For Young Black Folks it Could Be Stop and Risk

“…As friends and family gathered Friday to say goodbye to 19-year-old Renisha McBride, who was reportedly shot while seeking help, the lawyer for the man implicated in the shooting said evidence would show her client’s actions were “justified,”…”



Now this may very well  turn out to be a very “tragic” situation, totally unrelated to Race. But the situation made me think about how so many young people of color are tragically unaware of the potential for danger that their mere presence produces. People can call it what they want(and I sincerely don’t want to offend anyone), but in certain neighborhoods I am just not going to knock on anyone’s door seeking assistance (remember Dr. Gates was arrested trying to get into his own house!).  I don’t speed , first because it’s the law; but also to reduce the possibility for an encounter with a law enforcement agent; 60 years of history has taught me that these brief encounters can turn out deadly; I need to be around , not just to be around, but to be around to serve.  And long after the last memorial ceremony for Renisha McBride has ended. Long after everyone forgets except the grieving family who will never be able to forget. After the last angry obligatory “never again” words have dissipated  into the commercialized noise of the next new item or gadget that we must give to show love; and receive to prove we are loved. We will be left with all of the young African Americans who are still alive and living among us. What do we tell them?  We need to have a conversation with young people of color about “ survival instincts”.  I get and love, that we are in the very inspirational age of Barack Obama. But young African Americans; for their own safety and wellbeing, should not buy into the “Post-Racial America” mythology.  If  President Obama’s tenure has taught us anything, it is that we are very much still in a very highly toxic racialized environment. The news media can say what it wants; but I think that many in our nation are not fooled by the Tea-Party’s “good and less“  government cover. And just like the wearing of  “white sheets” failed to cover the true intentions of racist in the past; we are not fooled  today by the Tea-Party’s  cover sheets of “civic participation”. I understand that many parents and educators don’t want to “burden” young people with the added pressure of being race ‘sensitive’  and conscious as they move through the world. As a Principal I always wept internally every year that I had to teach young Black and Latino male students survival techniques so that they could survive a “police stop”, without losing their lives, or their chance at a future without a police record. Don’t have an “attitude”; just try to live to see another day; Don’t ask: “Why are you stopping me?”; even if you have absolutely done nothing to justify that stop”(keep your mouth shut and just memorize the badge number). Don’t make any sudden, “jerky” movements; when requested announce  loudly: “I AM REACHING FOR MY WALLET TO GET MY I.D.; keep an I.D. and money in your wallet at all times; …..Don’t, Don’t, Don’t’…Don’t try to be a hero, just try to live another day. I often thought and never shared with those young men that: Being a hero is exactly what a young person should aspire to be! And yet the objective in this situation was to live… another day. What a life for a young person to experience;; hunted by other young men of color; and no government protective  force you feel is truly dedicated to serve and protect you. “Why could they not just be teenagers”; I thought; “and experience normal  teen-age problems?” I felt sorry for them and at the same time felt  sorry for myself , remembering the similar teenage life, experienced by me and my friends. Now as grown men we (all who are left) vividly remember the dual lives we had to painfully live as young people. I was told not to run outside;(Goodness, running is a primary activity of being a kid!) because I would look suspicious. As a group we waited outside of a store while one person went in; too many people in the store looked suspicious. “Michael, when you move around the city, try not to look dangerous or suspicious; huh? “Keep your voice down”; how?; “Don’t draw attention to yourself” (be invisible?); “No play fighting”; “no excitable, sudden movements”; “no hands in pockets”;  “no moving, breathing, talking, singing, acting, being… Black.  And then there were the geographical limitations:

