Being a black man is weird for me.
How can being a black man be weird for you when you were born a black man? Does it have something to do with how you look down at yourself, as if you’re a puppeteer without any other puppets? The puppet master with only the black puppet, and you have to look at how other people portray blackness in order for you to mimic blackness because you do it all wrong. Or maybe it’s because I am not very interested in other people. Not just other black people, but other people, total. A comment that a good many people have said to me over the years is that I don’t have many black friends. No one ever sees that I have few friends, total. They see me at the bar loud and gregarious but they don’t see me Monday through Thursday, at home, a bowl of popcorn in my lap, a movie playing, the phone off. I don’t care what color your skin is. Leave me alone.
I drove back to North Carolina a few weeks ago to see my family (Hey! I do have black friends! My family is black!). I had a rental car, with Kentucky plates. A cop car pulled up behind me, then beside me, then behind me again, flashed the lights. I pulled over.
A black police officer came to the door.
“Afternoon. Was I spending?”
“67 in a 65.”
“Where you headed?”
“What’s in Hickory?”
“A family barbecue.”
“Then where you going?”
My instinct, in every situation, is to lie. I’m good at it, and I enjoy it. I’ve stopped doing it. But I wanted to lie to the cop. Why I wanted to is a perverse part of being me, a small pleasure to show how smart I am to myself, to impress myself, because I love myself. Do all black men do that? Or is it me? How much is genetic and how much is mine, created by my experiences? How much is me and how much is the cotton field? The slave ship? The soulful blues experience?
“I asked you a question.”
“I have to go to Charlotte tonight to pick up my sister from the airport. Then I go home to Hickory. Then I go back to DC on Sunday.”
He looked at me for a few minutes, probing my soul, then he stood, his hands on his belt, sucking his teeth.
“License and registration,” he said.
Can I be profiled by a black person? Is that even possible? Was I being profiled? If I were white, would I have gotten pulled over? If I were a women, would I have gotten pulled over? If I were an old white lady, would I have gotten pulled over? When are the atrocities that are inflicted on me my atrocities and when are they the collective atrocities of the black man? I hadn’t be accosted in years. I was over do for an accosting.
Fifteen minutes later, he came back.
“You drive safe,” he said, handing me my license, my rental information.
People better versed in the issue of race than me will quickly tell you that, because of my light color skin (red-boned), I have “passed” through society relatively unscathed. I can count the number of times racism has touched me. I will count. There was that time I was walking and I fit the description of a suspect (Black male. 185 L. Bs) and I was searched. I’ve been pulled over five times, three for no reason and two for speeding, real speeding, none of that 65 in a 67 bullshit. I dated a girl and her parents didn’t like my skin color. I dated another girl and her parents didn’t like my skin color. When I was working in the bookstore, a women asked to see my manager because I gave her attitude (which I did), and I’m pretty sure I didn’t get a job once because I was black. Or because I showed up to the interview late. Whichever.
For a while, I felt guilty. I should have been hit harder with the heavy hand of racism. I’m sure I have and just haven’t noticed it. I’ve dealt with nothing compared to black men in Chicago of New York or Atlanta or everywhere. I’m thirty six and racism has barely left a scar. A small part of me, towards the back, wishes I couldn’t say that. I want to share the full black experience. I want to completely know what it’s like to be a black man because, God forgive me, I feel like I don’t totally get it.
And then a young boy, barely even a teenager, gets killed by some guy. Just shot. And the guy who shot him got away. Legally got away. Then I want to flip a car over and burn something and then I completely, yeah, I get it.
For hundreds of years, black men have been beaten and abused and killed with impunity. The death of Trayvon Martin reminded all of us that those days aren’t over. Maybe we needed a reminder. I wish Trayvon didn’t have to die to remind us, though.
When I got an alert on my phone telling me the verdict of the case, I was in bed, wondering why I was still alive and Trayvon was dead. I couldn’t help but feel guilty. It’s a very self-interested emotion, guilt. I was having a personal reaction, judging my actions and my fate based off the death of a boy. But there it was. Maybe guilt is what I’m supposed to feel. Maybe, by living my life the way I want to live, without fear, without regret, without hesitation, bold in the face of racism, the racism I can see and the racism I can’t, maybe less Trayvons will die, empathically, until no Trayvons die ever again. There is no evidence, historical, to backs up that last statement. But you have to hope.