One evening, while on his way home from service at an Episcopal church in downtown Pittsburgh, my father’s Parkinson’s ravaged body betrayed him and he took a spill. I can still feel my proud parents’ defeat when they returned home from the precinct. The police had assumed that this black man was a drunk.
When I was living in New York, I got home safely one evening after wading though the tenuous streets of my Washington Heights neighborhood only to be confronted by one of my white male neighbors who stopped me at the exterior door to my own apartment building and insisted that I prove to him that I lived there. Intimidated and humiliated, I handed over my keys. My blood still boils more than 30 years later.
A dozen years ago, I was with friends listening to a summer jazz concert with friends at a local shopping center. Our children, then about 7 or 8 years old, repaired to the nearby Disney Store while we took in the music. The kids returned a bit later with news that they were told they couldn’t play in the store unless they were making a purchase. My daughter confided later that she, the only black child in the trio, was the one who was singled out for reprimand and asked to leave.
Living under suspicion is part and parcel of being black in America. Some of us are lucky enough to have lived to tell these tales. Countless others, like so many black and brown men in New York City, are subjected to government-sanctioned harassment by the police. Sometimes, as in the cases of Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin, they are shot dead by those officers or by self-appointed vigilantes.
May Trayvon and Oscar rest in peace. For those of us who still have a voice, there is no rest.
The words of Ella’s Song say it best: “Until the killing of black men — black mother’s sons – is as important as the killing of all men – all mother’s sons . . .