Social Issues

Who’s Afraid of the Big Black Man?

This has been an eventful week in America.  The week kicked off with fireworks and barbecues as we celebrated the freedom and independence of America, on the eve of witnessing two high profile murders of African-American men, by officers of the law.  Alton Sterling and Philando Castile fell victim to brutality perpetrated by the very people paid to protect them. Many people will ask why they were killed. The answer is simply because they were Black.

Now when I say that, I don’t say it in a way that means that all of the officers involved are card-carrying members of the KKK and hate Black people. I mean, that by simply being Black, these young men were threats in those officer’s minds before they even said or did anything.

I know this. I’m a Black man myself. I went to college, come from a two-parent home and was raised in the suburbs. I’ve tried to be respectful to everyone I’ve met.

But my parents knew that wouldn’t be enough. They knew no matter how well they tried to raise me I would be in situations where I would have to react to people’s reactions when I’d done nothing wrong.

“If you get accused of stealing, find us.” I was in a discount department store in Capital Heights, Maryland when this happened. I was in the fourth grade. There were some poor quality watches on a rack priced at about $10. They were all in different colors so they caught my eye. As I finished looking at them to go ask my dad to buy one for me a store employee approached me accusing me of “getting ready” to steal the watch.  My dad was a man of few words but he gave that woman a mouthful that day.

“Always answer your elders with yes sir/no sir and yes ma’am/no ma’am.” My parents grew up in North Carolina. My father was born in 1949 and my mother two years later in 1951. During the summers they sent me to there to spend time with my grandmothers, uncles and aunts. They knew that there were people, still alive, who would not take kindly to me if I didn’t speak to them in the way my parents had to when they were children.

“I don’t care what they said, YOU can’t go on a job interview without wearing a suit.” I have a “normal” name, speak with good diction and attended predominantly white universities. I’ve gotten phone calls when people were excited to bring me in for an interview only to get there and see the look on their face. No matter how I presented myself, how prepared I was or how well dressed I was; a Black man was not the person whom they were expecting.

“When they pull you over for being Black, just do what they ask.” Two years ago I was driving from DC to Florida with my wife, daughter and my sister. As we drove through South Carolina we passed a cop simultaneously with another car that was speeding. The cop pulled onto the road so I got into the other lane because I figured he was going after the car that was speeding. Imagine my surprise when those sirens went up for me. I was driving too close to the truck in front of me, which I wasn’t behind when I passed the cop. Next thing I know I’m out of the car on the side of the road on I-95 explaining to this cop what I do for a living and where I was going and how long I was going to be there. I did it, fighting back the anger from the indignity of being pulled over for being Black.

Now I’m 100% positive Philando and Alton’s parents had similar conversations and I’m sure they tried to make people feel comfortable around him. The outpouring of support from the community in Minnesota for Philando and the fact that the store owner gave Alton permission to sell his CDs/DVDs in front of his store gives me confidence in saying that.

However, moments in life are often short and fleeting and many times we don’t get the opportunity to prove that we’re not threats. Nor should we have to.

I declare that it is high time that we stop being required to prove our humanity. We need to be afforded the same opportunity to live without suspicion. We are not some ogres here to hurt other humans. It’s time for other people to have conversations with their children that Black men are fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, doctors, lawyers, accountants, plumbers, carpenters, Senators, Governors, Presidents and we want to live.  It is our inalienable right to live.  Isn’t that what the constitution guarantees?  But then again, what guarantees are there for my life from a document that was created while my ancestors were still slaves…

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