Strangers in Another Country
Stockholm, in the late ’60s
LEAVING THE CINEMA not long ago on this Friday evening of summer, I find myself strolling about the streets and byways of central Stockholm, with fragmented scenes of an old movie, Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? -– evolving in kaleidoscopic fashion in my head. I enjoyed the film though the storyline is simple, made in Hollywood. A middle-class setting: a black doctor meets a white woman, they fall in love, and the woman invites the man to meet her parents. Well, the rest of the story is straightforward and for you to discover.
A fair number of people are out on the streets. There are no plans for me on how to pass the encroaching night, dreading the thought of going home alone to my small lodging off Sankt Eriksplan. Tonight finds me without the company of a woman. None of them with whom I am amorously attached is available. I am indeed entirely alone. Of course, there are my friends, and they are quite a lot. All strangers like me to this capital—a tiny group on this Nordic landscape. But my friends are all out, at least I expect them to be, in search of female companions, playing poker or whatever.
The late evening is fair: a few stars appear here and there, and from east to west, a batch of slowly moving clouds. It is not far off from autumn. The feeling in the air is chilly. There is now a faint sound of music coming from a tenement building as I stroll along on Drottningsgatan. It makes me want to dance. But to go dancing now is out of the question.
For a start, on Fridays and weekends, I seldom go dancing: too crowded and too competitive. Wednesdays suit me better when the competition is less severe. Also, I am not adequately dressed for the occasion, not wearing my one-and-only brown corduroy suit.
The discos, the dance halls I attend are relatively decent and fair-minded, with the requirement of a suit and tie. There the ladies are polite and seldom refuse an invitation to dance, although the occasional attempt to invite any out on a date or to my lodging is never an easy task. Though with some luck, things can turn out smoothly.
Luck has not always been on my side when it comes to gaining admission to one or two of the posh discos. Sometimes I was denied entrance that outnumbered by a mile the times I succeeded. There my money, my brown suit and my polite manner have often failed to make an impression. Most of my fellow West Indians and African friends have been exposed there to a similar treatment. We share the belief that racial discrimination was involved. Although, at times, I can have my doubts about blaming the colour of my skin. I have seen one or more famous black American musicians gaining entrance into such exclusive disco clubs. And a few times, I witnessed a Swedish woman escorted by a black man.
I remember once discussing the situation with some Swedes at work. Their opinions were unanimously in favour of believing that it wasn’t a question of racial discrimination. Such a belief used to drive me up the wall. Then, as a form of defence, I began shying away from any such discussion. First with the English, and now with the Swedes.
Of course, I did, at times, receive understanding and support from Swedes and the English. However, I see that much denial of racial discrimination and even blatant acts of racism exist in either country.
So, I allow the desire to dance to die. My wandering continues along Kungsgatan amid a fair number of pedestrians, mostly Swedes. Some of them notice me, while others ignore me. I’m used to being ignored by strangers, but in time I’ve gotten used to it since living in England. I suppose it’s to be expected in big cities though a rarity in small towns.
Among strangers, I can become self-conscious, unsure of myself, and become oblivious to my surroundings, mimicking perhaps the manner of some. A girlfriend who works in a psychiatric ward said it might be a mild form of social phobia. I have it down to shyness. Nothing to fuss over, I thought, for there are times when I’m full of myself and far from social anxiety.
Presently, a black stranger is heading in my direction. Around my age, I would say. Twenty-two. He is lighter in complexion, is well built in the chest and arms, while his thighs and legs are small in proportion. I am skinny, but he and I stand tall alike. He strolls with a bouncy gait and shoulders that swing. He does not appear pressed for time. Judging from his looks, I would say he is American. In my mind, I am debating whether to greet him with a ‘hi-brother-how-yo’-doing’ without stopping for a chat. Though I am by nature hospitable, I am presently not in the mood for socialising with any male stranger or listening to the usual complaints of foreigners passing the time in this city. I just cannot be bothered.
Recently, the struggle for freedom and equal rights for Afro-Americans has euphorically come over me. Before that, the cause appeared so distant— typically American. Voting rights, segregation, etc. Until, by chance, after having watched a couple of television documentaries, read a few articles that appeared in my evening newspaper, and listened to one or two Africans and West Indians, my interest in the Afro-American struggle began. The calls for solidarity from some black militants with the Third World’s oppressed peoples seem to appeal to the idealist within me. The black cultural slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’ had already become fashionable amongst some members of the black diaspora in Stockholm.
And so, I feel I must make an effort to commit myself to the solidarity cause, although there is some measure of ambivalence that comes and goes.
My mind is now clear on the matter: I prepare to greet the supposed brother from the USA in a manner of goodwill, whatever the result. By that, I mean there is no guarantee that others will see my good intention as such, something I regularly experience in this Nordic capital, with strangers like me.
I greet him as we come in close range, and he returns my greeting in a jovial-like fashion. He stops, probably induced by my cheerful smile.
‘Where you from, brother . . . the States?’ He laughed, sounding American.
An American! Yes, I was right, through intuition or sheer surmise! Or was it from a preconceived notion?
I am thinking the Black American-and-West Indian Encounter! A black brother from the United States of America! Perhaps he is someone with a similar historical past, enduring a similar life here in this Nordic city, with maybe a similar fate. There are a few black Americans in town, but we are strangers to each other. My world and his were so different. The same goes for Africans, East or West, and Arabs.
Copyright © 1977, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2020, 2021 by Lawrence G. Taylor. All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organisations and dialogue in the stories are the products of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously. Purely coincidental are any resemblances to persons living or dead. The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.