The Atlantic, Feb. 12, 2014
by Theodore R. Johnson
I’d experienced it before, but it was especially palpable one morning when I had to run around two white women out for a walk at a high school track. I felt the need to shrink – to make myself small and move past them at a distance comfortable to us all. If they perceived a threat – albeit, one clad in a Harvard shirt, “Go Navy” shorts – it could turn out rather poorly for me. So my body language, involuntarily and quite naturally, conveyed passivity. Of course, I’d done or said nothing that should have made them feel endangered, but the presence of my blackness in a space where they hadn’t expected to encounter it placed the onus on me to make them comfortable.
This is what it feels like to be black in America. It sounds like the symphony of locking car doors as I traipse through a grocery store parking lot, armed with kale chips and turkey bacon. It looks like smiling when I don’t feel like it. It’s the instinct to enunciate differently, to use acceptable methods of signaling that I am safe to engage, or at least to disregard. “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” wrote the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. I feel that mask covering my soul, never allowing me to just freely exist.
I could argue that any negative reaction to my skin is a problem for others to grapple with and of no concern to me. I’ve tried that approach before; one memorable attempt ended with me being pulled out of my car by two police officers and handcuffed for the felonious infractions of having a blown headlight and insufficient self-abasement. It is an unspoken rule that blackness’ first and most important task is to make everyone feel safe from it. We ignore this mandate at our own peril, realizing that a simple misunderstanding is a life or death proposition.
Jonathan Ferrell ran towards police seeking help after a car accident and was given a hail of bullets for his troubles. Renisha McBride went in search of a Good Samaritan after her accident and a shotgun blast answered her knock. Teenager Trayvon Martin walked home with candy and tea and was greeted by the nervous trigger finger wrapped in an adult’s gun. Jordan Davis sat in a car outside a convenience store listening to music and a man who objected to the volume cut his life short with the boom of a firearm. The principal crime all of them committed, like countless others over the centuries, was being black and not sufficiently prostrating themselves to ensure the comfort of others.
As Black History Month ambles on, the heroic contributions and monumental achievements of black Americans take center stage. We remember these champions and the bouts they fought, but they’re presented as extraordinary human beings—legends whose anomalous stories don’t neatly translate to everyday interracial encounters. As I move around the country, the behavior that greets me is usually more influenced by the black faces that fill crime-ridden local newscasts than the exceptionality of Charles Drew, James Baldwin, or Thurgood Marshall. The great black women and men who populate Black History Month celebrations feel like characters in a novel—a world away from the black guy a few steps behind you in a barren parking garage.
In short, exceptions tend to prove the rule. A detached appreciation of Harriet Tubman and her Underground Railroad does not change the way drivers react when they pull up alongside a car full of black teenagers at a stoplight—or the purse-clutching that occurs when I pass women at the train station.
What gets lost in the gleam of these once-in-a-generation personalities and tip-of-the-iceberg events is the dull ache in the glacier below. A closer examination of those hidden feelings always seems to elude the nation, even during this month of spotlight. It’s the genesis of the uncomfortable silence that hangs in the air whenever someone attempts to begin a conversation on race. The prerequisite for honest dialogue is an admission that blackness is uncomfortable to others, and that this fact influences the behavior of us all.
Combating this harmful notion is hard work. The threatening caricature of blackness spans hundreds of year. It dates back to the laws that prohibited large gatherings of slaves, out of an irrational fear that any such congregation would lead to a dastardly plot to kill white men and rape their women. It carries through the subtle implications in the “analysis” of a dreadlocked black football player’s post-game exuberance. The public face of black America is dominated by the tragedy porn of male criminality and recidivism, welfare mothers with babies by multiple men, and dilapidated neighborhoods with shiftless neighbors. All of this reinforces the notions that make blackness threatening to Americans of other cultures.
Establishing Black History month was a significant achievement, but the next step is to snatch history from the wind and plant it in the personal narratives of black Americans. The names subjected to rote February recitations intersect with personal, everyday stories. Black Americans should use the month as a time for deeper, and more public, exploration of their own journeys in an attempt to combat the lazy labels plastered on the black experience.
Discovering our stories means engaging our elders and partaking in the oral tradition that characterized black narratives for centuries. It means tending to the branches of our family trees – even those pruned by the blades of slavery – and using technology to fill in the gaps. It means placing our existence in the larger context of black and American history. This is what gave Alex Haley’s Roots such power. This is what’s behind the advent of the DNA-based genealogy businesses that seek to tell bits of the stories lost to the ages. This is the catalyst for television shows and documentaries that explore personal stories through a historical lens. And this is why our black president speaks of the impossibility of his story happening anywhere but here.
Such an approach looks like the black adolescent in his Sunday best reciting a famous oration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and following it with a rigorous reply to the age-old question familiar in the black community: “Who are your people?” And then sharing that answer with the nation.
When we tell our stories, we, and our history, become more vivid, and accessible, to all. We animate the historical texts, giving character to the facts, emotions to the events, and humanity to our heroes. And we give others a chance to recognize our shared human condition. As they get to know the stories of ordinary black people, their default emotion upon encountering blackness will bend away from fear.
I’m not foolish enough to believe sharing my personal story will negate the stereotypes that surround me. But I’m certain that when people are not engaged in this way, they are boxed in generalities that do nothing to advance human relations. We find ourselves trying to live confidently, but remain cognizant that we are only allowed so much freedom of expression. Writing in The Atlantic in 1897, W.E.B. Dubois described this state of perpetual balance as twoness: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
I ran past those ladies without incident. And I lapped them a couple times before I finished my run and prepared to leave. As I was gathering my things, another man began his jog on the track and the women greeted him with a “good morning.” The fact that my departure was noticed, but disregarded, felt like a small victory. Only a mutual desire to engage would’ve lessened the burden I packed up and took with me.
To finally free ourselves from the bubble of preemptive apologies that attends the threat of blackness, we need to tell our stories. And Black History Month is as good a time as any to start.