Black in Spain: Clearing My US Customs
- Checked Baggage - How living in Spain forced me to examine, adjust and readjust my very American notions about race, color, and racism.
- All My Skinfolk Ain't My Kinfolk - relations with others across the African diaspora
- There Are No Black Americans - My struggles convincing others – and sometimes, myself – of my Americanness.
Back in the US, I have developed a sort of shorthand when it comes to recognizing the many faux pas, microagressions, and downright blatant acts of racism that may occur at any given moment on any given day. After a lifetime of experiencing them, the form and structure they take are familiar, they seldom vary. I am rarely taken off guard. Like finding my keys in the bottom of my purse, I’m skilled at detecting American racism not by sight, but by the sound of it, the feel of it.
"...many times, because of my own filters – I interpret something as racist that really isn’t or, at least, isn’t very racist. This has often created a disturbing sense of disorientation."
Here in Spain, though, the structures, the patterns are different. Much like the language itself uses different sentence structures and verb forms – the acts of racism or colorism that I experience are of an almost entirely different composition. For all but the most blatant occurrences, I often don’t recognize that they’ve happened until after they’ve happened. And many times, because of my own filters – I interpret something as racist that really isn’t or, at least, isn’t very racist. This has often created a disturbing sense of disorientation. I second guess my own emotional reactions, my shorthand no longer serves. I regularly try to remind myself to assume the position of an observer; recording and noting these occurrences, becoming more conscious, more aware of the subtle variations in understanding and interpretation.
Language plays a big role in the need for this adjustment. Even the words used to describe my flesh, my race, my skin color are words that would make me cringe, then lash out if I heard something even close to them being said in the US. Negra. Which literally means, black. Morena – which can either mean dark-haired or dark-skinned. When I hear them said aloud in public, I often have to quash an instant and conditioned fight-or-flight response that initially surfaces; an instinct developed after generations of hearing words that describe my skin color come from the mouths of people who don’t share that color. An instinct that comes from knowing that this particular speaker-subject combination usually either spells awkwardness or trouble.
Almost every time I go clothes shopping here, I am likely to catch a snippet of conversation between other shoppers discussing some article of clothing. For me and my black American ears, the words that most frequently penetrate through the background buzz of a crowded store is, ‘las negras’. My ears involuntarily perk up. Are they… talking about… me? I doubt that they are. But… they could be. If I were in the US, I’d never pause my shopping to try and decipher if the shoppers next to me were discussing black blouses or black people. Mainly because it would be unlikely to hear a non-black person in the US saying out loud in public, ‘I like the black ones,’ to actually refer to a black person. In Spain, it’s quite possible that you could hear this language being used to describe either shirts or people. So, because I am here, I pause and listen for a moment, even though I realize that if they are talking about people and not blouses, I’m the only one in earshot who’ll think anything of it.
Of course, there are the times when no translation is needed; when there is no mistaking exactly what is happening. Like the time I was walking down a busy Barcelona street at night with another black person and passed a young 20-something-year-old woman. I couldn’t tell if she was Spanish or not, but I did hear a heavy accent when she turned in our direction and shouted out, “Nigger!” with a look of vicious glee, as we walked by.
During my first Semana Santa, I was travelling through Seville with another black American friend. On our way back from a very pleasant dinner, we got stuck in a crowd of people who’d gathered to watch one of the many religious processions happening during Holy Week. Unable to move either forward or backward, we found ourselves unintentionally positioned in front of a group of seated spectators. A few of them were extremely displeased that we were blocking their view, and began to spew disparaging remarks at us. “Negras! Jillipollas!” (roughly equivalent to, ‘black assholes!’) they grumbled loudly enough for us to hear.
My friend tried apologizing in Spanish, explaining that we couldn’t even budge. After a while, a space opened up and I attempted to move further along down the sidewalk. I was blocked by a middle-aged Spanish man, who, after letting a stream of other people (all white) pass by, repositioned himself so that I couldn’t pass. Fed up, I turned myself sideways and forcefully nudged past him, rubbing against his arm in the process. He snatched back his arm, produced a handkerchief from his pocket and proceeded to vigorously wipe the place on his forearm where my touch had apparently soiled him. The surrealness of the whole scene was underscored by the imposing, heavily adorned statue of Jesus slowly passing by above our heads, a look of resigned sorrow plastered upon his face.
