“Night and the day, when united, Bring forth the beautiful light.” ― Victor Hugo
My first night in London was very nearly the Harlequin Silhouette fantasy I’d been dreaming about since girlhood---a brisk, cool evening, a handsome man, a foreign accent, and Piccadilly as our backdrop. All was going swimmingly up until the moment between passionately clumsy kissing my gentleman whispered into my ear the words:
I’ve never kissed a black girl before.
It was an ice bath minus the candles and the champagne. With a grimace I reared back, leaning into the crook of his arm. Searching for his dark blue eyes beneath a cloudy Bayswater night sky, I nodded automatically, confirming plans we’d made earlier in the back of a classic black FX4 Fairway taxi cab straight out of the Princess Diaries’ central casting. I smiled, made agreeable humming noises in my throat and dabbed at the smeared lipstick at the corners of my mouth without any intention of keeping said plans. Nothing shuts my libido down faster than being treated like someone’s high school lab experiment.
Let me begin from the beginning.
Picture it…it’s nine o’clock in the evening on a balmy London Saturday. The Bull & Cock or some such is going full tilt. I am a young, nubile, dare I say exotic, chocolate diamond in a sea of pearls (I’m allowed to objectify myself!). A striking young man makes a sudden appearance. His height and Australian accent set him apart. We are drawn to one another immediately. We chat until the universally pithy You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here is bellowed over the bar. Due to World War I era laws (known as the Defence of the Realm Act) designed to get men and women needed for the war effort to bed at a sensible time and relatively sober, pubs were ordered, among other things, to shut their doors at 11:30. These rules were still inexplicably on the books in 1994.
My strapping Aussie, newly sprung from the Australian army, and I join the hordes on the teeming sidewalk to discuss what to do next. He knows of a great after hours dance place. I am black, stereotypes aside, I love to dance.
We head over; get sweaty and most likely a little lewd. It’s the 90s, I am 24 and on vacation. He is newly sprung from the Australian army. We dance for hours. Exhausted and starving, around 4 am we decide to tuck into a late night dinner/early breakfast.
Why does food always taste so good in the wee hours? Under threat of death, I don’t remember what we ate or where---I’m sure I wrote it in my journal but it’s in storage. See last month’s post for the reason why---All I know for sure is that it was London and I was with a boy so it was delicious and it was cool.
Satiated, tired and ready for bed we try to figure out how to get ourselves to our respective abodes. In keeping with my adventurous three weeks abroad, I am staying in my first hostel, bunking with three other strangers with a communal bathroom down the hall. No guests allowed. He, too, is similarly restricted so we plan to part ways and figure out something more conducive to satisfying the feelings all that dancing has riled up the next day. But how to get home? Old, venerable London is fantastic in a lot of ways. Handy transportation and a 24 hour tube is not among them.
It is that mysterious, quiet time between night and day when the subways have long since shut down, the streets are nearly deserted, and workers won’t rouse for another hour or two. There’s the night bus of course but neither of us is certain how that works and our dancing legs don’t have the strength or the will to walk. Still flush with military rations, my Aussie hails a cab. Swoon.
I have always wanted to ride in one of London’s famed black taxis. It does not disappoint. I’m 5’6 and a half and my feet barely touch the edge of the seat opposite me. Feigning a sophistication my geeky self won’t attain until my forties, I suppress a giggle as I just manage to save myself from slipping to the floor of the cab. On the ride to my hostel, we discuss possible fun things to do that afternoon. He will be in London for another week but I fly back home in two days. We strategize on how to make the most of the time we have. Again, one day I’ll post my journals because I can’t recall what we decided on. Knowing myself, I’m sure most of the major tourist attractions made the list. All I know is that we had PLANS and then…
I’ve never kissed a black girl before.
We never saw each other again.
Now, some reading this may be thinking I was unfair or touchy. I could have, should have used it as a teachable moment. Everyone has an opinion and a… All I know is that at a tender twenty-four, when all I wanted was to be smart and pretty, and loved, and not America’s Negro Problem, being reminded that I was other in the middle of getting my groove on (yes, I said it) was like waving the Rebel Flag in my face or in his case defending the Victorian Half-Caste Act.
This act, with its ominous name, gave extensive powers over the lives of Australia’s Aboriginal people to a Board for their protection, including regulation of residence, employment and marriage, i.e., slavery. The 1886 Victorian Half-Caste Act also removed Aboriginal people of mixed descent, known as 'half-castes', from the Aboriginal stations or reserves to force them to assimilate into European society. This part, which is freakishly similar to what the United States Government did to the American Indian, I’ll label Jim Crow adjacent.
I was not amused. I was not turned on. I was not having it. Most people don’t believe it when I say I’m shy, always have been. Neither my brown skin, sturdy physique, nor bristling intellect lends themselves to the trope of shyness, but I am. So for me to quash a long held fantasy of romping through London on the arm of a handsome stranger, for me to choose my self-respect over the fear of offending the Aussie was transformational for me.
It is a transformation that I marvel at to this day. It is a stand that I am proud of to this day. No matter how hot, no matter how much money they have spent, if you don’t wanna, you don’t wanna and you don’t have to. Period. You don’t even have to give a reason. Period. I don’t know where this realization came from and I will admit that it hasn’t always been there when I needed it, but it was foundational for me in 1994, still comes in mighty handy two plus decades later, and I am grateful.
I may not have gotten my entire juvenile fantasy my first trip to London but I still had a great time taking in all the sights I had dreamed about since picking up my first Jude Deveraux novel. And just like with a good book, a club can be nice but so can a lovely, solitary afternoon reading in Kensington Park.
I hope you come back next month to discover how I took Spain by storm---not really, but I did discover White Sangria.
Thanks for stopping by! Remember to travel with a feminist eye and keep on being feminist AF!
A Side Note: My heartfelt affection goes out to England as they struggle with the scary events of the last few weeks. London was one of my first loves. Take care of each other.
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