white, which is how she saw herself.

My BFF is tall, beige-complexioned with almond-shaped eyes, and long straight black hair. To me she looks Asian, but I admit, she could also pass for Native American. The one thing she cannot pass for is white, which is how she saw herself.

I smiled, reached for the wine glass, and asked, “Well, friend, if you look American, then what do I look like?”

I watched the epiphany rise in her eyes like the morning sun.

***

In his 1997 essay, “Deconstructing the Ideology of White Aesthetics,” John M. Kang wrote:

Like male chauvinism, the ideology of White aesthetics assumes that the politically dominant group, White people, are inherently superior to a weaker group, people of color. The ideology of White aesthetics holds that people of color, by virtue of their aesthetic inferiority to White people, deserve to remain subordinated.

Kang’s observation was validated during the 2014 National Book Awards, a major literary event that honors the best and brightest writers.

In 1953, just three years after the award was conceived, Ralph Ellison would win for his novel, Invisible Man. Ellison was the first Black writer to win a National Book Award. Two decades would pass before another Black writer would be so honored. In 1975, Virginia Hamilton received the award for her children’s book, M. C. Higgins, The Great.

In 1983, both Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor received National Book Awards for their novels: The Color Purple and The Women of Brewster Place. So if you’re counting, only four Black authors were awarded National Book Awards over a 30-year period.

The 2014 National Book Awards dinner was held at the ritzy Cipriani Wall Street restaurant located in NYC’s financial district. The nominees, their guests, and ticket holders, all dressed in their finest threads, sat at tables covered in white linen cloth. Before the awards were given, the attendees were treated to a sumptuous meal complete with wine and cocktails.

That year, Jacqueline Woodson, a Black woman, received the award in the Young People’s Literature category for her novel, Brown Girl Dreaming. After Woodson gave her acceptance speech, host Daniel Handler — aka Lemony Snicket, a white man best known for his children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events and All the Wrong Questions — returned to the stage and gleefully bellowed:

“I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind. And I said you have to put that in a book. And she said, you put that in a book.”

Handler continued: And I said I am only writing a book about a Black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying, ‘this guy’s OK! This guy’s fine!'”

“Alright,” he chuckled when he realized the crowd was uncomfortable. “Alright, we’ll talk about it later.”

***

The Laugh Factory in Los Angeles is a well-known comedy club that has hosted many legendary comics of all backgrounds, creeds, ethnicities, and genders. The audience sits in chairs that are arranged in the form of a C around the stage.

Back in 2006, Michael Richards, former star of the popular syndicated television show Seinfeld, was performing at the Laugh Factory when he became enraged because Black audience members were heckling him during his standup routine.

The infuriated Richards took the opportunity to remind the Black audience members that: “Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass.” Richards continued, “You can talk, you can talk, you’re brave now motherfucker!’

He demanded that the Black people be removed from the club, barking, “Throw his ass out. He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! A nigger, look, there’s a nigger!”

***

If the lunch counter is the heir to the table, then the chair is the progeny of the stool. For decades, Black people, those offspring of enslaved Africans, were barred from service at lunch counters in the Jim Crow south.

On Feb. 1, 1960, the Greensboro Four, who were students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College — Ezell Blair Jr. (who later took the name Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil — walked into the Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at the lunch counter, and ordered coffee and sandwiches.

Soon, their mission to disrupt and dissolve the segregationist edicts that supported Whites Only counters were adopted by Black people and their white allies in other segregated Southern states, and the “Sit In” movement was born.

The “Sit In” crusade was an act of non-violent, civil disobedience that was frequently met with violence.

Activists were spat on, milk poured over their heads, smoke blown into their faces —in some cases they were punched, slapped, and brutally removed from the lunch counters.

***

A news desk is similar to a luncheonette counter. Journalists sit at these desks to report the news. Guests are often invited to sit at news desks to enlighten viewers on a topic on which they may or may not have expertise. Sometimes, multiple guests are summoned to debate an issue.

