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.
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