Ziwe: How many black friends do you have, Caroline?
Caroline Calloway: Um, very many, so many.
Ziwe: Very many?
I just had the strangest interaction. I was hiking along a dirt road, searching for the will to write. It was the same path my friends and I had walked for weeks. But this time, I was alone, with no one aware of where I was.
I was not initially afraid when I saw a white Subaru approaching in the distance. I took a step off the dirt road to make way for the midsize sedan. I smiled, hoping that would be the extent of our interaction. But the car stopped and the driver rolled down his window.
This made me nervous. I was used to the talkative locals—a week prior, three separate yet equally exasperated census workers chatted with me hoping to get a head count on the town’s citizenry. But this time felt different.
A smiling brown-haired man with a Supercuts haircut peered out of his car. “What are you doing here?” he said.
I did not respond because I could have asked him the same thing. I had explored this trail enough to know it led in the opposite direction of town. Nothing was there other than woods … and more woods.
I was alone, standing one foot away from a road barely wide enough to fit the car famous for its socially progressive drivers. I had about as much business being there as he did; we were in a place where deer outnumbered people and ticks outnumbered deer.
“Who are you?”
Again, I did not respond.
His tone indicated that he was not going to leave me alone until I said something. Anything. Today, he had elected himself as sheriff of the woods, and his sole duty was to make sure that I did not damage any twigs. It didn’t matter that I was a young woman. It didn’t matter that I was wearing a comically large faux-fur hat in the middle of the summer. Or that I was toting around a lilac colored children’s backpack. Or that we were living through a global pandemic that encouraged limited interactions with strangers. No, as sworn protector of the woodlands, it was this man’s job to make sure I was conducting myself appropriately.
Toni Morrison once said that racism was a distraction. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being, wasting your time proving to others what you know to be true.
I was walking through the woods in the middle of the day because I had writer’s block. (Which was none of his business.) It had taken so much effort to get to a place in my professional life where I could afford to rent a cabin on my own (which was also none of his business), and here I was having to justify my right to enjoy the same woods as some random dude driving a car for lesbians. Somehow, I found myself accountable to a man I had never met. But the caveat was that in this trigger-happy environment, if I did not waste my time on an explanation, this misunderstanding could be my last.
I just stared at him in my indignant way that over the past year had prompted rambling, nervous confessions from interview guests on Instagram Live. He stared back at me. But this time I was not asking, “How many black friends do you have?” Instead, I was doing Jason Bourne calculations on whether I could outrun this strange man in these densely packed woods. When, exactly, would be the right moment to start sprinting?
Once more: “Why are you here?”
When I am afraid, I listen. It was noon. The songbirds cooed. The leaves rustled in the wind. But it was my silence that filled the valley.
“Are you staying in the Airbnb? We own this property.”
That is when I noticed that the brunette man was sitting beside a blonde woman. She had not moved, so it was hard to tell if she was his victim or accomplice.
I spoke in a tone several octaves higher than my speaking voice. A skill that I picked up in private school to assuage the fear that my appearance stoked.
“Thank you for letting me stay at your place, I love your home. You live at [REDACTED]?”
“No, we do not live there, we’re just neighbors. So you are staying at the Airbnb?”
That was the moment my heart started beating. He didn’t own the rental. He was guarding property that didn’t even belong to him. I could not trust another word that came out of this man’s mouth. I caught him in a lie.
At that moment I was afraid this white man was going to murder me.
Or abduct me.
Or rape me.
Or abduct me and then rape me and then murder me.
I knew I would not be the first woman to go missing in these woods. The woods were full of apparitions, as the land formerly settled by the Lenape Confederation and now a short-term rental destabilizing the housing market for $400 a night.
“What is your name?”
I considered how quickly Subarus could reverse. It probably had four-wheel drive, which means nothing to me because this was the middle of the summer and I do not know what four-wheel drive is. If I was going to run, it would be uphill through the thicket to another desolate road. The nearest house was probably two miles away, and its lawn was decorated with signs that pledged to Make America Great Again. Years of coming in last place at cross-country meets had taught me that I was a horrible distance runner but above average at sprinting. I began shifting the weight on my feet.
“You do know that you are trespassing. The property you’re staying on is on this side of the road, and the side of the road you’re standing on belongs to Eliot Spitzer.”
I knew that this was a famous old white man, but I could not place exactly who he was or why I knew his name. A cursory google hours later would tell me this was the former governor of New York who resigned in disgrace after a scandal involving sex workers. If I stumbled upon Eliot Spitzer alone in the woods, I think I’d have more cause for concern than he would.
“You have to understand that what you’re doing is a little bit strange.”
