I knew I was in danger. As the pitch of the woman’s voice was getting higher and volume louder, a creeping, nervous feeling was moving along my whole being. Without a doubt a physical attack was next.
That bright spring Saturday morning, I was with my African-American friend Rose in the Flatbush Avenue section of Brooklyn to interview John, a young man from Kenya.
Twenty years ago, Flatbush was a Jewish area, but now it is black, with most of the people living there coming from Africa, Haiti, and other areas of the West Indies. That day, hip-hop music, mixed with rap and reggae, boomed from open apartment windows. It was easy to imagine that this was a foreign country.
As we walked up to the third floor of the old apartment building. I felt no hint of trouble. Welcoming us in, we followed John down a long corridor into the living room where he seated himself on the floor in front of a large chair, motioning us to sit on the couch, next to a wide window with a large sill, facing him.
“Kenya,” John said, “is in grave trouble.” While intently listening to his story, I looked up when I heard footsteps coming from the corridor. The woman was exotically statuesque and beautiful in her flowing, white satin negligée. She held her arm out in front of her as she glided along, her hand clasping a gold cigarette holder with one of those extra-long slim cigarettes in it. I stared as the Watusi goddess passed the open living room door, never glancing into the room where we sat. John didn’t know she was there and kept talking.
I heard the front door open and shut and soon she came into the living room. Surveying the three of us, her face showed first surprise and then distaste. Then, staring long and hard at me, she turned to John and viciously said with a distinctly King’s English accent, “You left my bed for her?” When he didn’t answer, she hissed at me, “What are you doing in my home?”
“We are talking to John about Africa,” I stammered.
Her look was withering as she said, “YOU were in Africa?”
“No,” I explained. “I am here to interview John about life in Kenya.”
That didn’t pacify her. With an icy voice she asked, “What do you whites want to know about Africa. Haven’t you harmed us enough?”
Rose and I sat stunned as I, being white, was accused of every problem Africa had, past and present. As her voice raised, the woman walked across the room and sat down at my left on the large window sill. Nothing we said could stop the tirade, and the worried feeling began. John didn’t move a muscle as she screamed and cursed the past and present white crooks in Washington with their shifty African policies, and her hand became a fist that shook at me with rage.
Her hatred was like a knife. Never before had I encountered such expressed loathing against my race. The realization that racial hatred still boiled was a revelation and a shocker to me. I couldn’t deny the part my race played in the abuse of the African people, but I thought it was past. That morning I learned differently and was ashamed of being white.
Although this encounter, nasty as it was, gave me a healthy dose of reality, I still had to deal with an enraged woman, so I used the tactic of complimenting her to break the tension. Looking her in the eyes, I said emphatically, “I admire you, I really admire you.”
“You admire me?” she asked with surprise in her voice.
“Yes. I admire your honesty because you tell it like it is and now I know where I stand.”
Before she could think of a reply to such a simplistic statement, I quickly stood up. “Come on Rose,” I said, not looking back as we grabbed our things and walked out on legs that trembled like the earth when a freight train rolls by.
Note from Barbara Anderson:
I actually had this experience in 1987 in field service while I was at Bethel in Brooklyn, NY. When I wrote this essay, I changed the reason for my visit to talk to “John” because it was written for my college English class in 1998.
Shortly after this encounter back in 1987, I wrote about it and gave a copy of the experience to a few Bethelites who I worked with. One of them, the wife of a prominent Bethel overseer, scolded me for sharing the experience because she thought that it would stumble Bethelites from going out in field service. Of course, that wasn’t my purpose, but because it was such an extraordinary, un-nerving event, unlike anything that ever happened to me before in field service, I thought others would find it amazing. But apparently the story about my close encounter with bodily harm was not of concern to some JWs. Of importance to them was “field service.” Oh, by the way, the English Professor liked the story and gave me an “A.”