White Girl in Harlem

Shortly after I arrived in New York City, living a few blocks from Harlem as a graduate student at Columbia University, I stopped wanting to leave my apartment. I started to think something was out there waiting for me. I didn’t know what it was. As soon as I left my building, I felt my fear. Like it was taped to my ear. I could feel it, but I couldn’t see it. Nor could I describe it. Or understand it. It was a vague fear—all I knew was that I was going to get hurt, but 1 didn’t know how or why I felt that way. At first I thought I’d be hurt on the subway. That somebody would push me onto the tracks, and I’d get run over by a train or electrocuted, so I began to stand away from the tracks. Later I began to think that my train would fall off the tracks. Whenever my train car jerked or lights flashed beneath it, I was sure a car in front of me had fallen off the tracks, and it was only a matter of time before my car went careening into it. I would brace myself, holding onto the pole. I knew I was being ridiculous but couldn’t help it. Something was going to happen to me; I just knew it.

I began to fear that somebody, anybody, would attack me on the street. Attack me in a way from which I would never recover. Then my fear began to take shape through a premonition. He came to me in my dreams at first, a black man coming to ask me to pay for his suffering. He stabbed me with knives, silver blades flickering before me. He stabbed my sisters, too. I watched as he sliced skin from their faces. I felt his hate for me. To him I did not exist; he felt nothing when that knife went into me. He didn’t care when I screamed because it didn’t relieve him of any of his pain. His pain still went on and on; I could see it in his eyes. His hate. His indifference. What scared me the most was that he saw right through me. He saw everything in me but didn’t care about any of it. He thought I felt nothing, as I had felt none of what life had dealt him. So he stabbed me to make me feel it, but by then it was too late; all I could feel was fear—fear of him.

Afraid to sleep, I left all the lights on in my apartment, but as soon as I closed my eyes, the man appeared. Every day I grew more exhausted from not being able to sleep.

Soon I started to believe he was real and that he was telling me about his arrival by coming to me through my dreams. Even my building, which had double doors, wasn’t secure enough, so I started pushing my dresser up against the door at night, should he get past the guards downstairs. Then one night I thought I saw him enter my room through the window when I had risen from sleep to a semiconscious state. When I saw him come through the window, all I could do was lie in my bed, immobilized by fear, paralyzed, and watch him. I tried to make myself get up and run to the door, but my legs wouldn’t move. I tried rubbing my eyes, but he stayed. At last he left. I woke then and tried to lock my window, but it was already locked, and so I moved my dresser, as it had been blocking my exit. It was ridiculous to think he could climb the flat, brick surface of the building, but I couldn’t help myself. I was that sure he was coming.

For the time being, though, he could only get to me through my dreams. I tried to find ways to trick him out of my sleep. I tried sleeping behind my bed, thinking if he did come into my room, he wouldn’t find me. I left my blankets and pillows on my bed so it’d appear I just hadn’t come home for the night. He still came every night. “This is just a dream!” I heard myself yell as I saw him come in through the window, but I didn’t believe it was a dream. I saw him too clearly; I just knew he was real.

It wasn’t until my mother came to visit that I started to believe I was going crazy. I hadn’t told my mother about my fear. I didn’t want to; I knew she wouldn’t understand. She would dismiss it, attribute it to stress, but it was more than that. It was taking over my life. I couldn’t walk to school without thinking about it; it stopped me from going to class. At night before going to bed, I made sure the door and window were locked, and if I had to go to the bathroom, I tried desperately to hold it in. I didn’t want to unlock my door, especially not at night. He could be waiting in the dormitory showers.

I didn’t think he’d come the night my mother was there. Before bed I thought to myself, “Tonight, at least, he’ll leave me alone. Tonight I can sleep.” I prepared for his visit, anyway, by locking everything up. I put on my pajamas and got into bed. To avoid my mother’s suspicion, I turned off the lights before lying down beside her and then quickly falling asleep.

I saw him come through the window, but I didn’t wake my mother up. I thought he would go away. But he didn’t; he just stood there in the corner of the room looking at us both. It was more than I could take.

“He’s here!” I hollered. “He’s in the room!” I jumped from bed and turned on the light, and he was still there. He was still there! He was standing by the radiator, looking sheepish. He had on green shorts.

