Black men and public space

Two years ago, a friend came in for a visit.  I had known this friend since elementary school.  He is one of those people from “the old days.”  Everybody has them.  The people you swear you will stay in touch with despite time, distance, or circumstance.  Most of the time, such promises fade away.  The occasional phone call becomes the occasional letter, which morphs into the rare e-mail.  And before you know it, that “good buddy” is just a distant memory.  I can honestly say that is exactly what happened with this friend.  I had not talked to him in several years.  I had not actually seen him since elementary school.  So when he called me up one day (he had gotten my new phone number from a relative) and told me he was visiting my area, we made plans to see each other immediately.

It was like stepping into a time machine.  We talked all throughout dinner, barely having time for a roll.  I showed him all of the town hot-spots.  We reminisced, of course, about those “good old days.”  And at the end of the day, we made a trip to a former favorite, the mall.

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We ended up in a clothing store after a few spirited rounds of pinball in the arcade.  Things were going well.  We even found some halfway decent clothes.  We also found ourselves a stalker.  While we laughed at the badly styled shirts, a clean-cut man lingered a few feet away (trying his best to look inconspicuous and failing miserably).  We moved to a close examination of the 101 styles of jeans filling the racks.  Our stalker “subtly” followed suit.  Then, my friend and I parted ways briefly as he headed toward the wallets (his had been stolen, ironically enough).  Would our stalker finally give up?…yes and no.  I suddenly found myself free to roam the corridors, released from scrutiny at last.  I breathed an inner sigh of relief, sure I had escaped a knife-wielding maniac.

However, I noticed a curious thing at that instant.  My friend hadn’t been so lucky.  A quick glance over at the wallets revealed my friend hunched over, inspecting the selection on the bottom row….and his faithful stalker a few feet away.

Several minutes later, we paid up and left the store (new wallet in hand).  I looked uneasily over my shoulder, sure our stalker followed just a step behind.  The area was empty.  Wondering if perhaps I was just being paranoid (or even a little nuts), I asked my friend about our mutual companion.  He smiled and said, “That was just security.”

I frowned, thinking that over.  My friend sounded so blasé about the whole incident.  Why would the store security zero in on us?  I quickly scrutinized my clothes, deciding I wasn’t exactly a model for the hoodlum look.  My mind scanned a hundred other “issues” before settling on the likely culprit.  At that moment, a little-attended fact hit me.  It was something I had never really thought about playing in the schoolyard when we were kids.  It was something that never really crossed my mind all those years we tried to stay in touch.  It was something that just was, an inconsequential little piece of information that meant as much to me as the fact that I liked red and he liked blue.

It never mattered that my friend happened to be black, but in that moment—standing outside that store—it did matter.  As I realized what had happened, I grew outraged on his behalf.  “You mean—“ I began.

“Happened before, will happen again.”  And he shrugged.  The incident was never mentioned again.  We just went on with the rest of our day, enjoying and laughing.

Over time, I even managed to file the incident away in some corner of my mind.  Yet on occasion, that one nagging thought still crept in, What did he mean by ‘happened before’ ?  I never asked (I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable).  But after reading Staples’ musings, I think I may have my answer.  I think I may finally realize that contemporary racism doesn’t come in the form of the fire-brandishing ghost in the white sheet or the snarling truck driver spitting slurs.  Today’s racism lives on in the frightened glance of the soccer mom, the hesitant stride of the happy family on the street, or the “stalking” tendencies of otherwise friendly grandfathers.  And for that, I am sorry—for my friend, and for us all.