Among the responses to the Trayvon Martin ruling, one in particular has risen to the top of my Facebook feed: Questlove’s excellent essay in New York Magazine. It doesn’t surprise me that this remarkable piece of writing has received so much attention. What is a little surprising, however, is that the essay’s provoked so little commentary beyond simple praise. Questlove’s essay is important for what it says about blackness and American public space; it’s also important for what it doesn’t say explicitly, but instead takes for granted, about the way that gender and blackness intersect in public space.
Here’s what’s best about the essay, beyond it’s straightforward, restrained tone: it explores racism as a structure that limits Questlove’s access to the social and physical mobility he has otherwise “earned” (and the word is important, because this essay is very much about class). Racism means that in order to protect his own physical safety, he has to attend first to the emotional safety experienced by other, whiter, people:
My friends know that I hate parking lots and elevators, not because they are places that danger could occur, but it’s a prime place in which someone of my physical size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it’s safe for me to make people feel safe.
In Questlove’s telling, this practice has been “hammered into his DNA”—it’s become physical. It’s a part of what his “primitive, exotic-looking” black* body means, as it exists in US Space.
What makes Questlove’s story particular, and an interesting test case on American blackness, is that in addition to being “six-foot-two, 300 pounds,” with an “uncivilized Afro,” he is also famous. And rich. This is Questlove’s experience of Double Consciousness; because he is Questlove, he can and should to go “swanky elitist” places where, because he is also black, he ordinarily could not and should not go. Uplift, hypothetically, should no longer be a problem for him.
The most wrenching aspect of the essay is Questlove’s general sense of exhaustion that, no matter how rich or famous he becomes, his wealth and celebrity will never alleviate the danger that his blackness, in the white imagination, poses. He will never be a Gatsby, even for the moment that Gatsby was Gatsby. Poor people, like black people, have limited access to space; unlike poverty, race can never be removed. Black skin, in Questlove’s story, is where the American Dream of a blank slate goes to die.
I live in a “nice” building. I work hard. You know I work hard. My logic is (naïve alert in 5, 4, 3, 2 … ) “Well, there can’t be any fear of any type in this building” — you’ve got to go through hell and high water just to get accepted to live here, like it’s Dartmouth or UPenn. Secondly, there are, like, five to eight guards on duty 24/7, so this spot is beyond safe.
By working hard, and getting rich, Questlove (in this essay) didn’t hope to change public space. But he believed he could buy a private space where, by virtue of being there, he could take a break from protecting the feelings of white people. The tragedy of the essay is that he could not. Questlove cleverly illustrates this point by telling a story about an elevator (an important metaphor for the question of racial uplift); the elevator goes up, but even if Questlove is in the rising elevator, he himself will always be kept down, kept in place.
This point is driven home by exactly the villain you might expect: a white woman.
One night, I get in the elevator, and just as the door closes this beautiful woman gets on….I press my floor number, and I ask her, “What floor, ma’am?” (Yes, I say “ma’am,” because … sigh, anyway.) She says nothing, stands in the corner. Mind you, I just discovered the Candy Crush app, so if anything, I’m the rude one because I’m more obsessed with winning this particular level than anything else. In my head I’m thinking, There’s no way I can be a threat to a woman this fine if I’m buried deep in this game — so surely she feels safe.
The humor comes in that I thought she was on my floor because she never acknowledged my floor request. (She was also bangin’, so inside I was like, “Dayuuuuuuuuuuum, she lives on my floor? *bow chicka wowow*!” Instantly I was on some “What dessert am I welcome-committee-ing her with?”) Anywho, the door opens, and I waited to let her off first because I am a gentleman. (Old me would’ve rushed first, thus not putting me in the position to have to follow her, God forbid if she, too, makes a left and it seems like I’m following her.) So door opens and I flirt, “Ladies first.” She says, “This is not my floor.” Then I assume she is missing her building card, so I pulled my card out to try to press her floor yet again. She says, “That’s okay.”
Then it hit me: “Oh God, she purposely held that information back.” The door closed.
Here, for a series of obvious reasons—not the least of which is that this is a probably a true story—Questlove chooses to make his point about how his body is read as fundamentally threatening by staging himself in interaction with the sort of body that his is imagined most to threaten: that of the beautiful white lady. (I’ll note that one thing I respect most about this essay is Questlove’s insistence on the validity of his attraction to her.) For all the reasons we know—all the history of lynch mobs and the fantasies of the insatiability of black male desire—this particular white woman, alone in an elevator at night, comes to stand in for the generalized, infrastructural fear that America has towards blackness, particularly black men.
It’s easy to vilify the beautiful rich white woman: her insult to Questlove’s experience, her imagined blindness to the fact that he, rather than she, is in fact more vulnerable. But what cannot play a role in this essay in order for it to work the way it does, is the possibility that that white woman, that night, wasn’t actually expressing a felt racism–wasn’t, that is, afraid of Questlove because he was a black man.
She might just have been afraid, of men. Of rape.
Questlove’s essay here, reading race and class together, forgets that by ignoring gender, he’ll get the story rather wrong. The essay knows that every man with access to that elevator is rich and/or famous. Questlove thus believes (in the essay) that, as a result, the woman should feel “safe.”
But of course any woman knows that where she is least safe–the least protected against assault, both physically and legally–is in an elevator with a rich, famous man.
I say “any woman” with some trepidation, because I’m only a white woman, and I can only speak for me. But I think that I’m right; that women, across race, know their security goes down as the social status of the men around them goes up. Think about being in an elevator with Ben Roethlisberger. Or R. Kelley. Or Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Questlove is frustrated that all his wealth will never mean he has property in the social security that, in this country, is owned by whiteness. But even as he parses the bizarre American ideology whereby race and class are and aren’t constructed together, he doesn’t address the ways in which women, too, have been historically socially excluded from the securities of wealth. The gender bias of property laws—in a way intimately bound with the racial bias of property laws—created, for women as well as slaves, a myriad of social deaths.
Which is to say: excellent though it is, in making a woman an embodiment of white fear, Questlove’s essay has to omit all the ways in which women, like black men (though certainly not identical to black men) develop strategies for dealing with fear; how they learn how to protect and defend their fear; learn (like Questlove) how and when to get out of cars; learn things like never, ever tell a man on an elevator where you live.
If I were braver, here, I’d tell you my own patterns and habits, and the knowledge and fears I’ve accrued moving through city spaces carrying my own body, very different than Questlove’s, with its particular sets of risks and strengths: physically very vulnerable, social very secure. I wish it were safer to have this dialogue, and I’m glad to read Questlove’s account because I think it starts one.
Staging the nameless woman as the figure of racism doesn’t make Questlove wrong, per se, because the injury he experienced that night is very real. But it’s worth noticing that there are other stories and fears going on, too. And it’s worth remembering that the biggest threat to both Questlove and the nameless woman was not each other, but rather a system that breeds fear between them, that makes them both into racial emblems, and that prevents them, and prevents us all, from having access to each other as full, and complex, brave and fearful, human beings.
*Edited to add: As has been pointed out in the comments (by Questlove himself, among others), he strategically does not use words like “black” or “white” in the essay. This is one more way the essay points towards race as an interpretive and social, rather than biological, force. (It’s also another way it aligns with important texts in US literature, written by authors ranging from Kate Chopin to Toni Morrison.)
There’s much to say about this. However, I’d like to keep my focus on the question of gender, and the gender of fear. The essay focuses on the hurt done to the speaker by the nameless woman’s anxiety–does it matter if she is “white”? Or rather, how would it matter? That question is not rhetorical; it is central. I’d be very interested in any thoughts.