"I felt slightly sorry for these clearly ignorant people, and concluded that I was simply better than them, if not on the basis of my external color, then on the basis of my internal character. Of course, this reaction was as problematic as the expected one."
In both of these incidents, it was clear to me that the perpetrator’s intent was to somehow make me feel inferior, to make sure that I knew that they knew that I was less than them because of my skin color. But, as is often my tendency, I responded contrarily. Instead of feeling denigrated or even really angry, I noticed a mixed feeling that was 1 part pity and 2 parts superiority beginning to grow within me. I felt slightly sorry for these clearly ignorant people, and concluded that I was simply better than them, if not on the basis of my external color, then on the basis of my internal character. Of course, this reaction was as problematic as the expected one. I developed the tendency of walking around town with my headphones always in – preferring a soundtrack of 90s ‘conscious’ rap to the possibility of overhearing comments on my appearance as I passed. I noticed myself scowling, looking down my nose, or shaking my head at Spaniards I passed in the street who I thought looked at me disapprovingly. I was disengaging in a way that was making me feel even more alienated than any racial slur could have. I resolved to check my own internal prejudices as much as I could. Perhaps, I thought, instead of distancing myself from these ‘others’, I should focus my efforts on finding and connecting with other others like me.
All my skinfolk ain't my kinfolk
Before I moved to Spain, I lived in Atlanta for over 16 years. As of the 2010 census, Atlanta’s population was 54% black. I was born and raised in Macon, Georgia, where black people make up over 65% of the population. I attended an HBCU (Historically Black College / University) for my undergraduate degree, and the neighborhood I lived in before moving abroad was roughly 95% black.
Suffice it to say, I’m not only very accustomed to, but I also like being around black people.
However, I’m also quite accustomed to working, living with, and getting to know people of other races and cultures. Whether in corporate or educational settings, I’ve often been the only or one of few black or brown people in the mix, yet I’ve always adapted easily to any environment, regardless of the demographic makeup. So, the idea of living in Spain where I knew I’d be one of relatively few black people didn’t faze me. Still, I, like many black Americans and other expats who’ve lived apart from their own for weeks and months, tend to actively seek out others who look like me. My interactions with other black people from across the Diaspora while living in Spain – black Latinos, black Europeans, and black Africans – have been an interesting study not only in our cultural similarities and differences, but also in how we are viewed by the racial majority here, as well as how we view each other. Whenever I’ve either proactively engaged with or actively acknowledged another black person that I encounter here in Spain, I usually find that they’re either:
- Not willing or able to engage with me – often because of cultural or language differences that limit or prohibit communication,
- Willing to engage with me, but only to ‘profit’ from me in some way – either men hitting on me, someone trying to sell me something (from umbrellas, to drugs, to ‘tours’, etc.),
- Or, willing to engage me on regular, friendly terms – in some instances, this only happens after we’ve quickly moved past the other 2 phases above.
After several months of living in Ciudad Real, a smallish town in the interior of Spain with very few black people among its inhabitants, I remembered joking to some of my American friends that the ayuntamiento or the policia local must have warned all the brown people in town not to get too friendly with one another while living here. I’d even developed a faux slogan for the town:
Ciudad Real. Where even the black people don’t like black people.
My friends and I laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea. Yet, after months of getting the same chilly treatment – avoided eye contact, un-returned salutations – from brown folks I passed on the streets, I started to wonder if it wasn’t such a ridiculous notion after all.
