About 4 years ago, we had some really intense rains here in Houston -- so intense that the bayou near my house broke its banks, and the hike and bike trail that runs alongside it became deeply submerged. When the rains finally stopped, I decided that I wanted to get out of the house for a little walk/run, just to shake the cabin fever, but I knew that there was no way I could get down to the trail. So instead, I decided to go running through my neighbourhood, and the one next to it. So I pulled on my running shoes, some yoga pants, a sports bra and oversize t-shirt. I also took a tiny cross-body bag that was just big enough to hold my phone, in case I got lost (I have a terrible sense of direction).
I headed off. I got through my neighbourhood, and turned down an unfamiliar street into the next neighbourhood. It was pretty and trees-y, with houses similar to ours, and I was enjoying discovering a new area of town. There were other runners about, too -- I think we all were trying to shake the cabin fever.
At one point, I came to an intersection, and there was parked police car, with a cop seated inside.
I smiled at him without breaking stride, and carried on.
A few blocks later, I came to another intersection, and the same cop car was idling there, with the same cop. I smiled again, still not breaking stride.
After I got to about 2 miles, I turned around and started making my way back. Suddenly, I had the feeling I was being followed, and I turned around. The cop car was slowly approaching me from behind. I stopped. The police officer rolled down the window.
I smiled again. "Is everything okay, Officer?"
He smiled at me. "Yes. I haven't seen you around here before."
"That's because I don't live here. I live in the next neighbourhood over."
"What are you doing here?"
I looked at him quizzically. I thought the yoga pants, the sports bra and t-shirt, the athletic shoes and the dripping sweat would've been a clue.
"Just going for a run."
"Yes, but why are you running here?"
I looked around. "Is there something wrong with running here?"
"I'm just saying. I've never seen you around here before. Why are you running here?"
My smile faltered. "Well, you probably know that we've had a ton of rain recently, and the hike-and-bike trail, which is where I usually run, is flooded. I thought I'd take a new route."
He stared at me. I stared back at him. A good moment passed.
"You know, I'm just doing my job. I patrol this area, and the residents won't recognize you, and wonder why I didn't get involved. I had to stop you."
"You must be busy. They're lots of runners out today."
He didn't say anything.
I didn't say anything.
He finally said, "Do you have a cell phone on you?"
This time I didn't even hide my confusion. "Umm... yes? It's in this bag ..."
"Okay, good. Be safe." And he drove off as I stood there, stunned.
For the record, my daughter and I are the only black residents in our neighbourhood. And if the runners I passed that day are any indication, I suspect the neighbourhood that I was running in, this neighbourhood that abuts ours, is demographically similar.
* * * * * * *
Back in kindergarten and first grade, my daughter attended a school in our neighbourhood, and was a member of a Daisies group ("Daisies" sort of being a farm club for the Girl Scouts). Every week that she had a Daisies group meeting, she stayed after school and I'd pick her up at the same time as the other moms; sometimes, however, I would stay for the meeting to help out.
The other mothers who were there would never greet me. And when I greeted them, openly, with a smile, I would receive a cold "Hi," and they'd turn their backs on me to continue their conversations.
I didn't know these women, but it started to amuse me. I began going out of my way to overtly greet them with a huge smile, simply to watch their discomfort. Then one day, before I could say hello, one of the women walked up to me.
"Alex said you wrote a book." She said it skeptically, almost accusingly.
"Yes, I did. It just came out, actually."
"What's it about?" I told her what it was about, and she continued to stare at me, not smiling.
"Huh. So have you always been a writer?" Her voice was softer now, but still not warm.
"No, actually, up until I couple of years ago, I was a practicing lawyer."
"Wait -- a lawyer? A lawyer, or a paralegal?"
I smiled at her, but my smile had grown thin. "Nope, an actual lawyer. Took the bar exam, got licensed by the state bar, and everything."
"Well, where'd you go to law school?"
"U of H."
She regarded me for a moment. "Huh," she finally said. "Well, that's cool, I guess. Excuse me." And she walked away to join her friends.
I didn't work as hard to smile after that. And eventually (for many reasons), we put Alex into a private school, with a student body that is far more diverse, and I never saw those moms again.
* * * * * * *
Contrast the stories above with the following: my husband, who is 6'4" and very fit, is a member of GHORBA, an off-road biking association here in Houston. While Houston doesn't have anything even approaching a mountain, we do have lots of trail biking here, and some of the best biking in town is off of that hike-and-bike trail that's near our house. One of the duties of GHORBA is to go around and make sure the off-road trails are clear enough for bikes, so they get rid of debris and branches and other obstacles as necessary. Marcus often goes early on a Saturday morning to help.
One late morning, I was in the kitchen, when I saw Marcus riding back up our driveway, after having cleared the trail. He was dressed in a pair of old shorts and t-shirt, and strapped to the back of his backpack, fully exposed, was a three-foot long machete.
