Racially Profiled in the Deodorant Aisle
In "Security" by Yvvette Edwards, a woman confronts a lifetime of racism on the eve of her deportation
INTRODUCTION BY MARGARET BUSBY
More than twenty-five years ago, I was pleased to present Daughters of Africa, the now celebrated anthology of women writers across the African diaspora, that transformed the literary landscape. Like Toni Cade Bambara’s soaring anthology, The Black Woman, I wanted to put together a gathering of emerging and established writers and also to announce that a seismic shift in the perception of women of African descent was taking place. The Black Woman was published in 1970, a period either shortly preceded or not long after followed by the publication of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing, Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Numbers Runner, Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, Nikki Giovanni’s Black Feeling Black Talk, and Once, Alice Walker’s poetry collection, among other landmark works. Most of these, if reviewed at all, were widely dismissed by mainstream critics as “protest literature.”
Daughters of Africa arrived two decades later like a cool breeze on the most humid summer day. I was delighted that in a single collection, a global gathering of inspiring and innovative writers’ work would transcend race and gender, while reflecting the joys and trials of being a Black woman in the world. Now, in New Daughters of Africa I’m excited to share more than 200 fresh, stirring, and unique voices in this wholly original collection. Their compelling work—conveyed through poems, essays, stories, speeches, and more— reflects the unbreakable bond of kinship, actual and intuited. It is my hope to speak to a new generation of readers while building on the pioneering legacies of indomitable writers from the eighteenth century until today. Here is Yvvette Edwards’ short story “Security,” which is included in the book, and brilliantly captures the emotions of a septuagenarian woman regarded as a foreigner worthy of deportation after half a century of sacrifice and thwarted hope in Britain.
My ambition in collecting this story among others, was to shine a light on talent often unacknowledged by gatekeepers, who have traditionally singled out a privileged few authors, but never too many to create a movement. New Daughters of Africa recognizes there is a movement, one that proselytizes for greater visibility for women writers of African descent.
– Margaret Busby
Editor of New Daughters of Africa
Racially Profiled in the Deodorant Aisle
“Security” by Yvvette Edwards
Merle noticed the security guard the moment she stepped through the entrance of Penny World: a tall, heavy-set white man, mid-forties, who had positioned himself on top of a barstool at the front of the store to have an unobstructed view of customers entering; and she knew he’d clocked her, because he stood up straightaway, trying to make the action seem natural by generally surveying the store, as if that had been his intention all along, and it surprised her, the anger she felt—hot and rapid, erupting inside her chest like a volcano come to life—surprised her at a time when she was upset with so many other things, proper problems with longevity attached, that this incident, when she’d just popped out to pick up some Sure deodorant and a roll of clingfilm, was the blow that finally swept her over the edge.
Her flight was tomorrow morning at 11 and arrangements had been made to pick her up at 5 a.m. so she didn’t miss it. She’d bought the suitcase last week, had to, because the only one she’d ever owned was the one she’d brought with her when she made the six-week boat journey from Jamaica to England in June 1964, which had for years been reclining on top of her wardrobe, the metal handle broken, clasps defunct, reduced in status to a storage container, nothing more. She’d not been back to Jamaica since arriving here, had never gone on holiday abroad, never had need of a passport, and here she was, at the age of seventy-eight, making the journey back with a suitcase from Cheap Cheaper Cheapest that had a zip that kept catching when she tried to close it, and brittle wheels that clattered noisily behind her, after she’d paid for it and hauled the brand-new empty thing home.
She’d packed—probably overpacked—it, and it sat open on her bed, just waiting for the Sure deodorant to be put inside. Once she’d done that and wrestled again with the dodgy zip, the clingfilm would be wrapped around the suitcase to give her the greatest chance of making it to Kingston, on this, her first journey back, with her dignity and its contents intact. The security guard wore a dark clean-pressed uniform and a flat black army cap pulled so low on his head, it almost touched the thin-rimmed frame of his large mirrored glasses, and he had the restless air of the American coppers Merle had seen in Hollywood action movies, lounging on the bonnet of a police car, impatient to use their gun. Ordinarily, she would’ve picked up a basket to put her goods in as she walked around, held the basket high and visible, would’ve kept it on the opposite side of her body to her handbag, in the hope of conveying the fact that she was an honest person who’d never shoplifted a thing in her life; but today her anger prevented her doing that. A voice in her head whispered a sentence she was too polite to dream of saying aloud, but it so perfectly synchronized with her mood, she nearly smiled: Let him kiss out me backside.
She knew the deodorants were shelved on Aisle 4, and the clingfilm on Aisle 5. The most direct route was to cut across the front corridor between the tills and the aisles, but she decided against that. Instead, she began walking the length of Aisle 1, stopping in front of shelves filled with nuts and dried fruit, stealing furtive glances upwards in the direction of the store camera fixed to the ceiling, in a manner she hoped looked very suspicious. She picked up some pistachios, examined the package, turning it over as though reading the information on the back, even though what was written there was in another language. She didn’t check in the direction she had just come, didn’t need to, because she knew the security guard had followed her. She felt him the same way she had felt him watching and following her around on previous visits. She peered up again at the camera, then away, put the packet back on the shelf, and carried on walking.
Seventy-eight years of age, and with the neat and tidy way she always dressed and carried herself, were she a stranger trying to work out what kind of person she might be, the word that would have come to mind is church. Despite this, in the fifty-four years she’d been living in England and spending her money in shops with security guards, she’d regularly been followed around like a thief.