The one tentative friendship I managed to develop was with Eduardo, a black Cuban who’d lived in the area for roughly 7 years. “Los negros en este ciudad estan en conflicto,” he told me, in an attempt to explain why I felt that other black Latinos in town were dismissive of my attempts to be friendly or engaging. I wasn’t sure exactly what they were in conflict about. Eduardo didn’t explain further. After a while, I wondered if the internal conflict that Eduardo alluded to was similar to the conflict that I’d observed in some black Americans when deciding whether to engage with certain black people in Europe – specifically, Africans.
In one of the online travel groups that I’m a member of – one that targets black travelers – another member, a black American, recently asked for advice on where to find other black people in Barcelona. He clarified his request by specifying that he was interested in meeting black Europeans. Since I know that there are tons of Africans to be seen on the streets of Barcelona, I found it a bit odd that the request for other black people specifically left them out of the equation.
It occurred to me that there seems to be an unspoken rule among black Americans (in addition to many Spaniards and other expats in Spain), that one simply does not make friends with Africans. And even though I don’t tend to follow that unspoken rule, it’s not until I find myself in the company of another American that I realize how unusual I am. In fact, sometimes I feel like I have a guilty secret. A thing I should probably not confess if I don’t want to be looked at as strange, misguided, or even a little crazy by my fellow brown countrymen. But I confess it anyway, because I often forget to be self-conscious until someone reminds me. Like the time I received an unexpected reaction from a well-traveled American friend visiting me in Spain, when I casually mentioned:
“Yeah, so, I went to dinner with this Ghanaian friend of mine the other day….”
Her head snapped in my direction, her facial expression a mixture of incredulity, disapproval and concern.
“You actually went out with him?”
Or the reaction from another American visitor, when we were in a small bar-slash-club in the center of Naples. When 2 African guys approached us to dance, she shooed them away and later referred to them as “those 2 ugly dark Africans!”
For my part, I make friends with Africans for several reasons, most of them entirely selfish. As I mentioned earlier, I like black people – our way of being, our easy laughter and joking even when things aren’t always that good. The way we walk as if there is music playing just for us. Our style – the way we adorn ourselves – jewelry, colors, hair. There’s a comfort in the familiarity of appearance and mannerisms of black people that relaxes me, puts me at ease. I like hearing patois and pidgin as much as I like hearing street slang and Southern drawls from back home. And then, of course, there’s the food.
My African friends here in Spain have fed me often and each time, it has given me a taste of home, especially since a lot of my Southern culinary and cultural roots presumably have their origins in West Africa. My African friends know how to properly fry up a fish. I don’t have to explain to them what okra is or why I miss it so. When they put a plate of chicken yassa, jollof rice, thiboudienne, black-eyed peas or huge slices of summer-sweet watermelon on the table in front of me, I see, smell, and taste traces of home – both the America that I know and the Africa that I’ve imagined as one of her orphaned offspring. When the sounds of azonto, kizombo, West African hip hop, or South African house music coming out of their speakers sets off an impromptu dance party, I find myself remembering blue lights in the basement, slow-dragging at the supper club, and backyard booty-shake contests from back home. I pause my bobbing and two-stepping only long enough to think, ‘how can I not want to be around all of this?’
My African friends have also helped me learn the language of this country that we both live in. Some of them speak very little English, so Spanish is the only language we have in common. Many of them came to Spain without knowing very much Spanish, but have mastered it in a few short years. They introduce me to new Spanish words and phrases I haven’t heard; are patient when I struggle with the vocabulary and verb tenses, or ask them to explain things I don’t understand. I also listen to them speak amongst themselves in their native tongues, occasionally asking them the meanings of words I hear them repeat often in their conversations. Because of this, I now know how to distinguish the sounds of Wolof, Mandinka, and Hausa, and can even say a scant few words in each.
"...despite the many cultural similarities that my African and black Latino colleagues and I share, and our ability to bridge the language gap that often exists between us, it isn’t always easy to surmount the other gaps that separate us..."