“My God, Jennifer,” my mother said in disbelief, first blocking her eyes because of the light but then opening them wide to try to see what I saw. “There’s nobody here.”

But there was, there was! I pointed to him, but in the light he swirled around, broke into bits of dust and disappeared. I had to shake my head to try to get sense back into it. I started to cry.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” my mother said, bewildered. “Sometimes I have bad dreams, too.” But it wasn’t a bad dream; it was so much more than that. Didn’t she see him? He had been there!

I knew he hadn’t. I was convinced I was going crazy.

I was afraid of the beggars on the street, the ones who smelled of urine-soaked clothes and looked as if life had been sucked out of them through their eyes. I hated the way they forced me to look at them by shaking their Styrofoam cups in my face, setting themselves up like tollbooths on Broadway, their jingling coins clanging like cymbals behind my ears. As if to ask, Have you really done your share? And when I passed, I knew what they were thinking: Hey, hey you, you think you got problems? Well, you can disappearor assimilate, isn’t that the fancy word you use?anytime you want. You think you got problems? You should try my life. I wanted to yell back at them, I’m not one of them! Don’t you get it?!But I knew they wouldn’t. Because I had already begun to morph.

I worried a beggar would stab me one day for not putting a quarter in his cup. That all that had dried up within him would turn into a terrible blaze one day. I thought I saw him one day, that man who kept coming through my window; I thought I saw him in a black man who came toward me on the street. I could tell he was out of his mind on drugs; he zigzagged down the sidewalk, and right when I was ready to cross, he addressed me in an unnaturally high-pitched voice, “Can I eat your pussy? Can I eat it on a string?” I had to laugh because it was all so surreal, but I stepped out into the street, less afraid of the cars zooming past than of him.

I tried to think where my fear came from. I thought if I could intellectualize it, I could get over it. As I was growing up in a small town in upstate New York, my house had been a block over from the projects, which were predominantly black. I never hung out there. In fact my parents had forbidden us from hanging out with anybody who lived there, black or white. “Animals,” my parents had said, after hearing a story from a white neighbor about how a black girl living in the projects had bitten off part of the skin of another. “Animals and trash.”

My father, a blue-collar city worker, seemed to fear that most: that one of those black men would blemish the skin of his white daughters. He’d call us inside whenever the black boys tried to talk to us. Sometimes we’d smile back at them when my father wasn’t looking; we knew it would infuriate him. But we generally obeyed him, because it was easier to do that than to disobey him.

When he found out one of my friends was black, he forbade me from seeing him but wouldn’t give a reason why. “His house is nicer than ours!” I screamed because it was the only thing I could think to say to hurt him, but he didn’t respond. He just shook his head and went on watching his TV show.

“Your father’s not racist,” my mother said when I accused him of being so. “It’s just…well, you have to understand what he’d go through…” By that she meant what his co-workers would say. What our neighbors would say. When I got angry with her for saying that, she took a different approach. “It’s like the baby bird that falls from its nest. Once the mother bird smells human hands on it, she won’t want to touch it.” I didn’t even want to think about what that analogy meant.

But I was afraid. One night our neighbors were robbed. My younger sister had woken me during the night to say she had heard a snipping sound. I had laughed at her, told her it was a dream and sent her back to bed. The next morning I held her hand as we stood in the driveway watching my father peel back the window screen of our neighbors’ home, which had been snipped in two. “Here’s where he got in,” my father said.

I knew it was just a matter of time before our house was hit.

Our high school had a tracking system under which you took classes according to ability. In my four years of high school, I remember having only two black people in my class. When walking through the school halls, I sometimes peered into one of the basic classes, and it seemed most of the faces that looked back at me were black.

Because of where I lived, I was one of few white people on my bus. I hated taking the bus. When I got on, the black girls would make it clear they did not want to sit with me. “Uh-uh,” they’d say, one after another, placing their book bags next to them or moving over so I’d have to climb over them to get a window seat. I didn’t fight with them. I would rather have stood, though I knew the bus driver would never allow that. Although it seemed I knew most of the kids at school, at least by sight, there was only one person I ever recognized on the bus. Her name was Kim, a white girl who played on my basketball team and lived a few blocks from me. Usually I sat with her.

