Thanks to my man Atiba, I received an excellent article via e-mai from the Associated Press. It was written by Erin Texeira and it had to do with the sterotypes that black men face on a daily basis and the different coping mechanisms that we use to get by. There was also a post about this issue on the moderate to conservative blog known as Booker Rising . The article focused on a lawyer from Ohio-I think his name is Keith Borders- and according to the article, he is a garrulous, 6"7", and talks with his hands. He says he has a keen sense of his size, and how he communicates. "I end up putting my hands in my pockets or behind me. I stand with my feet closer and speak in a softer voice" All this , he says, so as not to seem as intimidating to the people he deals with. The article goes on to say that each day African American men consciously work to offset stereotyes about them that they are dangerous, aggresive, and angry. They are mindful of their bodies, careful not to dart into closing elevators, or stand too close in grocery stores. Of course, I can totally relate, and I know for some brothers it's harder than others. The article quoted brothers who work in a very corporate culture and who have to play games with turning on and off certain behavior patterns so as not to offend their white colleagues.
As I stated earlier, in the field-negroes world it's no different. And it's funny that the article should specifically mention grocery stores, because my most recent moment came in one such establishment.
Last Thursday I found myself grocery shopping in a very lilly white suburb of Philadelphia. And as I am going through the store, feeling my vegetables, and checkling my fruits, I soon became aware of the fact that I was the only ink spot probably within miles of the establishment. Of course, I am getting the looks, the ones which I know every brother can relate to . - I don't mean brothers in a Harold Ford, or Terrence Howard sense. I mean brothers in a Michael Clarke Duncan, Ving Rhames, Djimon Hounsou sense. In my case, black, baldheaded, and big. The type of brother the article was referring to, that well, scares white people. The smiles always seem to come too often, and are oh so nervous, a little too much deference, and overly polite posture as to not give the impression of being, well, intimidated or scared. So what do you do, you just go through the motions; smiling back, being overly polite in return, and wishing it all wasn't necessary.
So I finished with my shopping and I am waiting in line. Waiting in front of me, is a somewhat middle aged white woman and her daughter who seemed to be no more than six or seven. She looked like Shirly Temple when she played in those old black and whites from the thirties. I am sitting there looking at her thinking how good she must have it; this little white girl, in her lilly white world. I must have been smiling to myself, because the little girl smiled at the field-negro. Of course, not wanting to be rude, and cognizant of all the eyes on me, I smiled back. She was playing with a little blond doll-of course, only black people give their kids white dolls-while sitting in her mother's grocery cart. Just a thought, why the f#@* do people let their grown ass kids ride in grocery carts when they are in the grocery store? But I digress. So while she is playing with her doll she keeps looking at the field-negro. Now you have to understand this scene. There are white folks all around me, and it's a Thursday evening right after a big holiday, so the store is pretty crowded. And so it goes, the little white girl continues playing with the doll and staring at the field-negro, obviously wanting to draw him into her world. She waves, and I smile and wave back. Now her mother, previously engrossed with unloading her shopping cart takes a look back. For a moment, I detect it; the fear, the apprehension, the what the hell do I say to this big bald black man playing with my daughter look. "Is she bothering you?" She says to me, managing a nervous smile. "Of course not" I reply. "She is fine". Mommy continues what she was doing, but her movement are quicker now, and I suspect I know why. But of course, now her daughter is in full play mode, and she holds her little doll up to the field negro to see it. At this point I am hoping mom will take charge of the situation, tell her daughter to leave the nice man alone and rush out with her groceries. But no, she is paying for her groceries now, and it seems like it's taking forever. "What's your doll's name?" I manage to say. "It's Rose" She is all smiles now, and is giving me her total attention. "Well that's a nice name, did you name her?" "Yes, because her cheeks are red". By now it seems that the entire store had grown more quiet, and everone in my line, in the line next to me, and every where else within earshot, is hanging on our every word. I am dying for this Shirly Temple, Bill Bojangles Robinson moment to pass, but it seems like it's taking forever. "What's your name?" I asked, not really caring but wanting to leave a lasting pleasant impression on all the white folks listening, so that maybe the next field-negro will get the benefit of the doubt in their world. She looks at her mother as if to get her approval before she tells the big black stranger her name. Mom nods as if to say it's alright. "It's Sarah"she says. "What's your name?" Ok, she got me there, I am totally caught off guard, remember that old EF Huttun commercial? That's what it felt like at that moment. But I tell her my name, and she smiles. "You have a nice name too" "Come on sweetie, we have to go, tell the nice man bye" Finally, saved by Mom. "Bye" She says, as her mom wheels her away in the shopping cart. "Bye bye" I say, glad my little Shirly Temple moment is over. The chatter goes up again in the store, and it seems everyone is smiling now, more at ease, everyone liked the field-negro's answers and demeanor during the little encounter. No more threatening, no more aggressive, just a big bald headed black man who can communitcate with the smallest and most precious among us. "Wasn't she adorable?" The lady behind me in line was talking to me about my recent playmate. "Yes she was" I manage to say. "Do you have any chidlren?" What is it with white people, once they think it's safe to talk to you, watch out; they will talk you to death. "No I don't", I muttered, not wanting to be engaged and hoping she would take the hint by the tone of my voice. "That will be $55 sir. " Saved by the cashier. I paid, said goodbye to my chatty line mate, and made a dash for the parking lot.
Now I am driving away on this hot humid day in July. Glad the grocery shopping thing is behind me, trying to get back to Philly and away from lilly whiteville as soon as possible. As I head on to the main thoroughfare away from the store, I spot my little friend from inside with her mother waiting at the bus stop. Mom looks uncomfortable, and my little friend is clutching her doll like her life depends on it. I start to think that maybe my little friend doesn't have it so great after all, and all of my assumptions about her before our little encounter might have been incorrect. Now it's hot and miserable outside, and I am probably going in their direction; the air in my car is on full blast, it feels good and I feel guilty. For a minute I think of offering them a ride, but I don't; I pass them, careful not to look, and hoping they didn't see me. I feel bad about prejudging little Shirly Temple, just like her people are always prejudging me. And for a minute, I really feel bad about not offering her and her mother a ride. But just for a minute. Because I start to think of all the things that could go wrong. For instance, what if mom is startled-who is this black man stalking us from the store-calls 911 in liily white ville, the field-negro is pulled over... yeah I am glad I didn't stop. Driving away from lilly whiteville, I start to think of the little Shirly Temple look alike again. And of all things I am trying to remember the name of her stupid doll. At the bus stop she was clutching that doll like it would protect her from all the evils of the world. Don't you worry little girl, you are female and you are white, you don't need your doll to protect you. As long as you are in America, you will have all the protection you need.