One of my most memorable, albeit short, friendships with African expats in Europe was with a Senegalese and Ghanaian duo that my friends – another black American and a white Italian – and I met on a trip to southern Portugal. We met the Senegalese half of the duo by chance, at a bus stop. After failing to communicate in English and Spanish (which he didn’t speak) and Portuguese (which he spoke, but we didn’t), we resorted to – of all things – Italian. As it turned out, he had lived in Italy for several years, and was pretty fluent. After showing us around town, paying our train fare and introducing us to his Ghanaian friend – who, thankfully, spoke English and Portuguese, and happily shuttled us around town in his car – we shared drinks, a home-cooked meal, and sat up all night telling stories to each other; each of us speaking in a different language that at least one other person at the table could translate to the others.
Yet, despite the many cultural similarities that my African and black Latino colleagues and I share, and our ability to bridge the language gap that often exists between us, it isn’t always easy to surmount the other gaps that separate us and make us regard each other with as much unfamiliarity as the native residents of our host country often regard us both. These gaps are sometimes due to gender, or our relative socioeconomic status, but more often they’re attributable to a little blue booklet known as an American passport.
In a beachside restaurant in Malaga, I am having an early dinner with my Ghanaian friend. The sand and waves aren’t quite enchanting enough to offset the peculiar happenings closer to our table. Throughout the meal, the wait staff speaks almost exclusively to me. Our waiter conspicuously places both the check and the change in front of me, even though my friend pays the tab. While we’re dining, a waiter shows an elderly couple one of the last available tables on the outdoor terrace – it’s directly next to ours. The woman in the couple glances at the table, then scowls disappointedly in our direction and asks loudly and incredulously, “AQUI?”
Weeks later, I head out to one of the most popular clubs in central Malaga with a motley group of friends – 1 white Italian guy, 1 mixed-raced French girl and 2 West African guys. At the door, there’s a bit of a delay as the bouncer brusquely asks for, then takes his time thoroughly examining the IDs of the 2 West African gents. The rest of us simply exchange confused looks, wondering (yet knowing) why none of us was even given half a glance before being allowed to pass into the club.
In Ciudad Real, Eduardo – my black Cuban friend – and I are exiting a salsa club in the center of town. Just a few paces beyond the club, we pass 2 local police officers headed in the other direction. All of a sudden, they stop and question Eduardo for his documentation. He produces his papers. One of the cops rudely snatches his documents, and starts peppering him with questions. Meanwhile, I’m standing there, unidentified and unquestioned, watching as the tension starts to build. The more the cop questions, the more upset Eduardo gets. Soon, the rude cop escalates things. He grabs Eduardo’s arm and shoves him against a wall nearby before starting to pat him down. Realizing this all-too-familiar scene, I whip out my phone and start recording the incident with my camera. Rude cop finally pays attention to me. He comes over, snatches my phone and barks at me that it’s illegal to record the police (at that time, it isn’t). Reluctantly, I pocket my phone. Rude cop returns to harassing Eduardo. His partner stands silently in front of me, looking a bit embarrassed. “Is this how it works in your country? Is this what your job is?” I ask him, frustrated and angry at the whole ordeal. After a few more moments of shaking Eduardo down, rude cop has enough, and lets us go.
When we discuss this incident later, Eduardo will say that things are different for me – because I’m a woman and because I’m American. I’d like to say it’s not true, but I know that it is. I even take advantage of it sometimes. Like when I notice someone eyeing me with that ‘untrustworthy immigrant’ look, I speak English loudly in their presence to command a little additional respect from them. It almost always works. When I present my passport at airport checkpoints, I smugly relish in the slight bit of surprise I sometimes see on the attendant’s face. I know that I can pass more freely into certain spaces – restaurants, shops, people’s homes – because I am an American, and therefore assumed to be an expat with financial means, not an immigrant with financial needs. I am aware of the privilege that my passport bestows on me in this place, and of how it can not only distinguish but also alienate me from other black people living here.