When he came inside, I was incredulous. "Did you ride like that?"
"Ride like what?"
"That. Through our neighbourhood, and neighbourhoods nearby, with a fully exposed machete strapped to your back."
He reached behind him, grabbed the handle of the machete, and pulled it out from the bindings with a flourish and a grin. "What, this?"
"Sure! Is that weird?"
I stared at him. "No one said anything?"
"Dude. Trust me, if you were black, one of the neighbours woulda called the cops. If I can't walk through the neighbourhood without being followed, you surely would've been arrested."
He got serious. "Actually, I bet you're right. I was riding around the neighbourhoods for hours, and no one said a thing. In fact," he continued, "there were lots of people out working on their gardens -- people I've never seen before -- and they waved hello as I rode by."
* * * * * * *
Yesterday, I was busy drafting my This Was A Good Week post for tomorrow, and Ferguson blew up. For those of you out of the country who might be unaware, Ferguson is a working-class suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Two-thirds of its population of about 21,000 is black, but police and city officials are predominantly white. Five days ago, for reasons that remain unclear, a young, black, unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, with no criminal history and every intent to start college this week, was shot to death by a white Ferguson police officer. The police have been very cagey about the details of this shooting, and last night, the community of Ferguson, intending to stage a peaceful protest, was met for the second night in a row with a militarized police force, who used tear gas indiscriminately against them all. Also, for the record, Michael Brown's death is only the latest in a series of publicized deaths of unarmed black folks in the U.S. recently: there was, of course, Trayvon Martin, but there was also Renisha McBride. More recently, Eric Garner. And John Crawford. And as I watched the events of Ferguson unfold on Twitter last night, I realized that I couldn't write that this was a good week until I got some things off of my chest.
Friends, the truth is, I'm tired.
I'm tired of turning on the news and seeing a story of some unarmed black person gunned down or otherwise killed, and being horrified, but even more horrifically, not all that surprised. I have never faced that sort of violent hostility in my life, and I would never intend to imply that anything I've ever experienced even comes close. But I've faced enough ... racial skepticism, I guess you could call it, so that these stories sadly never surprise me.
I'm tired of people telling me that "Karen, you just see these things because you live in the South. It's not like that anywhere else." I'm here to tell you, Ferguson isn't the south. Nor is Dayton, Ohio. Nor is Dearborn, Michigan. Nor, nor, nor.
I'm tired of worrying about my daughter and other black children of friends of mine, afraid that the world might be no different when they go out into it as teenagers and young adults -- because their teenage- and young-adult-years aren't that far away anymore. I'm tired of worrying that America might view our children as expendable.
I'm tired of every time my little girl doesn't try her best at school, my yelling at her invariably includes a lecture that people are looking for her to fail because she's black and she's a girl, and she's way too effing brilliant of a kid to let people write her off due to her blackness and her girlness. That she needs to make them work really, really hard before they write her off in any way. I'm just tired of the work-twice-as-hard-to-be-considered-half-as-good conversation that I believe is still a necessary concept for her to understand.
I'm tired of walking through the world constantly aware of how my blackness is being perceived, how my interracial marriage is being perceived. The fact is, whether it is being perceived positively or negatively, if I'm in the United States, I am always aware of it, and I'm tired.
I don't generally write about race here on Chookooloonks, if only for the reason that there are other people who write about it far more eloquently than I. People like the incredible Jay Smooth, as well as friends of mine like Kelly and Kristen, but there are many, many more. I try to reserve Chookooloonks as a place of peace and beauty, and if I discuss race and culture here at all, it is generally through that lens. But after watching the events unfold last night, I couldn't continue writing here in this space without making it very clear that I'm affected.
I am affected.
This is my truth, so I share it with you. And my dear sweet friends, those of you who have always supported my words, and images and work here, I honestly hope that you're affected too.
And now, I'm going to hit publish before I think about this too much. With that, I'll return to peace and beauty, love and light.
As always, thanks for listening, friends.
update, monday, august 18, 2014
Wow. I'm completely blown away by the response this post has received. Thank you so much for your wonderfully kind words and sharing your amazing stories with each other. I love that you come from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, lives -- there's some beautiful diversity here in this comment section, and for that I thank you deeply.
As most of you know, I'm incredibly grateful for my life. But I just felt like I couldn't continue to share happy thoughts here without bearing witness some of the darkness in the world that has been affecting me, and I wanted to give some context, lest anyone believe that I'm somehow immune to all this. That said, I noticed that a few of you have mentioned that you're "ashamed," so I wanted to come back and say a couple of things: first of all, please don't be. I certainly didn't write this to elicit any sort of apology or pity, I promise. But secondly, and most importantly, Chookooloonks is a shame-free zone -- there's no need to be ashamed. Sad, yes. Determined to make a difference, absolutely. But no shame. Just go out there and keep on talking to each other. Keep on leading with love and light.
Again, thank you all, beautiful people.