There is a cultural tradition that may not have a name, but is practiced by all the black people I know, especially when finding ourselves in environments where we are a significant visible minority: you give a "head nod" when you encounter another black person. Sometimes you give a full greeting, other times just a brief lift of the head in acknowledgement; but in those overwhelmingly "other" spaces, where people who look like you are few and far between, you take a moment to acknowledge and affirm.
I don't remember learning this explicitly; it was something that was practiced by everyone around me and something I have practiced all my life. I've had conversations with other African Americans from across the nation, and with black folks from across the Diaspora, and they have related something similar. And perhaps because it has been a routine gesture in my experience, especially living in small towns throughout graduate school and my academic career, it always comes as a shock when it does not happen - as was recently the case.
While walking around the town square of a bucolic college town in Maine, where I hadn't encountered another African American since my arrival, I saw a brother walking in my direction. I gave the "head nod" when he looked me dead in the eyes. His reaction was startling...if he had had a purse, he would have clutched it and run the other way. The "head nod" was not returned and he deliberately moved to avoid my gaze. I was crushed. I wanted to rail, "didn't you get the unofficial black people manual...don't you know that you are supposed to return the head nod??"
This may seem like the story of a petty slight. This man certainly did not owe me a return greeting. He may have been having a bad day; he may not have even know about the head nod tradition. He may have thought I was some crazy Fatal Attraction-type woman out to harm him. There are a million reasons why he may not have returned my greeting, all of them equally valid. But none of those reasons negate how low I felt after that (non)encounter.
It comes at a great cost to constantly be the "only" or one of a "few." You crave the presence of folks who look like you; sound like you; understand your jokes; come from some of the same folk ways and traditions. It comes at a price to walk around your own neighborhood or town or campus and know that you are so fully "other" that people are constantly asking and assuming that you are a guest or that you aren't in the "right" place. It takes an emotional and psychological toll when you don't see yourself and your beauty reflected back in the people around you.
I need these cultural "head nods" to help me feel that I am being seen, that I am recognized, that I'm not invisible in spaces even of hyper-visibility. I needed that moment of affirmation; that brief connection of humanity in a space where I very much felt my outsider status. And it was in that moment of feeling slighted, that I really understood the power of the head nod, the power of a tradition I had taken for granted. It simply sends the message: "in this space, I see you and know that you exist, even if no one else does."
I was carrying my own set of burdens that day, in that particular town in Maine, burdens I am still carrying with me; far too little affirmation in my life and so few sources of encouragement. I knew that what I really needed to hear that day wasn't going to come from a stranger. I needed to hear that I was beautiful; that I was loved; that I was precious; that I was appreciated. I would have happily settled for the "head nod," just a gesture that I had been seen and recognized.
There is an expression that says: "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Sometimes our smallest acts of kindness and our simplest gestures of humanity can make someone's battle/burdens a little lighter.
© Yolanda Pierce