When my son Charlie was a little boy, people used to stop me on the street and proclaim how absolutely cute he was. (He really was!) Added to his inherent cuteness, he had a smile that went from ear to ear, teetering on being a grin. That smile drew people into him, and they adored him.
But he was a little boy. He was African-American …but a little boy. He had not yet developed his deep, baritone voice, nor had he grown to his 6’4″ stature. He was a little boy with fuzzy, wooly hair, little chubby legs and arms, a big smile and wide, glistening eyes.
While I was proud of people saying Charlie was cute, I also found myself annoyed inside when white people would compliment him, because I knew he was only “human,” and therefore, capable of being humanly “cute,” while he was little. All too soon, I knew, he would be seen as “one of them” by these same white people who were smiling at him now, and he would become a live member of the endangered species called black men.
I thought about that as I read the story of a former professional baseball player who was racially profiled in his own driveway in Hartford, CT. as he shoveled snow. (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/04/i-was-racially-profiled-in-my-own-driveway/360615/) His account of what happened to him was all too familiar. The white officer who questioned him, assuming he had no right to be in that neighborhood left without apologizing after being told that the man was in the driveway of his house. This man was well-educated and knew enough protocol to know what to say and not say, do and not do, to this young, white police officer, but what if he had been less educated, and had not been schooled on what to do when stopped by police? It is very possible, in fact, probable, that this man would have been gunned down, with the police officer giving the excuse that he had to shoot because he was “in fear for his life.”
There have been all kinds of “conversations on race” in this country, and yet, racism sticks to American society, culture and life like human skin sticks to crazy glue. Most people don’t want to have a conversation about race, white or black; most Americans want to believe that racism is gone. After all, we have a black president …
But the facts of our existence as Americans say otherwise. Black kids in school are expelled or suspended more often than white kids for the same offenses; more black people than white are in prison for non-violent drug offenses; one black man is killed by police every 28 hours according to a recent report published by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. (http://mxgm.org/operation-ghetto-storm-2012-annual-report-on-the-extrajudicial-killing-of-313-black-people/). The information contained in this well-researched report is not surprising for those of us who are African-Americans, but it is troubling that in this, the 21st century, black people, and more specifically, black men, are still at risk. Black actors still find it hard to get good roles because Hollywood still sees the world and the stories to be told through a primarily white lens. Lupita Nyong’o, the award-winning and stunningly beautiful actress who played the role of a mistreated slave in “12 Years a Slave” may very well, despite her beauty and talent, find herself out of work because there will simply not be enough casting agencies willing to cast her or roles suited for a very black woman.
Ah, this is America.
My son is now 25 years old, tall, bronze-skinned, handsome…and so smart. That really isn’t a guarantee, though, or a shield against racism, and the fear that undergirds racism and causes people to make assumptions about black people in general. If he were on a corner waiting for a taxi in New York, where he lives, and a white guy was near him, also waiting for a cab, guess who’d get the cab? The most important thing is that he has made it out of boyhood into manhood. He was a boy; now he’s a man. Getting from one status to the next as a black man is not a guarantee, so I should be happy. I will be happy. I am happy…but yet sad, because many young men will not get to experience that blessing.
A candid observation …