From the beginning the arrest of the celebrated Harvard scholar was placed in the racial profiling box. People from around the country are incensed that a black man can get arrested in his own house. Making matters worse is this black man isn’t your typical case study of black folks pulling the race card. Something went wrong up in Cambridge. I could hear the doves crying. If a Ph. D can’t keep you out of jail, what’s a brother with a GED supposed to do?
Obama decided to throw in his commentary during a national news conference. “They acted stupidly,” he said, obviously enraged at how his good friend had been treated. How does a man get thrown in jail while making comments from his own house? It’s hard to keep that card in your pocket when faced with the facts.
Fact one-black man. Fact two-white police. Fact three-go to jail. For those not mired by memories of skirmishes with the law, it all seems so simple. A man should never, ever, under any circumstances, question the man with the badge. The assumption is the police are present to protect and uphold the law. As much as we all want to honor and respect the role of the police, there is too much personal and communal evidence to contradict that claim.
The stories of these many clouds of witnesses are hushed before they have a chance to become a part of a larger body of dialogue related to the grip of stereotypes about black men. Black men get stopped by the police for no reason. Black men become the target of security guards at the mall. Black men are watched and followed for no other reason than being tied to the most feared cluster in America-black men.
Time builds rage. It comes after each occasion one gets stopped for no reason, watched for no reason, devalued for being a black man. Many can’t understand the rage that comes after being watched or stopped. It has happened to me on a number of occasions. I’ve been stopped for driving while black. I have been followed for shopping while black. I have even been stopped for walking while black.
It hurts being stopped for walking in your own neighborhood. It happened close to a decade ago, but the memory still haunts me. Like so many of my neighbors I took advantage of the walking trail in the Woodcroft subdivision of Durham, NC. An officer stopped me one day and asked where I was going. “Home,” I responded.
I was walking home. I was taking a stroll to reduce the stress caused from dealing with outlandish circumstances in both my life and in the lives of people I worked with. I didn’t deserve to be stopped for walking. What I needed was time alone to meditate. I needed time to reflect on my work. I needed space, alone, to unload the pain caused after witnessing countless people caught up in cycles of frustration-addiction, abuse, poverty, incarceration, death and fear. I walked and prayed searching for answers after enduring the despondency of one day of disappointment stacked on top of the previous day of the same.
I needed a reminder of God’s presence in the hub of my pain. Each step, each breath, and each teardrop sought sanctuary from the sadness that comes with the work I do. There, walking down the manicured landscape of Woodcroft Parkway, I tried my best to forget, for a moment, the stack of ills was too heavy for me to carry. I walked in search of some comfort from the sorrows of those residing in the North East Central Durham community. “God, grant me the courage and strength to keep pressing forward,” I prayed. “Give me reason to believe that those over there, on the other side of this place where I live, will break free from the misery caused by living with their lacks.”
Then it happened. A reminder. A reminder that my living in isolation from those who fill victimized by their human condition did not protect me from the perceptions my skin stirred. In that moment I was no different from those living with less. The police stopped me because of an assumption linked to my race. The rage stirred in me. I stood in shock as the officer calculated my worth. I fought back anger and tears. This was not supposed to happen out here.
I calmly kept the rage inside. Soon it was over. The walk home left me pondering the work of Elis Cose. I had recently read his book The Rage of the Privileged Class. I felt that rage brewing. None of it mattered, it seemed. The work done to make a difference, the neighborhood where I lived, the degrees earned, being named “Tar Heel of the Week”, all of the community accolades and boards I served on-none of it mattered. In that moment, I was measured by the externals-black man walking.
It’s difficult to put in words how it feels when none of what you have done matters. That rage brews deep in the belly of those who have fought through all the stereotypes coming from those incapable of understanding the burden black men carry. It’s hard to explain how painful it feels when you catch Hell in your own house. It’s one thing to endure it over there, but leave me alone when I’m at home. This is my rekindling place. This is the one place that should be an oasis after dealing with the feedback of those who think they have license to attack the work I do.
Maybe a glass of beer will help explain all of this. What Sgt. Crowley did may not have been about race, but it hurts just the same.