A Story of “Driving While Black”
One of my goals with this publication is to openly unpack some of my personal misconceptions about race and culture in the US, with the hope that others can do the same. When it comes to identity, race and belonging, I can honestly say that I have an entirely different perspective than the one I came to this country with over 40 years ago. It is understandable. I came from a totally different context to this one.
Unlearning embedded whiteness requires deep self reflection. We live in a society that says we must be “right” all the time, not admit our wrongdoings, and not show our vulnerabilities. That approach is incompatible with living into liberation.
My lived experiences have painfully brought so much awareness to my psyche. It has taken more time and agony than I care to admit. This change of perspective is not from watching TV, not from listening to the news, not from debating, and not from reading nonfiction books on the subject, but going through my own actual set of experiences AND talking to other people about their experiences.
Driving is a particularly touchy experience for some of us.
In my late 40’s, I started a 3-year seminary degree at Emory University. I loved it when the younger folks called me “Auntie.” I was also known to be a praying woman and folks would seek me out to pray if something was going on with them. I loved the pastoral care aspect of seminary, and we all practiced and lived in that care for one another. I had relationships across gender, sexuality, race, national origin, and age. I enjoyed my studies tremendously and the intellectual rigor was life-giving to me. I loved every moment of my seminary experience. I was in heaven.
Often, more than I could count, some of the young African American men, would say to me, “Pray for me that I get home safely,” if we walked past each other, or walked together to the parking lot. For a long time, I thought this was just a general prayer. Everyone needs to get home safely, right?
One day I was casually chatting with one of the young men that I especially love. Let’s call this 27-year-old, gorgeous, melanin-full, smart, loving and funny classmate, “my Chocolate Drop.” He said, “My grandmama wants me to come over to her place, but that means I have to come back here to use the library later and I do not like hanging around here late at night like that.”
I, of course, asked essential questions like any obtuse person entrenched in whiteness would:
“What does she want you to do? Why do you have to come back here to the library? Why can’t you study at home? Why don’t you like hanging around here late at night?”
Basically, he responded:
“But Auntie, why are you so nosey? But if you must know, grandmama wants me to buy her lottery tickets. I use the text books for our classes that are on reserve, and I cannot take them home so I have to stay in the library. I have no quiet place to study because I live at home with a lot of family in the house and it is loud as hell. And every time I study late on campus, the Emory police ask me to see my ID because I am a Black man trying to go to the library and that is an anomaly and I find it demeaning. And, if that is not enough, on the way home, sho ‘nuf, the Decatur cops are going to stop me and probably search my car – A young Black man in a black mustang in this zip code, at night? I must be selling drugs. So, there you have it. Do you have more questions?”
I did not ask my next set of questions as I got the vibe that he was not thrilled about answering my questions. It would have been, “Well, if you keep getting pulled over, then you must have done something wrong, and why are you driving a Mustang. Isn’t that a pricey car for a young Black brother?”
But I had just enough sense to shut up. And I have come to understand that it is not any of my damned business.
After that, I began to notice that my male African American classmates, would post on social media when they were going to the library, and more especially, if they were leaving the library late. Honestly, I often thought that my classmates were being overly dramatic, and posting crap just to be on social media and act as if they were studying hard. It felt like they were oversharing.
They would post things like,
“Say a prayer for a brother. That Old Testament test is coming up and I am headed to the library for a few hours. Keep an eye on me.”
“Send some prayers up. Headed home now. Pray the po-po don’t stop me. Again.”
“Pray for me. On my way to my 8 am class and the cops just pulled me over. Not even speeding.”
“Why this cop following me? I am on N. Decatur, just past Clairmont. Keep an eye out in case you do not hear back from me.”
“Check on me. Headed home.”
And, as far as I know, nothing untoward happened, and they would often post that they were ok, or that they got home safely. Over time, the postings were so often that I started to get uncomfortable.
One day, In a casual group gathering, one of these young men mentioned that in one semester, between the Emory police and the City of Decatur police, he had been stopped at least 15 times. He did not once commit an infraction. No speeding. No broken tail lights. Nothing. But he was stopped. Other men that looked like him said they had similar experiences. They threw up their hands, and said, “Driving while Black.”
I ran a stop sign once running late to an early morning class on campus and the Emory police stopped me and gave me a warning. That is the only thing that ever happened to me, and I was wrong. There was no comparison.
The growing discomfort within me no longer allowed me deny their lived experiences. I started practicing deep listening and valuing their stories by reveling in the differences in our daily lives. I had to accept that I did not have the same life events. I had to accept that their lives did not run on my values.
It turns out that “My Chocolate Drop:”
Was the first person in his family to attend college and now he was working on a Master’s degree.
He was the hope and support of his family to not be a victim of systemic poverty.
He worked hard between college and seminary and bought and paid off the car as it was his dream car.
He was honored to buy his grandmama her lottery ticket as he was her favorite grandchild and this was his weekly responsibility. Grandmama spent a dollar a week on the lottery as she wanted to make sure all her grand children could go to college and she wanted a good funeral that was not a financial burden. They had a ritual. He had to get the money from her and buy the ticket with her own money, and bring the ticket back to her.
With textbooks costing between $400 and $500 per semester, he kept his costs down by using the books through the library reserve system.
He chose to live at home to keep his expenses down.
In his parents home where he lived, his sister and her kids also lived there as she was a single mother. He was so beloved in the house that once he got home, he put aside everything else and became a family man, helping with, and loving on, the three generations living under the same roof.
This stellar citizen, brilliant preacher, and family man, the epitome of responsibility and heart, was stopped by the police approximately 15 times in a semester, a 3 month period, and was sometimes searched.
I added to this systemic problem by simply not believing him. I put him in a position to have to explain himself to me for my understanding and not necessarily for his upliftment.
Today, July 10, 2022, as I write this, is the 7 year anniversary of the arrest of 28 year old Sandra Bland. This was the last time that she was seen alive. Three days later, she was found dead in her jail cell, having hung herself, according to authorities. I could relate to her so much when it happened as she was going to a new job, suffered from a miscarriage, depression and PTSD.
I remember asking, “Why? Why did she not put the cigarette out when the police officer asked her to do so??? Why? If only she had shown the officer some respect….” And a Black woman responded, “She did not owe the police officer any respect. He owed her respect. He is paid to respect her. He violated his uniform by asking her to put out her cigarette. That was not against the law. She was in her car.” Or something to that effect.
I realized that I had assumptions based on (probably) class privilege. At home, I was taught to always obey and respect the police. I was in a protected class. My skin color and my family name would probably have protected me if I had an encounter with the police. I think of the police as working to make society a better place. I assume that they are not abusive of their authority.
I came to this country with that unexamined and untested assumption. I had never had a reason to dislike cops as I had not had a negative encounter. The fear and the history of race in this country informed every living moment of those most impacted by it. I am not the standard. I am not the vulnerable one. I cannot measure police encounters by my life experiences.
The Global Charter for Compassion compels us to “dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there.” This whole article today is about this dethronement process. It is painful. It is not easy. It requires brutal honesty. And it is necessary for our mutual liberation.
In honor of Sandra Bland and my Chocolate Drop, I ask you to examine your freedom and liberation, not in terms of your own personalized experiences, but through the lens of the most vulnerable in our communities, such as these two precious humans.
What say you, dear reader?