The Power of the Nod in a Pandemic

For one brief moment in Sydney, I was no longer alone

Do you ever pass a stranger on the street and feel a particular something? Maybe it’s an odd sense of camaraderie; maybe it’s the reassurance that there’s safety in numbers. Regardless of what emotion it elicits, you see something in them that you recognize in yourself, even though you’re both different.

Being Black and gay in a world where White and straight dominate can give you a perpetual feeling of being an outsider. The frustration of disenfranchisement isn’t always on the surface. It’s often simmering just below until something — or someone — happens, and it’s all you can think about.

In general, I’m able to negotiate my complicated feelings about being a double minority without too much Sturm und Drang. My straight friends, accepting as they may be, will never truly understand what it’s like to be gay, but I have enough gay friends who do. In the big cities I’ve lived in—including New York, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Cape Town, and Sydney—I’ve rarely felt entirely alone and isolated because of my sexual orientation.

And then I spot that other Black face in a sea of White. They see me, too, and we nod. We’re not alone.

My race is trickier. I can code-switch in gay, straight, or mixed company and blend into the dominant fabric, but there’s no hiding the skin I’m in. Non-Black people might not even realize they treat me differently in subtle ways. Sometimes I can tell they’re carefully choosing their words to avoid saying the wrong, politically incorrect thing. And when race comes up in an all-White setting — like a comedy club where the guy on stage tells a dumb Black joke — I can feel everyone trying not to look at me.

At times like these, I might scan the room to see if there’s anyone who might be thinking the same thing I am. And then I spot that other Black face in a sea of White. They see me, too, and we nod. We’re not alone.

During the two and a half years I lived in Sydney, this rarely happened. I hardly ever saw Black people anywhere — not on the street, not in restaurants, not at the gym, not at work. Whenever I did, though, I sometimes felt a twinge of something that I had never felt when I saw Black people in New York City.

Was it recognition? Curiosity? It wasn’t until one Saturday that I realized it was more like relief.

During my first year in Sydney, two of the big stories back home were race-related: NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal had been outed as a White woman passing as “transracial,” and a White supremacist’s shooting spree in a historic South Carolina Black church had left nine people dead. But that stuff happened thousands of miles and several continents away. I didn’t realize just how strongly both events had affected me until one Saturday when I reached the top of the hill at the end of an afternoon run.

An SUV full of young Black men drove up to the intersection. As soon as they saw me, they began waving energetically, giving me multiple thumbs up and making fist-bump gestures from the other side of the rolled-up windows. There were several people at the corner, waiting for the “walk” light, but I knew their excitement was all about me.

It’s good to be Black, I thought, overcome by unexpected exhilaration, like Moses had reached the mountaintop to find not God, but a different kind of salvation. I was a mangled mass of emotions, the most surprising of which was relief; until that moment, I didn’t realize how alone I had been feeling in Sydney’s white-on-blonde mosaic.

I lingered for a moment, waving and fist-bumping back, secretly hoping they’d jump out, and we’d rush toward each other in slow motion, uniting in one of those post-touchdown group hugs. I was sweating and panting just enough to make it feel like an authentic thrill-of-victory moment.

That may have been the first time I truly and consciously understood “The Nod.” It had been the subject of the third episode of black-ish in 2014, but the head bob of acknowledgment Black people give to other Black folks when passing each other had previously been something I did without thinking. We did socially distanced greetings before social distancing was a thing. But for me, it was more a habit than a life-affirming (or saving) gesture.

The occasional isolated incident aside (one unfortunately cop-related), I can’t say I consciously felt like I was under attack as a Black man in Sydney. Yet there I was, standing at an intersection, feeling relief at the sight of an SUV filled with Black people.

As I pondered this while crossing the street, I saw a handsome Black man walking toward me. I gave him “The Nod” and waited expectantly, hopefully. Would he give it back?

I held my breath as he passed without even seeming to notice me. It wasn’t until I felt a surge of disappointment rising inside that I completely understood the relief I’d felt a few moments earlier. It had been completely unrelated to my crossing the finish line of an afternoon jog.

It was all about seeing other Black people in a city where I so seldom did — and them seeing me, too. It was all about commiseration and camaraderie, feeling isolated, and then somehow connected. For one brief moment, I was no longer alone. And that Saturday afternoon, one brief moment was all I needed.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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