The blackest thing in Belfast was the beer.
The people are colorful. The buildings are colorful. Hell, even the sides of the curbs are colorful… just so you don’t ever end up on the wrong side of town.
And yet, according to many, that’s exactly where I did end up… after a long ride in, ironically, a black taxi.
I arrived, an American boy trying to prove to himself that he could practice what he preached, and set off on a journey to a part of town that I’d only read about.
The minute I sat down in that cab, I felt prejudice.
“What’s your name?” the old man asked. “Stephen,” I told him.
He may have raised his eyebrows, he may not have, but in retrospect it sure felt like he did.
“The Falls Road.”
“Oh, you don’t want to go there,” he said into the rearview mirror.
“I don’t?” I asked. (For I knew what was coming next.)
“You know what kinds of people they have out there?”
“I do,” I said with what I now remember as a laugh. “And that’s why I want to go there.”
The Falls is West Belfast. It’s IRA country. It’s where the Troubles were lived, not just sung about.
The taxi stopped at a pub. I paid the driver and walked inside from what, if it wasn’t an outwardly cold evening, certainly felt like one.
I sat down, ordered a pint, and suddenly I was home.
One black beer. Lots of colorful people.
“What’s your name?” “Stephen.”
The man next to me asked how I’d found my way there, and I told him… I may have mentioned something about the taxi ride as well.
He laughed. “Of course the driver asked your name. He wanted to know if you were Catholic.”
I looked back incredulously (though this was precisely what I’d somehow suspected).
He smiled and looked directly at me, “Welcome to Belfast. Here you’re Black.”
The sentiment was shocking. I didn’t know why being a Catholic in Belfast made me Black. (Frankly I didn’t even know what it meant to be black… cause there certainly weren’t a lot of them in my posh corner of Colorado either.)
What I knew of Belfast, and what I’ve learned in the years since, is the connection that place feels to the American Civil Rights movement.
They have their poets, they have their heroes… All were Catholic. Some were saints.
They have Bobby, they have others too, but then Black heroes come in all kinds as well.
West Belfast has its Martins, and they certainly have a few Malcolms.
And yet what I remember most about Belfast was the fact that I’ve never ever felt so safe.
I was aware of the prejudice. It existed there, even towards an American.
But I also became aware of what community was. Because, in a sense, I’m not sure if anyone fully realizes community unless they have to.
In that moment when I was most Other, I knew very much with whom I needed to be.
In the years which preceded and in those which followed as well, I’ve often practiced civil rights from the periphery.
I read while others discuss, I write while others march.
If this is somehow being less committed, my drinking mate that night would disagree.
Sitting there on the Falls, I wanted to do something. I wanted to earn my place.
I’ll never, ever forget that glare.
“If you pick up a rock, you insult us,” he began while leaving no space for my interruption. “We throw those rocks because we have no voice. You and your Bill of Rights, you have the voice we’ve never known. You want to help? Go home and tell our tales. Write the story you and only you are allowed to.”
Somewhere in his lesson I felt a responsibility.
There’s a debt one feels when they’re accepted into a community.
It’s a debt that I’m grateful to pay to this day.