Anonymous Black Man, I'm Sorry

Last Friday, my day began with a bit of drizzle.

That may not sound odd to you, and I suppose I shouldn't be so shocked, but this is Los Angeles, and it is June. I pay astronomical rent to live in Southern California because the sun should be shining. In my book, that means, it shouldn't be drizzling. I'm cranky when it drizzles here in June. I don't want to hear about June Gloom. Birds should be singing. Love should be in the air. The world didn't end on 6/6/06, and America has been blessed with pictures of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt. Did I mention that the sun should be shining?

Instead, at 6 a.m., I could hear the sound of tires sliding and swishing over the filmy wetness on the streets. I began to think about about the nightmare that the southbound 101 freeway would be, merely due to the light misting of rain, and so I made up my mind that I wasn't going to drive. "I'm going to take the train to work," I announced to my husband. He gets nervous when I take the train here in Los Angeles. "It's not a train city," he'll say. He worries something will happen to me when I'm on the train or when I'm walking from the train to my office.

I don't take the train to work too often, mostly due to the fact that I might have to be at schools or in meetings in East L.A., Watts, in Downtown, and by USC, all in the same day. I can spend up to 3 hours a day in my car. But, last Friday, I didn't have any external meetings, and so I eagerly got on the train at Santa Monica and Vermont.

I sat next to an older man who was reading a novel written in Spanish. His skin was a leathered brown and his hands were covered by age spots. I apologetically scooted past him when the train arrived at the 7th Street station, and began the walk east to my office. The drizzle had ended and the air felt cool and clean in my nostrils.

There are lots of people out in downtown L.A in the morning now. The rehab/gentrification of this city's core has been fascinating and gut-wrenching to observe over the past five years. Cranes loom over the streets, building wonderful lofts and luxury apartments for the elites that will be able to pay to live there. Still, knowing that business is booming and that FIDM students are riding the train with me, and walking southeast through downtown with me in the morning, I do feel safer. Not that the homeless gentlemen who hang out in front of the Olive Hotel have ever really done anything but smile and say hello. Well, once there was someone selling crack but I never saw him again. He was a clear anomaly.

No, it's the folks that aren't hanging out in front of the vagrant hotel that I need to worry about. Every woman has worries about psychopaths that want to snatch you or your purse. I have no illusions in believing that most people would stop to help a Black woman screaming for help. I'm so jaded by the intersection of race and gender inequity in this country that I truly believe most people would just keep on driving by, or would walk right by me getting assaulted on the street. On Friday, I was reminded that there are other people to worry about and they seem perfectly harmless...until they open their mouths.

You see, I was with with a group of five or six other people, waiting to cross 7th Street, at the northeast corner of 7th and Olive, when I saw the young man coming my way. He was running along 7th, coming towards me. I wondered if he was going to get sweaty because he was nicely dressed. I remember thinking that he must be late for work or for a meeting. And then I heard this:

"Do you think we should stop him?

-I dunno. What 'dyou think?

Maybe. He could be running from the cops.

-Probably stole something.

Yeah, probably. Wouldn't be surprised if he has a gun though."

And then the walk sign turned nice bright and white and we all began to cross the street. The running man was, of course, Black.

I've been thinking about this incident for three days now. The obvious questions burn in my mind.

  • Can't a Black man run down the street in his work clothes during rush hour without racists assuming the worst of him? Nope.
  • If he'd been a young white man, would anyone have thought he might have just committed a crime? I highly doubt it.

I'm sure there's someone out there that would argue that the two people who were having that awful conversation weren't talking about him that way because he was Black, but because he was running in a slightly higher crime area. I'm not buying that argument though. I've grown up in America so I know better.

The saddest thing is, as much as I'd like to think that young man was running along without even knowing that was being said about him, I'm sure it crossed his mind. He certainly didn't hear the conversation I heard, but you don't grow up Black in this country without being made fully aware of what the rest of the world will think of you. We don't get the same pass for behavior that other people do, and our elders, if they're worth their salt, make sure we know the rules for operating while Black in America.

That young man probably had to make the conscious decision to ditch those voices in his head that are saying to him, "Son, you'd better not run down the street because you know folks will think you're a criminal." He probably had to weigh his two options: save face or be late to work.

Anonymous Black Man, I probably wouldn't recognize you if I passed you again on the street but I see my two sons in you and I wonder when this madness of racism that America clings to with such desperation will end. I'm so sorry I had to hear those words spoken, and I'm so sorry they were said about you.


Liz Dwyer said…
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm sure what I saw here happens in NYC all the time as well. Racism permeates the fibers of this nation. But we don't want to admit it. I remember going to one of those Indian restaurants on the lower east side and having to have a white stranger hail a cab for me and my husband, because no one would stop for us. Still, I miss New York sometimes because you get to see people instead of being stuck in a car all day.
You are too kind to compliment my writing and my opinions, but I'll agree with you on my family...they are fantastic!
LD 6/17/06

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