We Can Do Better

Matana Roberts

Alien is defined in random online dictionaries as “unfamiliar, unknown, strange, exotic, incompatible with, foreign, in conflict with, at variance with” or, my personal favorite, “oppugnant to.” There is also the classic “extraterrestrial, unearthly, otherworldly.”

In all honesty, with the exception of “unearthly,” or on a good day “otherworldly,” maybe “in conflict with,” I did not realize how much more this word applies to me in my 21st-century art life until recently. Something my American-born privilege only saw through a filter that I had become so numb to after experiencing the countless microaggressions afforded to me just being a brown person born with ovaries—by no choice of my own—in America.

My mother once said that she knew when I was a toddler that I would be a traveler. I would often be hard to keep track of even then, constantly running to and fro as a wee one, acting as if I had someplace to be, other than the playground. And it has proved prophetic, as I do indeed travel a great deal. I am in fact writing this essay while 10,000-plus feet in the air, cramped in economy, trying to stay calm in this temporary state, dreaming of the moment of arrival.

I could write a book on jet lag at this point, and my travel life has not been without common rookie mistakes—wrong airports, wrong stations, wrong cabs, etc.—but I can now say I have been an international traveler for a good 20-plus years. I have traveled through at least four different presidential administrations now, and felt the weight of that in every country I have entered as a foreigner. I have endured small bouts of commentary that are directed at either my assumed gender or my assumed nationality. I have dealt with unwanted touching, kissing, and space invasion. I have endured the search of my hair at random airports around the world (one of the many reasons for my recently shaved and liberated head). I have stood behind other brown people in foreign places of travel and have been assumed to be with them, when I have never met them in my life. I have apologized for my American-ness countless times. I have had my passport demanded by police in different countries, while just walking on a random street, breathing a sigh of relief at what the sight of an American passport granted me. Once I was angrily confronted at a gig by a patron who came up very close to tell me how ashamed I should feel to be an American, and I did not disagree. Partly because at the time it felt true, but also because I sensed danger if I did not comply.

I have been mugged, tugged, pushed, shoved, and laughed at in various places around the world. But I have also been loved, cherished, deeply cared for, and cheered on by a great number in many of these same places, and I believe it is one of the reasons I stay committed to this life. And despite all this, it still is a life that brings me deep joy. It affords me a chance to not be merely a citizen of my birth country, but a citizen of the world.

Alien Roberts
Matana Roberts at La Sala Rossa, Montreal. Photograph courtesy Thien.

With all my experience, good and bad, it should have come as no surprise when recently, while on a tour in Europe, I was locked in a cab by a cab driver who berated me for looking “shifty at the train station.” I was on tour with the sound artist Kelly Jayne Jones. We did a total of ten dates, all UK-based, and supported by a UK initiative for experimental collaborations that especially represented the crossing of cultures. KJJ is quite British, I am quite American, and so we fit well for this endeavor (please check out her wonderful work). The tour was going okay, as these things go, but curiously we were not traveling together all of the time. We’d sometimes find ourselves on different trains, as KJJ was teaching workshops that I was not involved with and so would need to arrive at certain locations earlier. On this particular day I was on my lonesome, a bit tired from the exhaustion of sleeping in hotel beds, and really focused on not losing my multi-trip train ticket, when I arrived at the train station. There was nothing alarming about the arrival and the ride was not unusual in the slightest ; we left on time, arrived on time. The day was sunny, it was spring, and dreams of summer were in the air. Now mind you, I was carrying a 50-pound Pelican case of synths and electronic gear, a saxophone on my back, and probably a small shoulder bag of journals and other travel knick-knacks. I was dressed in the normal “I’ve-been-sleeping-in-random-hotels, probably-should-do-laundry-soon” tour attire. I had gotten off at the right stop, but took a moment in the station to reorient myself and look at my tour sheet to see if someone was picking me up or if I’d have to grab a cab. I realized I was missing some of the tour sheet and needed to get online to download it, and any traveler knows that depending on train station WiFi is an iffy affair. But I knew I did not have to be at the venue for a while, so I was not worried. I was taking my time, and also trying to negotiate if I really wanted an espresso from the Costa coffee machine. I probably looked a tad lost.