Forty-one of those fifty-four years she’d worked as a care assistant in homes for the elderly, spoon-feeding geriatrics, dressing and undressing them, giving herself back problems that plagued her to this day, from lifting them in and out of bed and bath, on and off seats, toilets, floors; cleaning their dirty behinds and infronts, their soiled bedding, while acting like it was just sticks and stones to have them tell her they didn’t want her black hands touching them, their food, their cutlery and medicine cups. She’d been watched with suspicion by those same people she’d looked after, watched as she mopped up all manner of nastiness, as if the only reason she dressed in the uniform her employers issued, wearing gloves and carrying a mop and bucket, was to rob them of the little shekels in purses and wallets they hid under mattresses and at the back of their drawers. And had she harboured any grudges against them? Nope. She had not. After all that, she’d still given them kind words on Mother’s Day and birthdays and Christmas, when no family or children or friends from old times arrived to share their special day; doled out comfort in their isolation, smiles to stony faces, and fellowship in their final hours when they would otherwise have been alone.
Merle dawdled as she approached the end of the aisle, handling products she had no intention of buying, touching everything she felt like, without a backward glance. Then, as she rounded the corner, out of the security guard’s sight, she began marching briskly, nearly but not quite running, careful not to slip or trip and mash up her seventy-eight-year-old body, hurrying only as fast as she could manage safely, because if she injured herself, they’d probably say she’d done it on purpose to avoid the flight, and God alone knew whether after all the years of paying National Insurance contributions from her wages, she’d be entitled to treatment from the National Health Service. She scurried determinedly down Aisle 2 and around the corner so she was back in Aisle 1, continued swiftly along it, then for the second time rounded the top, slowing only when she spotted the security guard a few feet ahead, facing away from her, body alert, his head pinging back and forth like a meerkat, no doubt wondering where the old lady had vanished. She stopped immediately behind him, and as he turned around in confusion, Merle picked up a column of fifty disposable cups and stared at it, trying to calm her breathing, while joyfully basking in the vibe of his astonishment at discovering the woman he’d been following was now behind him.
Coming to England had cost Merle her son. She hadn’t realized she was trading motherhood for the Motherland. George was only eight when she’d left him in the care of Uncle Backfoot, traveled on a ticket she’d begged and borrowed to pay for—then had to pay back—with no job or place to live, just the knowledge she was welcome and would have opportunities, the chance to make something of herself, earn a decent living, provide a future for George; security, hope. It was supposed to be for a couple of years, just long enough to save up, return home, and build a little house for them both, with a small store or rum shop or cooked food served out front. But she’d underestimated how hard it would be, how long it would take just to get her oneself on her feet, never realized till she arrived here, in her scanty island dress and thin jacket, that no provision had been made for them, that she’d be subjected to so much resentment, at job interviews, in council offices, on the doorsteps of houses with rooms to rent. She had moved home so frequently, it took nine years to fulfill the five-year residency requirement to apply for local council help with housing; and by then George had grown up without her, and full of resentment. They hadn’t spoken in years. He lived in the States with grandkids she’d never seen.
As the security guard began walking away, Merle put the disposable cups back on the shelf and followed. She knew he knew he was being followed; she could see the strip of neck back between his hat and his jacket collar getting redder with every step. When he paused for a moment, probably hoping she’d continue past him, she stopped too, picking up a tea towel that unfurled as she held it to reveal an image of the Houses of Parliament printed on cheap cloth. At the periphery of her field of vision, she saw the security guard turn towards her as if about to speak, but he said nothing, just spun on his heels and started walking again, and she did too. He went right at the bottom, towards Aisle 3, and she tailed him, coming to an abrupt halt as she almost collided with his stationary body waiting around the corner. He was almost two feet taller than she was. Merle glared up at him and saw herself reflected in his mirrored glasses as he stared back.
She said, “It doesn’t feel very nice, does it?”
The security guard’s voice was deep, bassy, tinged with a strong accent that Merle couldn’t narrow down further than Eastern European. He said, “My job, stop steal.”
The fact of his accent broke her; she didn’t know why. It made no difference to what had happened, to this latest affront. Was it because despite being new to the country, he’d been endowed with the authority to treat her like a criminal? Did she feel because he wasn’t British, he didn’t have the right? Or because until he opened his mouth he’d been able to pass, to silently position himself within the system like a native, whereas fifty-four years on, she was still being made to feel like a foreigner? Now a foreigner officially.
She said, “Well you won’t have to worry about this woman stealing ever again. You’ll be happy to know, I’m being deported.” She thrust the tea towel she was still holding into his hand. She stepped around him and walked directly to Aisle 4, fiercely concentrating as she willed herself not to fall apart. She was confident there’d be plenty of deodorant in Jamaica, just not that they’d have Sure, her brand of choice. She picked up four of the roll-ons, remembered how hot Jamaica was, then took two more. The eruption in her chest was relocating to her head, which throbbed now, but she knew would soon begin to pound. She made her way to Aisle 5 to find the clingfilm.
At the till, after she had paid for her items and packed them in the carrier bag she’d brought along, she noticed the security guard was sitting on his barstool again, and realized she’d have to pass him on her way to the exit. She’d decided to just ignore him, but as she approached his perch, he gave her a smile and she was unable to interpret what it was meant to convey. Solidarity? Pity? Glee? Her pace slowed, but she did not stop. Reflected in his glasses she saw a proud old lady, head held high. Her voice was steady as she spoke: “It’s me today, but tomorrow, they’ll be back for you.”