America Eats Her Young

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Alex Yarde grieves the impending reality of having to teach his son that by nature of his heritage, he will be feared and villainized.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran July 16, 2013, but after the recent shootings of unarmed Black men, particularly in Ferguson, we felt it was important to revisit the subject with Alex’s fantastic personal essay. 

The other day I got into an extremely minor traffic accident. While waiting at a stoplight, the car behind me gently rolled forward into my car. I very calmly got out of my vehicle and looked to see if there was any damage. There wasn’t any, so I smiled and waived the driver on. The other driver, an elderly white woman, did not move to get out of her car. She was white knuckled, terrified, locked her doors and I immediately knew that all-too-familiar look. It was the look that one might give Avon Barksdale, the imposing hotheaded drug kingpin from The Wire, or those frightened kids in Jurassic Park at the hungry T-Rex outside their window. It was not the look someone (as I was that day) wearing khaki shorts and driving an eco-friendly Subaru with two child seats in it would normally expect to get. But people who don’t know any better often judge me on my size and race before anything else.

In my 40+ years, I’ve become (somewhat) immune to the extra special, red carpet attention I get in high-end stores no matter how well I’m dressed. (No need to follow me around, if and when I need your help I’ll ask for it.) I always carry easily-accessible identification, in case of an inquiry on my latest whereabouts and plans for the evening by the police. Black men in this country learn the drill early on or find out the hard way. Growing up in the Bronx in the late 70s’ early 80’s, I became adept at putting white folks in authority at ease. It was an important survival skill.

Deference to their authority (and some luck) kept me many a Saturday night from seeing a Judge on Monday morning. I’m over six feet tall, so I suppose I can be an imposing figure. If one adds in all the unfortunate lingering stereotypes about Black men, I guess I could be terrifying to some. It’s just not how I see myself. It sometimes forget what labels society has for boys and men that look like I do. Inevitably most days, in some subtle ways I’m reminded how I am perceived before I say or do anything. Fortunately, we live in a very diverse, welcoming community. That factor and the excellent schools are the main reasons my wife and I decided to move here from Brooklyn after our second child was born. I’m very proud of my Caribbean and African roots, I’m just so inured to it all; it can feel like a game. Dealing with others’ uninformed perceptions that way helps me to cope with them.

♦◊♦

Unfortunately, as the verdict came down in the trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, I was reminded (once again) that this is not a game. I was reminded that I’m going to have to help my son (sooner rather than later) begin to contemplate the idea that as he grows, his complexion, age and gender are a cause for concern by larger American society.

Without pushing the notion that criminal behavior can be linked to race, which would be crazy, I need him to understand that there are some people out there that will look at him and only see a Black male. When they do that, they will pigeonhole him and play out their worst case scenarios based upon their assumptions about who he is. They won’t see anything else. They won’t see an excellent student, swimmer, kind big brother, or funny dancer. Instead they will see some scary figure that’s “up to no good” and intends to do something dangerous or harmful. It is a lesson I have found easier to learn and implement than to teach because it breaks my heart to pass this cruel life lesson on to my child, my boy. And even with my guidance, it still might not be enough to protect him. He could just as easily meet a truly scary person simply walking home from the store someday.

Unarmed Black males are considered more threatening than an armed non-Black person willing to use a gun with deadly force.

Before Saturday, lawyers for both sides argued mightily that the Trayvon Martin case was not about race. But, it was, is and has always been about race. Why was that boy ever even approached?  What was he doing wrong? I know—Walking While Black is dangerous. In this supposedly post-racial society, with a Black president and a Black attorney general, and a Supreme Court finding the Voting Rights Act “archaic”, unarmed Black males are considered more threatening than an armed non-Black person willing to use a gun with deadly force. Sadly, it seems, this jury saw it that way too. They did not see young Trayvon Martin as a victim with a 3.7 GPA and a full ride to the school of his choice. Instead, they saw him as a potential violent predator and justified his shooting death. In America, a Black boy can be put on trial for his own murder.

I watched, bemused, as the news media excitedly camped out waiting for race riots that never spontaneously erupted and I wondered when, if ever, will folks get beyond assuming the worst and practice judging others by the “content of their character” instead of the color of their skin, as Dr. King elegantly emplored us to do? As the father of a Black boy, I don’t have the luxury to assume this day will come anytime soon regardless of how “post racial” some say this nation is or shall become.

Some may even accuse me of perpetuating the idea of judging a book by its cover; the irony isn’t lost on me. However, as many are saying of Martin, “You are what your record says you are.” Well, America’s 237-year-old record in this regard is abysmal, the stakes for complacency in not addressing the unique perils for Black boys in this country are far too high for people who love and raise them. So, besides the legion of issues that face anyone raising a son, I also have the added responsibility to teach him to have pride in himself and the inherent perils of his unique heritage.

America eats her young, and when you’re Walking While Black in America you take your chances.

 

Photo: “April 4th, 1968″ by artist Nikkolas Smith

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About Alex Yarde

Alex Yarde is a husband and father living in New Jersey. In earlier times, you could find Alex in New York City teaching outdoor education to the great kids from Erasmus High School in Brooklyn. Today, you can find him on Twitter at @thatalexyarde.