The bus dropped us off on one side of a walking bridge, and I lived on the other side of it. Kim and I would walk a few blocks together, and then we would part; I would cross the bridge alone. Usually I’d try to hold Kim up by asking her questions until the black girls crossed the bridge. I didn’t want to be on the bridge with them. I wasn’t afraid of the black girls I knew from school or basketball, only those I didn’t know. A few times after accidentally bumping into one of them in the hallway, I was whapped on the head with a notebook.

One day Kim had to hurry home. I tried to keep her for as long as I could by asking her questions, but it wasn’t long enough. I’d have to cross the bridge with the black girls. In fact, I’d have to walk ahead of them. As I started across the bridge, I tried to think of other things to keep my mind distracted. I peered over the edge at the shallow creek below. There was so much garbage down there. I was lost in thought when I heard the girls call to me from a few steps behind.

“Hey, Blondie!”


“Oh, Blondie!”

I knew they were talking to me—I was the only other person on the bridge—but I ignored them. I didn’t turn around because I didn’t want them to see my fear. All I could think to do was to continue walking at the same pace.

“Hey, Blondie!” one of the girls screamed, more belligerently. Feeling I had no choice, I finally turned. My eyes, which never settled on them in the school hallway, now rested on them with fear. My fear ignited them; it empowered them; it angered them. One girl grabbed a handful of my hair and pushed me down on the bridge until I was a supplicant before them. I could smell urine on the concrete. “We hate blondes,” the girl said, and the others laughed. I wanted to scream, What do you want from me? How can I make anything different? but instead I got up, wiped myself off and continued home.

I could hear their voices as they walked off toward the projects. Once I was on my block, I felt safe. They wouldn’t follow me home. That I knew. After walking through the front door of my house, I collapsed in a heap on the kitchen floor, tears and mucus pooling together.

“What is wrong with you?” my mother asked, but I didn’t answer. All I knew was that I was never going to take that bus home again— ever. I’d walk the mile and a half in rain and snow before I’d get on it again.

I never got rid of my fear, but in time it abated. I stopped thinking about it. That is, until Shelby and her family were murdered; then it intensified. I was 16. Shelby, who was white, had played tennis with my younger sister, Suzanne. I hadn’t known Shelby, not even by name, before she was murdered. Nobody knew what had happened to her and her family for weeks. Rumors circulated. Some people said it was a Mafia hit—that their throats had been cut open and their tongues pulled out through the slits. That it had to do with drugs. Why else would somebody kill an entire family a few days before Christmas? The papers reported it differently: Shelby was found lying naked on her bed, her formal dress over her. The house was smoldering; a fire had been set but hadn’t taken off. It had just charred her body, her father’s body, her mother’s body and her brother’s body. Her dog was found dead, too. Smoke inhalation, the police report said.

When the police released the sketch of the man they thought did it I recognized him, or at least I thought I did. He looked like everybody who lived around me. The black community was in an uproar; the sketch was too generic, they said. A nondescript black man. And it was. Black men were stopped left and right and questioned. I didn’t think many whites thought twice about that, though. I knew I didn’t. The police knew what they were doing. And to my relief, they finally caught the man. They filled him with bullets. He jerked up from where he had been sitting, spun around, fired a few shots back and then collapsed on the floor.

There was nobody left to convict, nobody left to try, so they went after his mother. Imagine that, his mother as guilty of that crime as he was. Years later the city found out the truth: The man had acted alone. One of the detectives had planted evidence in the case; he had put her fingerprints on a gas can that had been found in the house. The mother was released from jail shortly thereafter.

My fear was most prominent when I was on the subway. There always seemed to be a vagrant with skin that didn’t look as if it had aged but had been desiccated from sleeping in one of the cars. I averted my eyes; I thought if I looked at them, they would wake up and ask me what exactly I thought I was looking at. If I felt so much pity, why didn’t I do something about it? So I kept my hands in my lap and read the poetry or the plastic-surgery advertisements on the rectangular billboards that paneled the train.

