Walking While Black

Last summer my tall oldest son, who was almost 13 and muscular from soccer playing, was stopped by the State Police while he was walking home from the Brunswick Library with his backpack on. He’s an avid reader and we’ve judged him old enough to walk carefully along the busy road we live on, where there are no sidewalks. So maybe once a week he’d don his backpack, walk about a mile to the library, load up on thick fiction, and come home.  And of course stay up till 3 in the morning devouring the latest.

He was in sight of home when he was stopped, and felt fortunate that when they asked him, “Are you lost?”, he was able to point and say, “No, I live right there.”  And then scarper home.  It was scary, he said.

Turns out it wasn’t scary enough.  We, his mothers, realized that he’d been stopped because he was black.  A white kid walking down the road in broad daylight in Brunswick when school’s out wouldn’t be stopped.  He would just be going somewhere, going home or going out.  But a black kid — who didn’t look like a pre-teen — must have been out of place.  Not easily explainable.  There aren’t very many black families out here in Brunswick, so what was he doing here?

And in fact, his mothers are white, as is our tenant, so if they knew about the adults who live here and hadn’t noticed the children, this wouldn’t register as a black or multiracial family.

We’ve talked about taking cookies and going over to the State Trooper barracks, at the end of the road, and introducing our kids. Haven’t gotten around to it.  Aren’t entirely comfortable with it.

But I wonder if we’d better just get over our discomfort and do it, for their future safety.

Turns out that Eldest Son hadn’t a clue that his being stopped might have been racially motivated.  Had that conversation with him tonight.  Invited him to sit down and watch the news coverage of Trayvon Martin ז”ל (z”l, an abbreviation for Zichrono Livrachah, May his memory be a blessing).  And he got it.  That young man was walking where he had an absolute right to be, but not where he was expected to be; a guy with a gun started following him in a big SUV, and when he got scared and tried to get out of there, then when he was cornered and asked a reasonable question (“Why are you following me?”), he was shot dead.

Walking While Black.

And the shooter — who apparently is Hispanic and not, thank God, Jewish (Zimmerman — reasonable assumption) (not that it’s any better for him to be Hispanic, but this feels so personal and so scary that I don’t want to have more scary complicated identity issues in it for me)(correction; police identified him as white, his family says he is “also” Hispanic.  Someone in the family Jewish?) — is not arrested, is not in jail.  Say again?

My heart is in my throat.  That’s my son who was shot.  That’s any of our sons.  He doesn’t have black radar about racism; he’s being raised with the best awareness we can give him, along with his two black siblings and his white sibling, but I guess we’re not doing enough.  He needs to know, in his gut, that he’s not as safe as we wish he were.  His youngest brother needs to know that although he likes to imagine himself a superhero and talks about punching a policeman if he ever got in trouble, he needs to move slowly and keep his hands in sight and say “Yes sir” and “No sir” and not assume that he’ll be treated as he should be.

Trayvon Martin’s father tried to warn him of that too.

We do not live in a post-racist society.  This horrible bumper sticker is proof enough of that:

"Don't Re-Nig in 2012" bumper sticker

Went viral, apparently the manufacturer (known for such crap, pardon me) pulled it.  But who would create/sell/buy/display such a thing?!  Apparently some Americans.

I keep thinking about congregants of mine, two white women raising a very tall black son whose name is not Ezekiel.  When he was about the age my son is now, one of them reported to me a conversation she’d recently had with his Montessori school teachers.  Mom was talking about having to teach son coping skills for being black in white parts of the world, because he could be mistreated e.g. by police.  The white teacher(s) replied, “Ezekiel?  But he’s so wonderful, he’s such a leader,” etc.  To which Mom replied, “They won’t see Ezekiel, they’ll just see a young black man.”

As a Jew, as a lesbian, I can pass.  As a woman (usually), as a person of color whose skin or features identifies them, one cannot.

My son has a favorite hooded sweatshirt that he wears all the time.  I don’t know exactly why he likes it, though I suspect that he sometimes keeps the hood up when his hair isn’t looking good, and other times feels safer with his emotions in there.  I know enough about traditional manners that I’m uncomfortable with him wearing the hood indoors, but if he wants to hide, I try to let him.  But at the back of my mind is also this worry.  A young black man in a hoodie …

Please read about Trayvon Martin.  I’m scared.  This could be my son.


Huffington Post: Final moments captured in phone call

ABC: Phone call triggers demand for immediate arrest.  Includes video.

Huffington Post:  Million Hoodie March

USA Today: USA is soul-searching.  Includes video and lots of links.  I linked to this article above in the post as well.

ThinkProgress.com: What Everyone Should Know About Trayvon Martin.  Starting with the fact that this happened three and a half weeks ago and I only heard about it on NPR yesterday.  I also linked to this article above, in the post.

NPR: A Parent’s Worst Nightmare.  Including the rules that the reporter’s parents drilled into him.

I am a black man. This is one of the realities I have lived. My parents prepared me for it.

To be sure, my parents taught me to transcend matters of race, interrogate them when necessary, and even ignore them where possible. However, they also gave me “The Talk.”

For other boys coming of age, parents may end “The Talk” after a lecture about sex, drugs, alcohol or Internet porn. The rite for black boys often is more rigorous: We’re also drilled on a set of rules designed to protect us against suspicions too often associated with the color of our skin.

“There is still a tendency to see you first as ‘here comes a black man,’ so we teach our black children how to handle other people’s problems,” says professor William E. Cross Jr., of the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

GlobalGrind.com: White people, you will never look suspicious!

Huffington Post: Seller of similar bumper sticker says it’s not racist and neither is she.  In fact, “According to the dictionary [the N word] does not mean black,” she said. “It means a low down, lazy, sorry, low down person. That’s what the N word means.”

Yeah, like “Jew him down” didn’t originate as a slur upon a group, it just means “bargain effectively.”  And “Welsh on a debt” isn’t a slur on a particular nationality, nor is “going Dutch.”   And “Jeez” isn’t a disrespectful form of the name of the deity in Christianity.  Sorry, “negro” is “black” in Spanish and it has roots in Latin.