Comments

  1. John Weeast says:

    Excellent piece of writing Alex. While I might have a different experience, I think you’ve summed up how our “melting pot” society has really only been a light simmer that never reached boiling. Separate is still separate and most lack the empathy to think how someone else views things. We might disagree on individual facts related to this case and trial, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand your view. If we all viewed things exactly the same, we’d be boring :)

    From a fellow New Jerseyean, thank you for the great read!

  2. Rachael Egan says:

    Thank you Alex. This piece is very moving. As a white woman who has adopted a child with dark skin, a lot of fears about how to raise her in this world hit me hard the moment I met her. When you’re white like me, you feel frustrated by racism, and you speak out against it, but ultimately no matter how hard one tries to understand, one can never fully appreciate the full extent of what people of color are up against. I am not living that experience, but loving my child of color, has made me see the world in a different way- I see race more clearly now, by how she is reflected in the eyes of others. I don’t always like what I see, and if she were a boy, I would be a lot more anxious today. What can we all do to change our insane society?

  3. ogwriter says:

    Alex I’m an old g and I raised my boy’s here in Oakland, Ca. I got the talk from my mother when I was twelve and from that experience I decided AGAINST doing the same with my sons.You,of course,must make the best decision for yourself and your family.My mother’s words didn’t save my life,nor did they prevent cops from harassing me. Her words did,however,succeed in frustrating me and underscored my, our, powerlessness.Had she instead focused her talk on how she,I, and, other blacks were working to hold white America accountable would have been better.For far too long our tails have been between our behinds afraid to confront our life and or death.Instead, stupidly,naively, allowing others, like a bunch of middle-aged white women,to decide justice for Trayvon. How could they possibly relate to Trayvon? Probably just like that old white woman related to you.

  4. You make good points Alex. I’m sorry that you’ve had to experience this, it’not fair to assume anything, and I judge a man by his character than his looks.

    White folks have done some pretty horrendous things over the years, and yet don’t get blamed as a group anywhere near the level that black folks do as a group. Having said that, I think the majority of the issue is rooted in economic and educational failures that have been experienced by the black community and then carried over to the entire racial group. This is also compounded by government intervention, rather than from within, by the community, or national leaders, as if black people can’t takecare of things rationally on their own, they need big daddy to do it for them. That is patronizing at best.

    I wasn’t there at the time that this tragedy went down. Initially, by the tapes, HZ said he thinks the guy was black, implying he didn’t really know. But who knows, maybe he inferred it subconsciously. Or consciously.

    But my point is that after the verdict blacks because of race, not all of course, did I’m fact riot and loot. This wad stirred up by the liberal media for a story, al sharpton and Jesse too, yet when black thugs shot the baby in the artillery, not a peep from those two, nor in similar circumstances either.

    This is what white society sees, and rightly or not, mostly not, attributes to the entire black community.

    • ogwriter says:

      mark Your attempts at empathy and sensitivity is admirable,however,shortsighted.The net you cast into these perilous waters is far too small.and doesnmt feel authentic to me. First, to describe what white people have done to black people as horrendous:and the atom bomb was a firecracker too.Furthermore,some very large fish got away from you.Such as,the horrendously brutal and traditionally dishonest treatment of Native Americans without whose intervention the first colonists would have died.And then,of course,there was/is the mistreatment of Mexicans and Asians AND of other white people.You seem to use the empathy to set up your real argument,which was to criticize the response by those affected by this horrendous treatment.It was Sam Adams,considered perhaps the greatest American patriot,who said that riots are a legitimate response when a government fails to protect it’s people.He said this in defense of rioting in Massachusetts by white people.In fact,of the over 5,600 riots in this country’s history,whites have been the instigators in most of them.Without a fleshed out examination of ALL of the horrendous effects of whites treatment of others, a critique of the various responses is extremely shallow and self-serving.

  5. Very moving, my heart goes out to you.

    Ironically if you move to Australia you won’t be seen that way at all, unless you hang out with Australian aboriginal people. You are seen as a threat because black people in the US have been mostly poor, therefore more likely to engage in crime (apart from the wall street type of crime). In Australia the Aboriginal people are seen the same way for the same reason. Prejudice disadvantages a race and then their disadvantage is used as a justification for the prejudice.

    • ogwriter says:

      Mr. Blanche you are partially correct in some of your analysis.Wealth does,in some circumstances, buffer some of the animus directed at blacks.Mostly though,blacks are considered threats because of hundreds of years of well-honed propaganda.If it was just because of crime and violence,white America would surely hate itself.White America uses blacks as Aussies use Aboriginals as scapegoats,blaming them for ALL of soceities violence.This represents a complex,organized kind of cowardice and deep hypocrisy.

  6. Meyer Belzer says:

    (The title) Right.

  7. Wow.The descendants of slaves, most of which were sold out and brought to America against their wills, of receiving “freedom” (ha ha…) and having to forge a life out of a society of historically oppressive peoples and lands is quite a remarkable story and a fascinating outcome when it ever does arrive…..The story of African-Descents in America is a story of constant revolutionary struggle to find peace on the terms they were never allowed to have.

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