One day on the subway, a black teen-ager sitting next to me put his hand on my knee. I was afraid to tell him to remove it. He started to stroke my leg, rubbing higher and higher, as I bit down on my lip, trying to focus my attention elsewhere, as if by concentrating hard enough, I could make him disappear. When he didn’t stop, I tried to discourage him by pressing my knees closer together and using my backpack to stop his hands from moving higher. I tried to move over, but a large man was seated next to me. The leg stroking continued. He ran his hand up and down my leg until the subway doors opened at 96th Street, and I got off and tried to lose him on the crowded platform.

I could see him standing a few yards from me. Did he think I liked his touching me? I didn’t know what to do. Another train had come into the station; I decided not to get on it as he’d only follow, so I went over to the pay phone, deposited a quarter and dialed my own number. “Hello?” I said when I was greeted by my answering machine, and I started to talk and laugh, positioning myself so that I could see him. His eyes went from me to his fingernails, from subway cars coming into the station back to me. A few cars later, he took one last look at me and finally boarded. I could still feel him after he left.

It was then that my sister was robbed, her hands bound to the rocking chair in her apartment, tape over her mouth. My father asked the question I wanted to but didn’t. A question I yelled at him for asking.

“Was he black?”

My sister yelled at him, too, but when he persisted, answered him.


I stopped reading the newspaper because I saw the man I dreamt about on every page. I saw a woman’s face on the nightly news; it was just a sketch, as the woman had been too badly beaten in Central Park for her face to be shown, too badly beaten to be identified. A woman in a coma. “Do you know her?” the newscaster was asking, and I wanted to call him to say, Yes, it’s me.

I had been in Central Park the day it happened, within 20 feet of where she was attacked, an hour before she was attacked. When they released the attacker’s sketch, I crawled up close to the TV to get a better look at the guy. Had I seen him in the park? Had he been the guy on the bike that had almost hit me as I walked one of the paths? Had I walked over the rock he used to slam her over the head?

I was not afraid of the black men I knew, several of whom lived in our dormitory. At night I often joined the women on my floor at the pub in the basement of our building. I didn’t feel particularly close to them. I knew it was not easy for them to have a conversation with me. At that time my thoughts went only in one direction—down— so I rarely spoke when I was with them. My lips held themselves in an unnatural smile, resembling toy wax lips, I imagined.

One night as I sat on a barstool drinking beer, mesmerized by the smoke a young woman across from me was exhaling, a light-skinned black man walked in. I noticed him immediately; he was beautiful, with a strong jaw, something I always notice. He was tall and muscular, too; his two friends seemed to disappear beside him. I caught his eye, and he smiled and came over.

“Michael,” he said, extending his hand. While I shook it, he used his other hand to hoist himself onto a chair.

“Jennifer,” I said. I was glad I had finished at least one beer. It soothed me, made me calm. Michael ordered himself a beer and asked if I wanted one.

“I’m okay” I said.

He scanned the room as I picked the label off my bottle of beer, not knowing what to say or do next.

“So, what do you do?” he asked.

“What do I do? Not much.”

He looked at me. Then he began talking about himself, about how he had grown up in the Midwest and hadn’t been to New York before being accepted to Columbia, where he was working on his M.B.A. Whenever he took a sip of beer, his shirtsleeves rose, and I blushed, looking at his arms. They were thick and hardened.

“You’re awfully quiet,” he said.

“I know,” I said apologetically. “It’s just, well, I never know what to say to people when I meet them for the first time.”

“Then we’ll have to meet again,” he said.

That Saturday he took me to dinner and then to a jazz bar. He was better dressed than I was, in a sports coat and khaki pants. I had on a pair of jeans and an old sweater.

I enjoyed having dinner with him. He talked more than I did, about his family mostly. He asked me a few questions that I replied to in short, fragmented sentences, and he nodded encouragingly. I was sure he could see I was nervous, though I doubted he could guess why. It wasn’t because he was black; it was because I felt I was hiding things.

I wanted to ask him questions, questions I knew would dehumanize, objectify him: What is it like to be black? But it wasn’t answers I wanted; what I wanted was for him to understand.