I opted out of the espresso thing from the Costa machine, I mean, because, why even do that to yourself if you don’t have to ? The station wasn’t super busy. The weather was relatively nice, and I was feeling fine and excited about my show. I managed to get online, download what was missing, and realized that I needed to hail a cab to the venue. I approached the first cab and proceeded to get in. The driver, a sturdy, older-looking gentleman, some unassuming amalgamation of white British stock, said something to me about the sax case on my back. From that exchange I probably should have taken a cue. He seemed a tad agitated, but after years of dealing with NYC cabbies, this their general state of being, I didn’t think anything of it. The drive was supposed to be less than ten minutes. As we were almost to the venue, I looked up at the meter and didn’t see any sort of card machine for payments. I was low on cash, so I politely asked, “Excuse me, sir, you do take cards, yes ?” And at this moment, his agitation turned into a full throttle shout : “NO ! I ! DO ! NOT !” He then proceeded to make some lopsided kind of u-turn, lock the doors from his front seat system, and started to berate me. When I asked him where he was going, he said he was taking me back to the station, where there was a cash machine. When I said he didn’t need to do that, that the promoter was meeting me out front, and would gladly take care of it, he continued his assault by claiming, “I knew you were a problem at the station ! I saw you snaking around looking shifty ; up to no good . . .”

I was so “put out,” as my Memphis-raised grandmother used to say, and instead of staying calm and quiet, which is “how not to get murdered as a woman traveling alone 101,” I transitioned into that old Oprah episode of “don’t let them take you to a second location 101” and started screaming at this man at the top of my lungs. I told him that if he didn’t take me back to my destination I was calling the police. Note, dear reader, I was not familiar with how to do that in said country, but I knew he wouldn’t call my bluff if I had a hissy fit. So hissy fit I did. Thinking about it now, it’s quite embarrassing. I texted the promoter to be sure to meet us out front, which she kindly did. When I got out of that cab, I let the guy have it with every ounce of anger I had left, telling him that he was severely racist, that I was a visitor in his city, and this was the worst welcome I have ever received, and then stormed off to the venue, shook.

Why was I shook ? Am I not used to being assumed to be something I’m not ? Had I not been through enough of this in my life ? Shouldn’t I be immune to this sort of thing at this point ?

When I got to the venue I was in tears, visibly shaking. During my soundcheck I was deeply agitated. During the show, I was still agitated. The promoter and staff tried to be kind, but to be honest I felt really unsupported. My tears were not so much about the specific experience. Looking back, my tears were about legacy. Once again I was reminded of what otherness can entice, through no fault of its own—the painful weight of legacy, otherness, an alienation.

So what did I do then ? I took to Twitter, where rage is the name of the game, and attempted to rage ; I was looking for a kind of empty digital solace. But I come from a culture that teaches you when the oppressor has their foot on your neck, you still dance, because at least there’s the dance. I come from a culture whose history I am so deeply aware of that when I think of some of the bad things I’ve been through, it still doesn’t compare to the chains, the whips, and forced assault of a history past. This is how I cope, and have coped for years. Born of a country but always accepting the underlying presumption that even though I belong, I do not belong. My presence representing, in real time, attributes that are always assumed out of place. I am reminded of this as I continue to rack up racial profiling experiences such as what happened on that cab ride ; with one exception : though my presence can be a reminder of the aforementioned alienation, it is not alien enough so that I cannot raise my voice.

I have never liked the word “alien,” as used against immigrants. I can barely deal with the word in science fiction (because, truly, who is the real alien ? Humans are quite strange, if you think about it.). To accuse people coming into a new country of being alien, when they arrive in the same way as many of our “founding fathers” did is the pot calling the kettle so black, it’s blinding.

We can do better.