“Eres mas toubabo.” (You’re more like a white person). This, from a Barcelona-based Senegalese friend of mine who is explaining – in less subtle terms – why my experience as a black person in Spain is often different from his. I’m pissed at his choice of words. Growing up, I would often get teased by other black Americans for ‘acting white’ or ‘talking white’, so I’m definitely not pleased to be confronted with the same accusation years later and halfway around the world. He continues, assuaging my anger by explaining in greater detail. As a black person born and raised in America, he says, I understand and am more familiar with European values and social norms than he is or ever will be. While we may both see differences between our cultures and Spanish culture, for me, the differences are subtle, while for him they are comparatively vast. Even though he’s lived in Spain for years, he’s prone to saying, “This is not my way of life.”
Langston Hughes, one of the first black Americans to travel extensively in Spain made note of his own experiences interacting with other black and brown people in the country. During the Spanish Civil War, Hughes, a poet and journalist, worked as a war correspondent for 6 months in 1937. During his time in Spain, Hughes drew several parallels between fascism in Spain and racism back in the US. And in one poem, Letter from Spain to Alabama, Hughes uses a fictional encounter to share both his confusion at seeing black Africans fighting on the side of the fascist regime and the difficulty of bridging language and cultural gaps with his would-be kin. Decades later, I find traces of my own experience in his words.
Letter from Spain to Alabama, by Langston Hughes
We captured a wounded Moor today. He was just as dark as me. I said, Boy, what you been doin' here Fightin' against the free?
He answered something in a language I couldn't understand But somebody told me he was sayin' They nabbed him in his land
And made him join the fascist armyAnd come across to Spain And he said he had a feelin' He'd never get back home again.
He said he had a feelin' This whole thing wasn't right. He said he didn't know The folks he had to fight.
And as he lay there dying In a village we had taken, I looked across to Africa And seed foundations shakin'.
Cause if a free Spain wins this war,The colonies, too, are free - - Then something wonderful'll happen To them Moors as dark as me.
I said, I guess that's why old England And I reckon Italy, too, Is afraid to let a workers' Spain Be too good to me and you - -
Cause they got slaves in Africa - - And they don't want ‘em to be free. Listen, Moorish prisoner, hell! Here, shake hands with me!
I knelt down there beside him, And I took his hand - - But the wounded Moor was dyin' And he didn't understand.
I am walking past the cluster of bars that line one side of Plaza Merced in central Malaga. A group of gregarious young men shout out as I pass by them,
I snicker to myself, shake my head and keep walking.
Nope. I shake my head again.
It appears that I am not the only one here who occasionally struggles to reconcile my Americanness with my new environment. Often, when I introduce myself to other people here, the question is asked, “De donde eres?” (Where are you from?) With my typical response being, “Soy Americana.” (I’m American.)
On more occasions than I can count, my answer has been received with a mixture of surprise and slight disbelief. The person I’m speaking to either repeats the word, as if to confirm that they’ve heard me correctly,
…or, I’m peppered with more questions to help the listener clarify my response.
Such as when a Cuban guy sitting next to me at a bar queries, “Pero, tus origenes…?” (But, your origins?) Or when my new roommate presses, “Pero, que mezcla tienes?” (But, what mix do you have?) Or even the European guy who I bumped into at a rooftop BBQ in a hostel who accepted the fact that I was American, but not too American, since he was convinced that my grandmother must have been a slave from Africa. I calmly assured him with as much shade as humanly possible that my grandmother was born in the 1930s. I resisted the urge to append the statement with ‘dumbass’, choosing to punctuate the sentence with a look that conveyed the same sentiment.
In fact, the only reason my grandmother even entered into the conversation is because I’ve developed a boilerplate response to the persisting questions about my being a full-blooded American. When I’m ready to put a quick end to the questioning, I simply respond. “Mi madre es Americana, y la madre de mi madre es Americana, asi que, soy Americana.” (My mother is American, my mother’s mother is American, so for that reason, I’m American.)
Even though many internationally known film stars and popular music icons are clearly both black and American, even though the President of the United States and his family are all black Americans, for some reason, it’s hard for some Spaniards and other Europeans to easily accept that there’s one standing right in front of them. But if I’m honest, sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that I’m American.
“Kisha, is it true that the police shoot black people in the US?”
