- Working backwards I entered adulthood in upstate NY or ‘up south’ as we would sometimes call it in my family. Police stops with their hands on holstered revolver while I peacefully stare, recalling my father’s police survival training, bewildered by the unnecessary, unwarranted artificial construct of drama unfolding before me. Sometimes with multiple units arriving when I have as clean a record as any individual is allowed to have. (I will say that NY State Troopers, especially between Albany and Utica are quite nice once they stop you. Mostly exchanged polite chatter and pleasantries and then was allowed to go on my way. Local police however?…) Me. My nose was so clean not because of police threat. No. I was raised to do right because it is right and if that was not enough threats of bodily injury and fiscal embargo were added as garnish if need be by my parents. But still it was common, almost became boring, to be pulled over after having done absolutely nothing. Hands on wheel so as not make them jumpy. Polite, even tones lest I disrupt a fragile ego and elicit feelings of disrespect, although the very event shows me utter disrespect at the start. Yes, this is my car. Here are all of my proper papers, etc and so forth. Please note that I do not believe all police to be this way. That would be statistically irresponsible of me… Like assuming I am up to no good simply because of the color of my skin. But the good ones do not stop me for no good reason to begin with, so I mostly deal with those prone to stereotyping others.
- In my High School years I heard the taunts of that infamous word one night 2 blocks from my own home accompanied by approaching footsteps and threats of violence if I did not run (which I refused to do). Then I recognized one of the voices in the night as a classmate. I stood my ground, empty handed, turned to them now hiding in the darkness behind houses and shrubs and called them out by name and asked them what on earth they were doing. Silence. Then they all receded in to the darkness. Cowards all.
- The taunts of that infamous word came throughout my childhood. For instance it was hurled at me in my teenage years through the cover of the woods as I walked from my High School to the nearby Mall (Mall Rat Central or Colonie Center). Cowards all.
- In middle school as I lay on the gymnasium floor, head split open, bleeding and dazed (Yeah, no athletic heroics. I tripped and fell backwards in to a gym door playing dodgeball. My memoirs will not mention this part of the event.) I heard these words uttered by a young lady I had thought was a friend up to this moment, “Oh, look he bleeds red just like us.” Then laughter. I thought, “I am not unconscious you idiots.”, then I realized it did not matter to those who laughed.”I” did not matter to them. I was taught by my father to not let others change who you are, but that day I was profoundly changed. An emotional wall went up that day, a trust barrier, that remains in place to this day. I knew all were not this way, but the exercise of sifting through is mentally exhausting. If I am not careful entirely too much of my time is wasted trying to discern whether someone I cannot realistically avoid all together is truly a racist or just an all purpose jerk. But by not sifting and instead categorizing all by the acts of a few I would be no better than those who had done me wrong (There’s the rub.) no matter how justified I felt or hurt I was.
- In grade school, a child directly across the street, who I thought was a friend, called out the same old infamous word in a fit of spoiled rage, though I had done nothing to him. When I explained what had happened to his father?… he laughed. Laughed in my face as if it was hilarious. The last time I darkened their doorstep.
- At seven years old we had just moved from downtown Albany to the suburbs of Colonie over the summer. Our ‘moving on up’ moment if you will. I was against it, but minors aged 7 did not have a binding vote under the Woods’ regime. Plus I was outnumbered 2 to 1 anyway so I had no recourse. My first Colonie school year, 2nd grade, you could just about count all the black children in K-6 on one hand at Maywood Elementary. One cold winter’s morning I was struck with a block of ice, about 6″ by 6″, thrown at my head by an older boy just up the street. When the ice block met it’s intended target I heard a word I had never heard before yelled in my direction. I was knocked to the ground, nearly unconscious, to the great delight of this same boy. As my mother tended to my physical wound she addressed the psychological wound by explaining that “This new word you just heard does not refer to you. It is a tool of the ignorant in an effort to make you think you are less than who you are. Next time you hear that word call them this same word back in response.” Oddly effective and led to hilarious results by the way. “Their issue”, as she explained. In her calm explanation, which lacked shock or even anger and seemed eerily pre-prepared, I can only imagine what she herself had endured and heard in rural NC growing up as well as Albany, NY as a young adult.