I can remember the day when four of us were on our way to Coney Island to spend our honestly and hard-earned: allowance or odd jobs money. Odd-Job meaning:  collecting and cashing bottles, Newspaper deliveries (I had the feared and dreaded Route 18 which was Eastern Parkway, and the pain of 10,000 steps!); grocery/cleaners deliveries, shoe-shining (I still can’t believe I asked for, and received a shoe-shine  box and kit for Christmas!) We now wanted to do what all good Americans do; spend our money. We looked forward to the excitement, smells and sounds of Coney Island. Our strategic plan, (as well as adolescents can plan) was to spend our money on  a few amusement rides, to eat at Nathan’s; and like young liberated bear cubs, we wanted to see what cute “honeys” would dare venture into our soon to be claimed Brooklyn electric  forest.  Suddenly the train stopped in a “White neighborhood” somewhere, long before Coney Island. We knew this was a “White neighborhood”, because we were well versed on the geo-cultural map of Brooklyn, including the very defined “gang territories”.  Everyone back then, for the sake of survival had to become some type of a “maptician” expert.  The conductor announced and explained that because of some track problems  all passengers would need to get off the train and then take a shuttle bus that would follow the train route, and make all the stops that the train would make, with the last stop ending at Coney Island.  Passengers  offered up the  standard New York City- MTA  grumbles: “high fare, low ride”; “That’s why I’m buying a car”; “I am not wasting another vote on Mayor (just fill in the blank)__________”; “I dare them to ask for another fare increase”; “ D____   NYC  transit system”. But as quickly as the MTA curses and denunciations rain down, so also did the passengers  quickly exit  the now “dead” train. Except, that is, for us four. The MTA employees were shocked and surprised that we four Black Crown heights kids refused to get off the train; and they were not clear as to what to do about it. “No way”, we said; “are we walking, even down those stairs (it was an elevated train) to stand, and wait to catch and ride a bus in this neighborhood.”  Now,  this was not a  Rosa Parks like “sit down” designed  to save America from her sinful racist state of being; rather, this was a “safe-down“  in order to save the living sate of our behinds. We also knew that although we were a group of good young people (out of fear of our parents), who would normally be very receptive and responsive to a directive given by an adult; particularly an adult in an official capacity, but this situation was very different.  This time we somehow knew (or at least believed) that the standards  of adult/child obedience rules would not apply in this situation. We were polite, respectful ,but emphatic about not moving; and we were (at least somewhat), sure our parents would  support our decision in this exceptional case. This was a classic American standoff; a real : “We will, we will not be moved” moment.  The conductor pleaded, and we resisted :  “What do you kids mean you are not getting off the train; no one in the neighborhood is going to hurt you” . Nope, we were not moving off that train, and into that dangerous (for Black kids) neighborhood. The conductor paused in thought for a moment (lesson: pause before anger) and clearly he was seeking  a peaceful way out of this situation (or maybe he was just anxious to get to lunch); In any event he said:  “Well, You kids are not going to be able to go to Coney island on this train; the only thing you can do then is take the ( then waiting) train back in the opposite direction  to Borough Hall, but you won’t be able to get your fare back”. “Not a problem”; we said; immediately sensing a good compromise. Coney Island will be there, the rides will be there, Nathan’s will be there, and the lovely honeys will always be there; but today, we want to live!” Thus the end of our Coney Island trip (who said Black life in America wasn’t complicated!). Even though I was one of the four of those kids heading now away from Coney Island, and back to the faux safety of Crown Heights. I often wondered, and yet can’t seem to remember (and I mean really can’t remember): “What were those four young men feeling, thinking, and saying as they returned from that failed journey? Were they angry? Did they poetically joke about it in a Langston Hughes kind of way? Were they silent and brooding?  Did they stand in the front of the first car, and curse the on rushing scenery for their fate? And why did I bury those “returning home” moments so deeply somewhere that I can’t remember them;  are those memories buried so deep because they are too painful too recall? Yes I often wonder about the thoughts of those four young men; and what it means  to be young, gifted, Black and feeling so unsafe in such a powerful country, in your own country.  And what was so amazing about that day is by that time in our lives none of us had either heard of or read the works of James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois or Malcolm X. We had not read Ellison’s, Invisible Man; or Lammings, In The Castle of My Skin; or McKay’s poem: “If we must die”; or the Brooks Poem: We real Cool  , with that powerful  line: “We Die soon..”  And yet we all knew, and agreed in our non-sophisticated  political way, that there were  people in this world, in our own country, who wanted to harm us for no other reason than the color of our skin. We were not “hoodlums” by any definition of the word; we were in every sense of the words: “good kids”, dare I say even model. We went to school, we played all sports in season, we flew kites in Prospect Park; and the closest  we ever  came to inflicting “violence” was the simulated game of playing  “army” or football in that same Prospect Park. We listened (in those days without talking) to adults speaking with concern about the terrible racial problems in the far away, and in an almost foreign, un-American south; and yet in some  ways we were both obvious and aware of our own dangerous south in NYC.  It seemed that some dangers were so great  that the adults in our lives conspired to keep its awful truth from us. Those boys  who routinely “traveled south” during the summer to visit relatives; would without explanation see that ritual suddenly stop, once the young men became “too big” (I would later come to understand this as the Emmett Till effect); but we in our young and innocent unawareness were just happy that now we would now not lose our best stick-ball and sand lot baseball players to southern relatives. We lived in two places at once; as children doing children “stuff”; and then somehow as a kind of an “adult” who were aware of the danger of our skin; the mature awareness  to turn every slight, disappointment and “not having” into an advantage and an opportunity to be creative. Being forced to repair our bikes utilizing “cannibalized” bike  parts was an economic necessity; but it also was necessary to unite our two “souls”; we were not victims of an economic system; rather we gained victory over the “system”. For our bike fixing was also a lesson in, science, humility, determination, self-reliance and the sense that we were a special and unique type of human being. But who knew that?  And to borrow from the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:  “…These panting people did not know that I myself was once a hungry kid, that the war hit me hard,  making two childhoods and two of me…”  We lived the best we could obvious to harm; that is, until one of those painful Coney Island moments.  We knew, and did not know; how dangerous and tenuous was our very existence. The youthful enterprise of wanting to know everything, and then actively seeking the safety of knowing nothing. “Oh as I was young…….”, mused  the poet Dylan Thomas in a poem staged  very far from Brooklyn, titled Fern Hill.  “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea”.  We lived unknowingly in the inspired words of  W.E.B.  Du Bois we were two-Americans: One young and childlike, and the other fiercely aware of our double consciousness and being; and the danger this being  posed to our survival. And until we truly get into a post-racial phase  in America (whatever that means), young African-Americans will need to be taught to live in a state of double consciousness if they hope to survive to adulthood; and thrive in adulthood.