Strange black man

It was many years ago. I was visiting my uncle who is a Jesuit priest and professor of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where I attended. It was a brilliant day, sunny, warm, with a light breeze. Walking across Healy Circle, located at the front of campus, a smallish, skinny black man aged about twenty-five with a heavy backpack weighing him down approached me with a smile. I returned the smile, we greeted each other, he put down his load.

He was from a West African country, from which one I cannot remember. He spoke of the civil war there, the persecution of his tribe, family and of him, and of the good fortune he had in escaping it. How he made it to the U.S. I cannot recall either. He made a sincere and serious impression on me. I listened carefully to his story and felt empathy. The signals then became clear that he would ask me for some kind of help.

Roughly the same age, having recently gone into business for myself in Philadelphia, I was hardly in a position to do anything for him. We continued to talk. He then asked for help. Apologizing for not being able to, I gave him my business card and said: “Well, if you‘re ever in Philadelphia, let’s get together”, hoping it would be a friendly but clear way to remove myself from the conversation, and that he would understand that I cannot help him out of his difficult situation.

“A strange black man waiting at your door”

He studied the card carefully, then with a smile, he said “Thank you, John. Thank you very much”, in an English formal, polite, right out of the textbook he must have learned from many years before, and like so many well-educated Africans. We shook hands. I departed quickly so that he could not continue the conversation. I went on with my activities in the nation’s capital over the next day without ever thinking again about that West African.

Until I returned to Philadelphia, that is. At Ninth and Spruce Streets in Center City, as the Philadelphians call their downtown, is where I lived, in the third floor apartment under the roof of an old townhouse. One of my cousins, Helen, lived with her former college roommate in the apartment just below me. As I walked up the stairs, she opened the door ever so slightly, I suspect after having heard me open the front door. With wide and alarmed eyes Helen whispered: “John, there is a strange black man upstairs waiting for you in front of your apartment.”

A strange black man? I don’t know any strange black men. In fact, I don’t know too many black men at all. Well, I did after about ten more steps. “Oh, no”, I thought, my business card, damn. What do I do now? I put on a happy face, smiled, greeted him heartily and said something like “Great to see you, again. Come on in!” The stairs up to my loft apartment were very steep and narrow. He trudged up schlepping his heavy bag. What was I supposed to do with this guy?

Say “yes, mean no”

Many of the details I no longer remember. But I do recall that I took him out for dinner, gave him a brief walking tour of Center City including the historical sights, allowed him to sleep in my bed while I made do with the couch. The next day, after some breakfast, I drove him over to 30th Street Station and put him on an Amtrak train up to Boston, where he said he had some contacts from West Africa. I was happy to be rid of him.

His story was certainly bigger than mine. A refugee from civil war in a faraway land, seeking a safe and secure life in America. Hoping for help. From anyone. And my story? A safe and secure white American male with a solid education and the kinds of advantages and opportunities a “strange black man” from Africa could only dream of. Looking back, shameful of me.

But for us, as Americans and Germans collaborating across the Atlantic, this little story is about agreements, about how Americans will communicate a “yes” which is not meant as such. Since we seldom feel comfortable saying “no” to someone – a family member, friend, neighbor, colleague, certainly not to our boss or to a customer, or to a stranger – we find ways to say “yes” in a way which communicates “no.”

These were rather clear signals.

Why would this guy from West Africa suddenly show up at my door in Philadelphia, a three-hour train ride from Washington, DC? We don’t even know each other. We have nothing in common. We‘re strangers. In our conversation of a few days before I had given no indication that I was in a position to help him. On the contrary, my response to his request was crystal clear. It was short, polite, I gave him my card and got on my way, and rather hastily.

But wait! That’s American thinking. I did give him my card, and did show sincere interest in his situation, then did say to him: “Well, if you‘re ever in Philadelphia, let’s get together.” These were rather clear signals. But from whom and to whom? For any American witnessing the interaction the message was very straightforward: “I am sorry to hear about your plight, but I cannot help you. Good luck.”

But for a person from another culture? From his? Or from Germany? Why should my behavior and statements not be taken literally, sincerely, at face value? Or how about this question: Why would I not simply state what I was thinking – honestly, transparently, from the heart – by saying: “I am sorry to hear about your plight, but I cannot help you. Good luck.”

Well, I did, in fact, say that. In my way. In an American way.

Strange black man