This question comes from one of my students during an English conversation class when I’m encouraging them to ask me about life in the US. Lately, the news from home has been filled with images of police brutality and excessive gun violence by law officers against unarmed black people. Images and commentary surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, the related non-violent protests and the violent Baltimore riots have made their way all the way over to Spain. My students are shocked at the graphic nature of it all, they can’t seem to believe that the police can actually kill citizens without any real punishment.
Even my other black associates here in Spain – who are used to being profiled, harassed or occasionally mistreated by the police, confess that the situation is far more severe in America. As Eduardo says to me, “I may be treated differently or badly here due to the color of my skin, but I’m not going to be killed because of it.” I can’t help but think that maybe one of the reasons many Spaniards find it hard to believe that there are black Americans, is because our own country doesn’t treat us or make us feel like we’re Americans.
For this reason, I don’t always feel the nostalgia or the tender longing for my home country that my brown kin from other parts of the world do. When my Senegalese friend speaks of home, how he wants to go back there, and how simple life is – even though it can also be tough – I almost envy his longing. When my Cuban friend speaks of spending days at the beach, catching and eating huge fresh fish right out of the ocean, having anyone open the door of their home to you for a bite to eat, a drink, a little dancing… I am more than a little jealous – even though we both know that Cuba, at least politically speaking, ain’t no island paradise.
The place that I do have longings and nostalgia for is actually something of a non-place; a sub-category of America known as black America. I long for the taste of my (and other) grandma’s food – sweet potato pie, cornbread, mac-and-cheese, collards – and that of the black people from my region – fried okra, gumbo, shrimp and grits, low country boil. I desperately miss the sound of Southern-speak on the streets of my steadily gentrifying black neighborhood, rubbing elbows with the elders at the neighborhood grocery store. Even the not-as-familiar but still recognizable and treasured sounds of my colored cousins from other parts of black America – the ‘over-hoard’ pronunciation of the LA homeys, the mellifluous bravado of black New Yorkers, the in-between-north-and-south speech patterns of folks from the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest. But this, I realize, is different from missing America herself. I have no wistful yearnings for her purple mountains majesty or her fruited plains. I, like many black Americans, regard my home country with a double-mindedness. Yes, I am from there. But, I am also not. That is, the American identity as it is most often portrayed both within and outside of my native land, is not my identity. This is something that seems uniquely different from the relationships that others in the diaspora have with their countries of origin. Even though their color may be different from others in their home country, their culture – language, history, music, cuisine – is almost completely shared. As a black American, I have always known that I exist as part of 2 cultures. My history has its own month. My music has its own stations. My literature has its own shelves in the bookstore or library. My cuisine – which I consider to be the only truly American cuisine, found nowhere else in the world – is not commercialized and widely recognized around the globe as American. The larger American culture – that of fast food, football, movie stars, and big cars, and the culture of black America – that of gospel, hip-hop, and soul food are not consumed domestically nor exported under the same label of 100% American, even though both of them are.
And so while I occasionally flaunt my Americanness – the passport, the perfect English – as a badge of privilege, I, like “los negros en este ciudad,” am conflicted about my American identity. When I say, “I’m American,” I sometimes feel the need to affix an asterisk to the end of the statement.
The eloquent black American actor, singer, civil rights activist, and occasional expat Paul Robeson sums up the feeling rather nicely. When asked by an interviewer, “Do you still feel American?” Robeson responds:
“I would say that unquestionably I am an American – born there… upon the backs of my people was developed the primary wealth of America…. There’s a lot of America that belongs to me yet. But just like a Scottish American is proud of being from Scotland, I’m proud for being African…. So I would say today, that I’m an American who is infinitely prouder to be of African descent. No question about it. No question about it. I’m an Afro-American and I don’t use the word American ever loosely again.”
Black in Spain is a series of essays and first-hand accounts of my experience living, working, and travelling as an African-American woman in Spain. My observations on race, color, and culture in Spain are meant to inform and enlighten as well as highlight the differences between the "black experience" in Spain and the US.
Read the other posts in the series now: