Hello Ayana, began the email. I am sorry that this is not good news about the job that you applied for teaching English at our school. Please don’t think it was too forward of me to take your email address from your resume, but I was hoping we could get together for a coffee to further discuss your credential. And, let’s be honest, because I find you incredibly sexy! Ciao…Lorenzo.
Great — not only was I unemployed, but I now had an invitation to go and discuss why I wasn’t good enough to be hired while being sexually harassed with someone with no regard for employer/potential-employee boundaries.
But maybe the rules of line-crossing didn’t count in my new home of Florence, Italy. In 2003, before Jersey Shore took over the cobblestoned streets of the Tuscan town, I moved there to escape George Bush. And before Lorenzo sent his email, I had already had to contend with pre-pubescent and pensioners whose panting glances I attracted daily.
Disgusted one day when I saw a middle-aged man grope a nun on a crowded bus and then blow a kiss at me, I asked an Italian male friend to explain why I was so popular for sexual advances. He hesitated to incriminate his fellow countrymen, but finally admitted that, yes, like some groups are obsessed with blondes, many Italian men find brown skin and other Black girl traits to be desirable.
“Black women are also seen as more, like, the, I don’t know the word…like nature, more primitive, sex is more natural,” he told me, as I struggled not to grimace or get up and walk away. “And American women, well, whatever your race, you are more easy.”
“Easier. There’s no such thing as ‘more easy,’ it’s ‘easier.” I shut up. Why was I helping him to make his point that I was a primitive slut?
The next afternoon, Lorenzo’s email appeared. And that night I met a Black woman who had relocated from D.C. to Florence who conspiratorially confessed that she loved the attention. “They can’t get enough of us. I moved from Chocolate City and now I get treated like a chocolate queen.”
But I didn’t think anyone was seeing me as a queen — more like their idea of a whore. Which is exactly what I was called (except en espanol, so “puta”) one year later when I moved to Barcelona. Grocery bags in hand, wearing a hoodie, jeans and sneakers, at least once a week I’d walk past a particular block in the middle of the afternoon and have men inch closer to me, sometimes rubbing their crotches, and inquire, “How much?” For my groceries, I wondered the first few times? No, for me.
This street, although it was sun-soaked and central in a safe, touristy neighborhood, was where undocumented African and Caribbean prostitutes stood outside, servicing men in doorways and behind dumpsters. The cops didn’t care and at night the street was empty. The thing was, that block was often the only place you might see a Black woman in Barcelona, so many a racist Spaniard decided that all black women — no matter where we were hanging out or what we were wearing — must be for sale if we were in their city. Even when they knew we weren’t, they liked to pretend, as in the two construction workers who screamed “hooker!!” at me because I didn’t return their flirty kissy noises.
Makes you wonder why I’d keep visiting (and living in Europe), what with the men being so awful and aggressive? But that would be pretending that there are men here who would never do things like roll down their car window when it was a stifling 101 degrees and scream to me and four friends, “I’d eat all of your butts tonight!!!” Oh wait, that happened on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, not across the Atlantic.
I’ve railed against my hatred of catcalls before — most explicitly in an essay in my book Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts. And for my complaining, more than one man has told me I sounded bitter. Apparently I’m supposed to smile and feel charmed when a stranger offers to eat my butt or tell me to smile or “psst!” at me like I’m a pet. The men in Europe I can ignore, because often they don’t speak English and because history has taught me not to expect them to act their best in relation to a Black person with a vagina. But am I the crazy one — and not the on-the-street shit talkers — for wanting people who share a passport, a city and especially a race with me to keep it moving quietly when they see me out in public?
– Ayana Byrd