By the time we got to the bar, I had had a drink or two and felt energized. Sitting in that chair, I started to feel discriminated against, oppressed; I had become part of a taboo, I wanted people to look at me, to look at us, to see what I had done. I who constantly worried I was racist had finally conquered racism: I no longer saw color. And I was willing to take on the oppression, the discrimination, to be with Michael. It was as if by being with him, I was somehow part of them, that I had erased my color, which in turn erased some of my guilt. After all, how could I be racist if I was with him? None of those people in the bar could understand how I felt, I imagined. How I felt about Michael. If people couldn’t accept my being with him, well, then I wanted nothing to do with them, either. Oh, if only my parents could see me now!

Standing on the subway platform on our way home, I was no longer afraid. I was no longer afraid because I was with Michael.

Later that night, when he kissed me goodnight, for some reason it surprised me that I did not taste his color on my lips. And it surprised me even more when I did not feel his color as I rested my hand on his arm.

That night as I got ready for bed, I didn’t think about the man who came to me through my dreams. It was as if I had finally won him over. What had made that man most angry was that I did not see him, that he had been nothing more than a shadow, something I could step over without noticing I had done it. He was something I could choose to notice or not. How could he say that now? I was doing what he wanted me to do: I was seeing him through Michael.

I dared turn the light off. At first I was uneasy, as if he were there, as if I could sense him. But soon I began to relax, believing he was no longer coming to hurt me. He was just there as he always had been. Just there to see what happened. And he had forgiven me, at least in part.

Michael and I went out a few more times, but it was apparent we had little in common. I was still as drawn to him as ever, but emotionally we never grew closer. There was something resting between us that neither of us wanted to try to conquer first. One of the white women in my dormitory offhandedly mentioned that Michael had asked her out a few months earlier, but she had said no. And then she named a few others he had asked out—all white—before having met me.

The spell was broken. I hadn’t gone over to his side; he had come over to mine. I meant nothing to him. I was replaceable, interchangeable. He, too, had been using me for my color! I didn’t want to be his way out; I wanted him to be mine.

We went out once more, but by then the spark had gone out. We both felt it. It had just flickered and died.

I didn’t call him again, nor did he call me.

For the next few weeks, I spent as much time as possible in the library. I hated sitting around in my dorm room. It made me lonely. I missed the house I grew up in, the familiarity of it.

One night I fell asleep in the library while trying to get through my weekly reading assignments. I had piled books at my feet, picking one up at a time, reading as much as I could until I was so fatigued I thought if only I closed my eyes for a few minutes I’d have the energy to read when I opened them. When I woke, all I could see when I looked out the window and into the darkness was my reflection and that of the lights behind me.

I debated calling security for an escort but then decided against it. I could walk along the sidewalk outside the Manhattan School of Music, which had cameras and guards inside the building monitoring them.

Outside I pulled my jacket tighter as the wind wound itself around Manhattan. Students came in and out of the shops around campus, but as I headed north, I saw fewer and fewer people. Soon there was nobody ahead of me. I took a deep breath.

It was always there that I began to panic, that part of the walk where there was nothing, no cameras, no people, just buildings. Every now and then, a car zipped past, but I doubted any of them would stop if something should happen. They’d just turn their heads and floor the accelerator. Up ahead was where I turned to get under the Manhattan School of Music cameras. Only a few blocks left.

I let out my breath when I got there safely. There was one more isolated stretch—no more than a block, really—but my building was right next to a park that had crack vials all over the place. Sometimes I wished I could sit up in a tree and watch what went on there at night. I was as fascinated as I was scared. Whenever I walked by the park at night, I imagined somebody coming out from there with a needle in hand. I walked faster.

I decided to walk in the street to be in the headlights of oncoming traffic. I tightened the straps of my backpack. As I got closer to my dormitory, I saw three black men coming down the street, talking loudly and animatedly. My body tensed up, as if bear-hugging itself. I tried to make myself look bigger. I tried to make myself look determined. Instinctively I crossed the street to let them pass. It wasn’t until I heard my name being called that I realized one of them was Michael. I knew that nondescript black man would be back.

About the Author

Jennifer Jeanne Patterson

Jennifer Jeanne Patterson received her MFA from Columbia University. She currently lives in Minneapolis, where she is working on her novel Twenty Trees. For more information, please visit www.unplannedcooking.com.

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