A little over a month ago on a colorless, wet Saturday, I happened to catch the end of a “hoodie” protest in Freedom Plaza. Around one hundred mostly African Americans had gathered to show solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old killed in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch avenger.
In the crowd that day were a number of children with mothers and fathers. As I waited for a red light, one family in particular held my attention. Two boys, around seven and ten, held the hands of their mother, while the father pushed a stroller holding a little toddler girl. Every one in the family wore sweatshirts of various shades with hoods pulled over their heads, sheltering them from the rain. On the father’s dark hoodie, fairly large white letters proclaimed, “Trayvon Martin Is Me.”
In the aftermath of this tragedy, sides already appear drawn largely on the basis of race. It has been suggested that it is reasonable to assume that Martin, a tall, thin, young, black man, might have appeared threatening to Zimmerman. Much has been made of the bruises Zimmerman might have sustained in a scuffle. Less has been noted of Martin’s “state of mind.” Who was this man following him? Some media coverage appears more inclined to accept the notion that Trayvon might have seemed threatening, rather than recognize how threatened he must have felt as an armed stranger approached.
It makes me recall my own brushes with fear. Back in early fall, while sitting in my car in Rock Creek Park, a park policeman passed me slowly and circled back around. The air had become nippy, and I rolled my car window up as he passed. The officer, a white male in his early thirties, decided my action was suspicious. He decided I was smoking some kind of drug and trying to conceal the odor. He flashed his lights, made me exit my car and sit on the curb while he searched it.
The scene itself appeared harmless enough to me, embarrassing, but I did not feel threatened. I knew I was not smoking anything, and there were no drugs concealed in my vehicle. What made me nervous were his mannerisms while he searched. When he stared over at me, there was a cold glare in his eyes. I had seen that look before in Florida and Mississippi and New York. I knew he had contempt for me. His right hand was never far from his weapon. There were no other cars in the lot, and I realized that man could kill me if he wanted, and later claim some odd movement on my part. I know it sounds crazy or paranoid, but everything in my being told me I was in danger.
Then, suddenly, another patrol car pulled into the lot. I could see the two additional officers were black. Just as they stopped and opened their car door, the officer with the cold eyes said, “Great. Here come the darkies.” That was when I realized my trepidation was real. The three of them then combed through my car. The original officer kept remarking that “something smelled funny.” Before they let me go, they concluded the offending odor emanated from the tree-shaped Black Ice car freshener hanging from my rear mirror.
Two years before that, I was again parked adjacent to the Rec Center near my home. I was performing that night at a karaoke spot. While practicing a song I thought I might sing, a burgundy car drove slowly down the street. When I was younger, I would sing into a comb, but none was handy, so I sang into my hand. Suddenly, the burgundy car screeched to a halt, slammed into reverse, and stopped just inches from my car. A tall, burly white male jumped from the vehicle with both hands wrapped around a gun aimed at my head.
“Don’t move,” the man shouted. He wore blue jeans and a flannel shirt. I saw no badge, only the gun. As he walked slowly towards me, all I could do was pray. Then the man flashed a police badge and yelled for me to slowly get out of my car. He had seen my hand near my mouth and assumed I was “smoking crack.” After looking at my driver’s license, he had me sit on the curb with my hands behind my back. He put the gun back into a shoulder holster and methodically searched my odorless car. He later apologized and explained that reports of young people doing drugs in the park had surfaced. The fact that I was older and lived two blocks away did not seem to matter. When I drove home and told my family about the incident, my middle daughter cried.
One Friday, when I was thirty-five and walking from the business I owned to the subway in New York, three police cars suddenly surrounded. Two young white males sat in the back of one of the cars. I later learned the police were looking for “a black male in a yellow jacket.” The two young men had been robbed of twenty dollars. I have more money than that in my wallet, and I wore a $150 ankle-length designer raincoat. But it did not matter. I was handcuffed, arrested, fingerprinted, and spent the next three nights sleeping on the floor in a huge holding cell packed with black and Latino men. On Monday morning, the charges were dropped and the record “expunged,” but not before I felt myself changing inside.
These three experiences with authority symbolize a larger reality. As a black man, it is easy to fall prey to the expectations of others. During one class exercise, I draw representations of four men on the board. I tell the students the men are Asian, black, white, and Latino. I then ask a series of questions: who makes the most money? who is the smartest? who works the hardest? who is the best father? who is the angriest?
Each year, the answers are the same. The Asian is smart, and the Latino works the most. The white man is the wealthiest. For them, children of color themselves, the black man is invariably mean, but athletic; he has swag, but no meaningful job. He is an absent father and an unreliable mate.
I then ask for a list of men, black men, who defy these stereotypes. Finally, we examine the challenges confronting a black boy who wants to be smart and successful. Inevitably, we discover that the obstacles impeding his growth come not only from society “out there,” but also from formative pressures internalized in the communities from which most of my students come.
Education, we all agree, is the ultimate equalizer, even for the aspiring NBA standout or “take-no-prisoners” rapper. But we also almost always end the discussion with the realization that sometimes, no matter what you do or how hard you work, someone who knows nothing about you will assume everything about you based solely on how you look.
Just ask Trayvon’s parents.