The night before I leave Paris for Berlin, I pull out my notebook and read a poem I’ve been working on to my friend Susan. I set my hair on fire so you could find me on the dance floor.
Right before I left the States for Europe, I dyed my hair bright red. In a poetry workshop at Cave Canem, Nikki Finney asked the other poets to describe the color of my hair as specifically as possible. Red like paprika, like Kool-Aid, like burnt sienna, like rust… I carry these colors in my head like memories of past lives.
Walking up the four flights of stairs to the flat I will be staying in for my three weeks in Berlin, I think of more colors. Red like an empire on fire, like a Molotov cocktail ignited, like Joan of Arc at the stake… At the top of the stairs, my roommate Martin opens the door and welcomes me in. After showing me around the flat, then the neighborhood, he mentions that he has a bike I can borrow. Before I got to Germany, a friend told me that riding a bike is “the only way to see Berlin.” The bike is black. I name it Ariadne.
One night, Martin invites me along to meet a friend of his. It’s my first time riding my bike at night. Martin pedals ahead and I follow. I want to hoot and holler. Pedaling through Kreuzberg, street names I haven’t learned to pronounce blur to black and white streaks as I pass. Urbanstrasse. Baerwaldstrasse. Graefestrasse. My black cardigan catches the air and opens like raven wings. Under my breath, I hum lines from “The Smoke Queen” by Angela Jackson. I am the Smoke Queen. Now you see me. Now you don’t. Now you see me. Now you won’t.
Martin’s friend is an Afro-German actor with family roots in South Africa. He’s handsome. His sculpted afro leans forward ever so slightly like a cliff. After the bar tender brings our vodka sodas, the actor tells us about a recent audition. The director, an African-American, took him aside afterward.
“You were great. Really great,” said the director. “It’s just—well, the producers,” he hesitated. “The producers are worried that you’re not dark enough for the role.”
“Dark enough?” asked the actor.
“They’re worried the audience won’t be able to tell that you’re black.”
“I am black.”
“I know but— Listen, the producers heard that you’re going to Lisbon in a few weeks. Maybe, while you’re there,” he hesitated again. “Maybe you can get a good tan.”
After the friend finishes telling us about the audition, Martin and I lean back in our chairs. I suck my teeth. Martin stares at the ice in his drink for a moment. We talk about the nature of race in Germany, the lack of nuance. Either you look black enough or… Now you see me. Now you don’t.
A week later, I ride up Mehringdam toward Tempelhof. It used to be an airport, but a few years ago the city of Berlin converted Tempelhof’s air field into a park. Speeding down the runway, I think about how, when I was little, my mother would hold my hand during take-off whenever we flew together. Sometimes she’d pray under her breath. A 747 needs to reach a speed of 189 MPH in order to leave the ground. I pick up speed on my bike and ride until the wind draws tear streaks across my face in horizontal lines.
Tempelhof is one of the most wide open spaces I’ve ever seen. The sky is so big here. People fly kites, rollerblade or picnic in the grass. It looks like someone’s version of heaven. I ride down the runway almost everyday. One morning, just before a storm, I bike with a double rainbow ahead of me and the sun rising at my back. Another time, I say out loud lines I’ve memorized from a letter my mother wrote me in 1990 when she was waiting for a heart transplant. Do you understand? Do you hear me? Are you listening? I repeat the questions as I pick up speed. The words blur until the wind carries them off entirely.
I can’t tell if I’m riding away from my mother’s ghost or toward her memory. Of course I hear her. I couldn’t stop if I tried. It’s just that she’s speaking in a language the wind won’t translate.
It’s my last week in Berlin. I pedal down Martin Luther Strasse. In 1530, the street’s namesake wrote “They are trying to make me into a fixed star. I am an irregular planet.” In Ancient Greek, the word “planet” means “to wander.”
Sometimes I catch people staring as I bike past them. Wide-eyed, mouths slightly open as if to question the color of my hair. Red like Mars, like the rings of Jupiter… In the split-second of my passing, I wander into and through their idea of what a black man is supposed to look like. The white gaze rakes me everywhere I dare to ride. My nose is pierced, my hair is on fire, my black cardigan fans out behind me as if night itself is my co-pilot. To encounter me is to question who you thought I would be when I arrived. A mother catches her son staring at me and smacks the back of his head.
I don’t have time for his confusion. I’m already two blocks away.