On April 7, 2010, AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) secretary-general Andre Visagie, a white South African man, appeared with political analyst Lebohang Pheko, a Black South African woman on e.tv’s current affairs show Africa 360, to discuss race relations in the wake of Eugène Ney Terre’Blanche’s murder.

Terre‘Blanche was a white supremacist and Afrikaner nationalist who founded the AWB. According to Wikipedia, Terre‘Blanche swore to use violence to preserve minority rule. In 1997, Terre’Blanche was convicted and sentenced to six years in Rooigrond Prison for assaulting a gas station attendant and for the attempted murder of a Black security guard. He served three years before being released. Terre’Blanche was murdered on his farm on April 3, 2010.

During the TV show exchange, Andre Visagie became enraged when Pheko continuously interrupted him. In the video, Visagie rips off his microphone and springs from his chair. The incensed Visagie aims his finger at Pheko, declaring: “You won’t dare interrupt me!”

Chris Maroleng, the Black South African host of the show, planted himself between Pheko and the irate Visagie. For a millisecond, it seems as though the two men might come to blows until finally, Visagie addresses Pheko again, warning, “I am not finished with you.”

Andre Visagie was born and raised under an apartheid system dissolved in 1994. In 2010, he was a silver-haired old man living in a country where Black people were no longer required to be subservient to the white minority.

As I watched the exchange between the white Visagie and the Black and female Pheko, I could sense the radiating fury of Visagie as he tried to grapple with the fact that a Black woman was asserting herself, holding her ground, and speaking her mind as if she was his racial equal.

Only that the world was watching kept Visagie from pummeling Pheko to death.

***

In some academic institutions, students sit on furniture known as a combo school desk, which is a chair with a small table attached.

In October 2015, a 16-year-old Black girl was seated in a combo school desk in her math class at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina.

In South Carolina the school system remained partially segregated until 1970. In February of 1970 the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court ordered that a school desegregation directive be issued in Lamar, a town just one hour from Columbia.

Nearly 200 hundred angry white parents, irate that their children would be taught alongside Black children, armed themselves with guns, chains, bricks, and axe handles and descended on buses carrying elementary- and high school-aged students from Lamar. The mob overturned two school buses and clashed with law enforcement before they were finally subdued with tear gas. During the melee, six Black students were injured.

The young lady in the math class at Spring Valley High School was on her cell phone, which is against the rules, but not a crime. When asked to put her phone away, she took her sweet time doing so. This infuriated her white teacher, who asked her to leave the class. When she refused, the vice principal was called in. He too asked her to leave the class. Still, she refused to leave.

Senior Deputy Ben Fields, a white school resource officer, was called in to handle the situation.

According to the LA Times, Fields “… wrapped his arm around her neck and tried to pull her from her desk, which flipped backward to the floor. He dragged her out of the desk, threw her across the floor, and arrested her for disturbing the classroom.”

***

One of the games I remember playing in grade school was musical chairs. The teacher would arrange a circle of chairs that equaled one less chair than the number of players. For example, if there were 10 students, there would be nine chairs.

The teacher would play a song on the record player and we children would march around the circle of chairs. When the teacher stopped the music, we would all scramble to secure a seat. The student left standing — because he or she failed to capture a chair — was the loser.

Afterward, the teacher removed a chair, turned on the music, and the game continued until there were only two students and one chair left.

As the number of chairs decreased, the anxiety among the players heightened. Oftentimes the game turned violent. Students would push and shove their fellow classmates to keep them from stealing the chair away from them.

The point of musical chairs is to teach children fair play and sportsmanship.

***

In May of 2019, my high school friend married the love of her life in a lovely church ceremony in Pennsylvania. The intimate wedding reception, attended by close friends and family, was held at a rustic, stylish restaurant.

The bride, her groom, and all 60 of her guests sat at a long wooden table. Good wine and delectable food were served.

I was the only Black person in attendance. I was aware of my Blackness but not uncomfortable with it.