Mind you, what I was “doing” was “walking in the woods” in a “black top hat.” I was not committing an illegal act; I was one foot away from the public road, and we were on three hundred acres of secluded forest. The only person who cared, the only person who knew I was there, was this man who made it his civic duty to make sure I did not steal the woods (?!). I am not sure what he was afraid of, but as is usually the case, his fear was now my black-ass problem.
“You have to understand during this political climate why I would not want to talk to a white guy in the woods,” I defended. My words surprised the man as much as I surprised myself. I had said the quiet part out loud. And then came the hemming and hawing.
“Oh, we totally get it! My name is Justin. And this is my wife, Blah Blah Blah.” The blonde lady smiled. I immediately forgot her name. I remember it being Karen, but it was definitely not Karen … or was it? Justin, however, was not a name I could forget. I had gone to school with a couple of Justins, many of whom were emotional terrorists.
“She didn’t know, honey. It’s okay,” Karen insisted. I couldn’t appreciate her protests. She had watched her partner interrogate me and didn’t have any objections until I spoke up for myself.
By August 2020, activism, or the performance of it, had become all the rage. As a society, we had collectively discovered that racism was bad. While it’s troubling to consider the implications of this “movement”—perhaps society was okay with racism until now (??)—and if anti-racism is a trend, the nature of cycles suggests it will eventually fall out of trend (?!). I was left with a modicum of hope that in real time turned to skepticism. I could tell by Karen’s protests that she knew why confronting me was weird but she could not convince her husband. I bet they would’ve voted for Obama for a third term.
I could not offer the couple anything other than my silence. She tried to console me.
“Don’t worry about us, we have a black friend in the back.”
All I could see was my black face looking back at me from their tinted car windows. I wondered if I was the “black friend” this couple was going to enjoy for their weird little Jordan Peele fantasy.
“What is your name?”
I had pepper spray in the front pocket of my mini backpack. I could reach it without taking off my bag. But putting my arms behind my back would spook this coexist couple. Running was my only option, but how many more people were in the back of that sedan with tinted windows? From where I was standing, the only ally I had was my reflection, the only black friend for miles.
My next move had to be intentional.
“Well, hi, I would say hi to your black friend, but I cannot see them.”
I have made a career out of blending a tone between sarcastic and earnest. It is hard for strangers to tell what I am thinking. Sometimes, it is hard for me to tell what I am thinking.
The couple argued, whispering among themselves for far too long.
Slowly, the back window lowered and an emaciated black child appeared behind my reflection. Their black friend was what I could only assume was their black adopted daughter. She looked like me as a child, except her eyes were so wide they looked sewn open.
“Hi!” This was the first time I had spoken with any affectation other than visceral disdain. My friendliness toward the black child subdued her white guardians.
But their little black friend did not say anything back to me. She just stared with those large porcelain eyes. I wondered who needed saving: me, her, or both of us.
“She likes to go swimming at the house you’re staying at,” Karen coaxed. But the child’s silence filled the sunken place.
“I love swimming,” I offered. “It is too cold, so I haven’t been able to do it as much as I wanted, though.”
“It is too cold …” Karen and Justin repeated to each other as if they were learning for the first time that I shared their language.
The black friend held my eye contact, and, without warning, fury possessed the little girl and she screamed, “LUCKY!!!!!!!”
Her voice was both shrill and deep like an incantation. It was hard to believe that in this conversation, I was the lucky one.
“Okay …” I concluded, looking at the parents. I was done speaking.
“Next time, just know that you’re supposed to be on the other side of the road.”
“That side is Eliot’s.”
“She did not know, Justin.”
“Have a good day.”
And then they drove off with the window down. The black friend that they had used to assuage their racial guilt, the black friend to quell my fears about their interrogation, did not break eye contact with me. We looked at each other until the car reached the top of the hill. I worried for her safety and she envied mine. I was lucky. So often, I hear people refer to nameless, faceless black friends who function more as symbolic proof of tolerance rather than as actual people.
Sure, I wore blackface, but some of my best friends are black.
Sure, I touched your hair, but some of my best friends are black.
Sure, I stopped you while hiking alone in the woods, but some of my best friends are black and one is also in this car.
However, she was not a black friend. She was a child who wanted to be anywhere but that Subaru. I knew exactly where she was coming from, because I had spent the past five minutes fearing their friendship too.
Weeks later I left a review for the Airbnb host and mentioned the incident. The owner apologized and told me he had never heard of Justin.
Excerpt from the upcoming book Black Friend: Essays by Ziwe, published by Abrams Image, available October 17. Copyright: © 2023 Ziwe Fumudoh.