There was a moment during my time living in Washington DC that I will remember for the rest of my days; it was, perhaps, the most discomforting moment of my life.
My old knee injury, when it flares up quite badly, often requires me to walk with a cane. At the time of the discomforting incident, I was young, in my late 20s, and relatively healthy; the sight of me hobbling with a cane was definitely odd.
I had decided to take the metro home that fall afternoon, instead of walking to and from work as was my usual custom, and found myself returning to Northern Virginia on a very full train. A protest in front of the White House had just wrapped up, and many of the protestors were riding the metro back to their homes outside the city.
The nature of the protest, I don’t quite remember, but I noticed very quickly that none of the protestors looked like me—my darker skin stood out, obviously, among many hostile glares—and I was glad that I was only traveling a few stops before alighting. As I got on the metro, a young boy who was seated next to his father right near the door noticed my hobbling and my cane and offered me his seat. Before I had the chance to thank him and gratefully decline, his father grabbed him by the arm, pulled him back into his seat, and loudly proclaimed so that everyone on the metro car could hear:
“We don’t offer our seats or do nice things to people who look like that, okay? He’s different than we are.”
The boy, who couldn’t have been more than eight years old, frowned and returned to his seat. The rest of the train stared at me, and I spent the next few minutes in extreme discomfort until I limped off the train at my stop.
I’m reminded of that train ride, of that exchange, often. Being a minority in many of the places where I live, I’m often reminded that others may feel like I don’t belong. It is an alienating feeling, a discomforting one.
I was reminded of that discomfort in the early pages of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, when he describes his journey into the District of Columbia for his Supreme Court hearing. I think of my discomfort traveling through DC that day, and I realize that in the end, Mr. Beatty’s novel is inherently about discomfort as well.
There is discomfort in being from a place that no longer exists on a map. A discomfort from being seen as not-enough, or not-anything-at all. The reader is discomforted with the ease and with used when speaking about uncomfortable issues like slavery and segregation. Nobody and nothing in The Sellout is comfortable, and that is its greatest triumph.
“That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”
I will never ride the metro in Washington DC without thinking of that day; the discomfort will linger on. Discomfort is one of those things that stays with you.