- My father himself, who was taught dignity and respect for himself and others regardless of race by his grandparents, endured the last squawks of official Jim Crow. Separate water fountains and other basic facilities being a part of his personal experience, not some text book summary points. Where there is a restaurant that he and his family refused to visit because they would have to stand in the dirt at the back door to order because they were not allowed inside. My father has not yet reached 70 and this is in his life time, not some centuries old narrative. I learned from him how to hold my head up high and remain calm no matter what others may say or do. If he could survive 50s and 60s Alabama I could surely endure the foolishness of my day.
- A sober review and proper perspective of US history regarding slavery and Jim Crow laws provided by my father, unlike the watered down pablum served to me in grade school, details the violent crucible in which this nation was formed. My mother tells me that in rural northeast NC where my family did farm tobacco, and still holds considerable land I am told, there existed an ecosystem of self sufficiency and isolation where visits to town, the only interactions outside of the black community, were mostly limited to the few hard goods they could not grow or raise. Having had his formative years placed squarely within the confines of 50s and 60s rural Alabama my father has a perspective more raw, direct and accurate than most. The whispers of lynchings among the grown folk, the witnessed efforts by local authorities to suppress voting rights and the questionable circumstances under which my Grandfather, Master Sergeant Bernice Woods, perished. He died while in the service of the US Army while my father was an infant. Not in battle, having served in the Pacific Theater, but in Mississippi on a base far from international conflict. Hints and rumors that he was not safe from violence of the domestic variety linger. Master Sergeant Bernice Woods’ Army issued two left gloves, missing no opportunity to slight, lay in my top, middle dresser drawer throughout my childhood as a silent, but not so subtle, reminder of what those before me had endured. Those gloves and one picture of him are all that my father and I have of my paternal Grandfather. They gave me strength as I would take them out every once in a while and hold them, never would put my hands in them for some reason, when I thought I had it bad. Thank God for Daniel and Estelle Woods who took in their grandson and raised him as their own. All I have of Daniel and Estelle is one picture of Estelle, who my daughter was named after. But they also gave me my dad. The finest man and best father I could ever hope for. I was provided a personal tutelage detailing America’s history of fully sanctioned villainy towards it’s own people based on their race alone. I recalled being intrigued in school with the narrative of discovering that which was already populated and how stolen land and slave labor does a lot to build a nation. The land of the free built on the backs of the enslaved and marginalized.
I cataloged my unpleasant experiences in this long winded write up not to garner pity, or sympathy, but hopefully to bring about understanding. While we are all so much alike, and while we share the same roads and work, shop, live, etc., side by side I was always aware that we do live different experiences, often beyond our control. I did not wish these experiences upon myself, and I do my best to live in harmony with those around me, but these experiences were unavoidable none the less. No matter how pleasant. No matter how law abiding. No matter that I held a college degree and worked at some of the largest and respected corporations and organizations in the world. No matter that I am a husband, father of 5, and a loyal son. No matter that I served as a minister, including 4 and a half years as a pastor for no fee by choice. No matter how kind I am to others. No matter who I am as an individual or what I accomplish there are so many who will judge who or what I am on sight because I am black. Not only that, they will not see the absurdity and willful ignorance of such thinking, they will try to defend it.
From nation to local municipality to domicile there are none weaker of character, mind, and spirit than those who use irrational, self sourced paranoia and insecurity to justify an out-sized assemblage of influence and arms in order to brutally suppress and control those they profess to fear.
Thus exposing how weak they really are to all that have eyes to see.
Note: I purposely left out accounts of lower level slights and unintended sideswipes as byproducts of not having any clue of what it is to endure this nonsense. That slight occasionally witnessed and perceived by others without prompting was a mere drop in a massive bucket of nonsense endured. To endure something you know those around you, friend, acquaintance, or foe, could not care one wit about brings it’s own feeling of isolation. Our experience was close geographically, but very far apart emotionally. I did not begrudge their obliviousness. No hard feelings harbored. I understood it was just not their concern. If I had the option to opt out, who knows, I might do the same. But if that meant changing one iota of my existence otherwise, then I would not change a thing.