Editors note: we are SOOOOOOO excited to have our first contributor post from Nicole Morris sharing her story about her travels throughout Portugal as a Black femme.
A Black Femme Walks on the Beach at Night Licking an Ice Cream Cone
It’s ten o’clock at night on the beach in Albufeira, Portugal. Strike that; it’s 22:00 on the beach in Albufeira, Portugal. Past sunset and the sky still has that indigo glow, like the curtain is just barely drawing the day to a close. But still, dark enough. Too dark for this Los Angeles born-and-bred chica to be strolling along the shoreline in a foreign city, in a country where she knows not one single soul.
Let me set the scene. This Black queer, bisexual femme licks an actual ice cream cone while wearing a dress that shows all the cleavage and chunky thicc-thicc good-good of my body. I am wearing red lipstick. I have not one, but both of my AirPods in my ear playing Frank Ocean’s “Swim Good” on maximum volume. I am shasaying, relishing in the shake, shimmy, and jiggle of my hips and thighs while the waves lick my bare feet. At night! On the beach! All my American girls and femmes tell me, how many mistakes am I making right now?
As a city girl, as a femme-presenting ciswoman raised in the United States of America, I am doing all the things that the patriarchy would say makes me complacent or even deserving of sexual or physical assault. In the story of America, I am proverbially “asking for it.” And yet, right here, in real-time, in the Algarve region of Portugal, I have the audacity to just be a human in my body, doing a very simple and human thing of walking along the beach on a balmy nearly summer night, giving good head to a scoop of Madagascar bourbon vanilla gelato in a waffle cone.
Don’t get me wrong. The whole time I have this moment, I am clocking every movement around me. That man on the park bench looking at his phone. This group of teens that run past me giggling in adolescent heat. The body lying in the sand, drunk or high or homeless or just napping…another dude eyeballing me impassively from the pier. I’m taking it all in. All my spidey senses are lit up because I exist in a perpetual state of hypervigilance as a Black American femme. It is not paranoia; it’s a matter of staying alive. If you know, you know. If you don’t know, go read Lorde, hooks, and Crenshaw and come for me later.
But here’s the thing. In the weeks that I’ve been in Portugal, I have never, not once, felt unsafe in my body. I’ve been in Lisbon lost at all hours, wandering up and down a maze of alleyways in the Alfama, stumbling into pubs where not one person speaks English, again, wearing something that flaunts my curves and always a red lip. I’ve been in discos at 4 am dancing perear with boys who only speak french yet manage to say they are in love with me. I’ve been drinking rum with strangers on the street, fumbling on the metro without a clue of how to scan my ticket or ring the bell to alert the driver of a stop. I’ve listened to Fado in Porto with a man who walked right up to me and told me to come with him into a hole-in-the-wall bar; I’ve smoked hand-rolled cigarettes with a local at a bus stop who sheepishly asked if I was Indian (and when I said I am not, he said, “well, do you at least smoke?” I couldn’t say no to him twice). I’ve gone on dates with sailors I’d only just met and chatty lads on Hinge who were direct in their approach (and appraisal). In short, I’ve been clumsy, careless, lost, and confused. I’ve done everything wrong by American standards and yet have had the safest and most enjoyable time of my life. I have felt more adored, more cared for, and entertained; I have felt more seen than I have ever experienced stateside.
So what’s up with Portugal and the fact that I feel freedom for once in my life? I have a few theories, but the one I’m going to go with as the big fact is that in the states, Black folks are almost always existing in this space of being both invisible and hypervisible. We are either ignored and dismissed, the only one in the room (which is its own special kind of hell), or put on blast to the point that we feel uncomfortable or afraid. It’s hard to find the in-between space to go about our lives without the white gaze judging/mimicking/criticizing/threatening us. Everything we do or say is measured up against the metrics of America’s specific form of anti-Black racism. It’s not unique to the USA–not by a long shot; anti-Black racism is prevalent in all four directions on this planet. But the way white supremacy and chattel slavery have impacted and sustained America’s culture, institutions, and structures hits different. In Portugal, I feel like a feminine woman first; not a melanated woman under a microscope of examination. Nobody has asked me my race to qualify me or put me in my box. Nobody has asked me “what are you,” as aggressively as that occurs at home. And when it has happened here, it’s been with a softness, with a kind curiosity. Not with exotification or consumption. I am neither invisible here nor hypervisible. I am one of many brown-skinned folks in a country with a long (like, really long) and complicated relationship between colonization and imperialism. I’m nothing special here, and I mean that in the best damn way possible. I am just Nikki from LA bopping around this land.
I can only speak to my experience. To be fair, all those city-smart, proactive paranoid ways I carry with me abroad may have helped guide me into the right situations with the right people. I also speak good enough Spanish that translates to really shitty but communicable Portuguese. I’m able-bodied, have a smartphone with an international plan (which means having data in remote places), I’m light-skinned and ambiguous looking, which gives me access and acceptance (because white supremacy and colorism play out globally, and I’d be a fool to pretend it don’t, and I’d be complacent to not call that wackness out whenever I can), and I have an American accent. I’m pretty big by most standards and look like I can fight, which I can. So this list adds up to a lot of privilege, and I’d be irresponsible to write my experiences off as just “good fortune” and not as unearned privilege. That said, I’ve been kicking it with all shades of Black girl melanin magic, of various shapes and sizes, and we all agreed that this side of Black girl living is damn lovely. Portugal is giving ease for this Black femme: easy living, easy being, easy moving, uncomplicated joy. And I am here for it.