Across the table from my friend and her new husband, I sat sandwiched between my BFF’s youngest brother and a woman who was filled with so much joy that her laughter sounded like sleigh bells.

Seated next to the happy couple was the brides’ middle brother and his wife. The teenage children of both brothers filled out the remaining seats at the west end of the table.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the wife of the second brother stealing long, probing glances at me. When I suddenly turned to meet her inquisitive eyes, her face brightened with embarrassment.

We gazed at each other until flustered she asked, “So, how do you like living in New Orleans?”

I told her that I liked it just fine, to which she nodded, looked away, and wondered aloud to no one in particular how the family cat was getting on in her absence.

Afterward, I returned my attention to the woman with the jingle-bell laughter.

There were several conversations happening at once around the table. Everyone spoke at an even decibel — just loud enough to be heard by the person they were speaking to, but not so loud that their exchange could be heard by guests seated two or three seats away.

The woman I was conversing with said something funny, and I chuckled into my palm, stifling my usual, open-mouthed guffaw, because I was aware that more often than not, white people find Black joy invasive.

I was conscious of this even before August 2015, when the Black women members of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club, were kicked off of a Napa Valley wine train in California because white passengers found their laughter “offensive.”

The woman I was conversing with said something funny, and I chuckled into my palm, stifling my usual, open-mouthed guffaw, because I was aware that more often than not, white people find Black joy invasive.

I had wiped a tear from my eye with one hand and was reaching for my water glass with the other, when one of the teenagers asked a question, loud enough for the entire table to hear:

What’s the name of that song by NWA?

I brought the water glass to my lips and even though I kept my eyes trained on the woman who’d made me laugh my eyes wet, I could no longer hear the words tumbling out of her mouth, for my ears were tuned for the response to the question. Heat crept through me and I realized that my anxiety had escalated from low-risk stage green to warning-risk stage yellow.

The question was repeated — this time a decimal above the initial inquiry.

What’s the name of that song by NWA?

To me the question sounded like the clearing of a throat, a tap on my shoulder, a nudge in my side — which is to say it yearned for my attention.

The question had been posed twice — by two of the grandchildren of the man who wounded me decades earlier. He had been dead for years, leaving his progeny to continue his legacy.

I believe his grandchildren wanted me to turn around so they could see the fire that they’d lit in my eyes. Perhaps too, they wanted to witness, firsthand, the infamous angry Black woman that is lore in white imaginations.

But I did not give them the satisfaction of seeing my anger and my pain and the leaking wound their words had reopened. Instead, I maintained my position — head turned, back to them — enduring the mental and emotional weathering — the erosion those words inflicted on me.

The microaggression veiled as an innocent question about a group whose name is an acronym for Niggaz Wit’ Attitude was asked a third time, this time by the mother who had abruptly ended her short conversation with me to wonder about her cat.

No,” she giggled, “I don’t remember the name of that song by N … W … A.

She dragged the letters for effect.

Nigger was the trigger to which I was expected to react. And even though the foul word itself had not been uttered, its implication was as clear as the crystal wine glasses on the table.

I understood that this word play was my verbal reminder that my seat at that table was untenable. I understood that my presence was tolerated but not welcomed and that if they had to deal with my company because the bride loved me and they loved the bride, well then, their lenience would come with a side of cruelty.

Nigger was the trigger to which I was expected to react. And even though the foul word itself had not been uttered, its implication was as clear as the crystal wine glasses on the table.

***

The table and the chair were invented in Egypt. Egypt is a country located in Northeast Africa and not in the Middle East as people have been misled to believe. I am a descendant of the Bamileke tribe — an ethnic group which originated in Egypt.

Egypt is in Africa.

Egypt is in Africa.

* * *

Bernice L. McFadden is the author of 15 novels and the recipient of the 2017 American Book Award as well as NACCP Image Award for Outstanding Literature for her novel, The Book of Harlan. She is a Professor of Practice at Tulane University.

* * *

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo