Once, when my husband and I were driving to Nisswa, Minnesota, I spotted a state police vehicle, parked on a knoll. Deep breath. Looked at the speedometer. Exhale. Good: no speeding.
Here came the siren, the spinning lights trailing us.
My husband pulled over and the young patrolman came to Dave’s window, ordering him to exit the vehicle.
An interrogation followed. About me.
“Who is your passenger?”
“Where are you going?”
Not sure why that was relevant, but he answered, receiving a ticket for no seat belt. Thankfully, it wasn’t worse.
Not like George Floyd. Or Breonna Taylor. Or Philando Castille. And ….
Mostly peaceful protests followed Floyd’s murder – Ireland, France, Syria, and here in Fargo.
It is a scab ripped off the dulling pain. I’ve met fine cops and oppose defunding the police, but those who act criminally should be treated criminally. We should be able to regard police with trust, not terror.
But policing is not the only issue.
At the OneFargo event at Island Park, Chelsea Preston, another African-American, spoke through tears: “I spent 30 years trying to make other people comfortable, just so I could get by.” I hear her. I, too, was groomed to be “one of the good ones.” As if it muted the blows.
I attended good schools, took lessons in art and piano. I relished the novels of Jane Austen. Once, when a white real estate agent came over, my parents urged me to play Beethoven to impress her. After she left, my father said, “I guess they [whites} wish more blacks were like us.” Cringe.
I spoke standard (no, not “white” English), and for many years I processed my hair. My siblings named children “Beth” or “Zachary.” Conform. Be the “right” kind.
But stress crept in. As an English instructor, I shared an essay about a high school experience, including phrases like “KKK forever!” and “Kill all niggers!” scrawled across my locker. After class a student told me she “lost respect” for me. Apparently, I had no right to my story. I had a couple more incidents before limiting racial discussions. Maybe once a term. Other teachers encouraged me to share but, like W.E.B. Dubois and Ta Ne-hisi Coates, I knew my skin, my body was a provocation.
At white churches, I also learned to clench my teeth. Like Michelle Obama, I tried to avoid the “angry black woman” label. I guess I succeeded. One woman said, “I forgot you were black.” Was that supposed to be a compliment?
Living in Fargo has been largely incident free. After the 2016 election, however, some racists seemed emboldened – with the David Duke (KKK) endorsement, s-hole African countries, and fine neo-Nazis, the message was clear. A white woman at Barnes and Noble unintentionally blocked my path. After I said, “Excuse me,” she moved, but when she saw me, she began a bizarre rant, starting with, “You could have waited!” I thought of my mother, who, as a child, had to step off a Georgia sidewalk when a white person approached. North of Alexandria, a man smiled as he tried to run us off the road, his pick-up emblazoned with Confederate flags.
How often have I heard whites who are weary of hearing our complaints, tired of “white guilt.” But I don’t want your guilt. Listen. Support change. “Black Lives Matter”? Yes. How does that differ from those who say, in effect, Veterans’ Lives Matter? Unborn Lives Matter? Depressed People Matter? The phrase, if not the “organization,” just brings attention to tragedy, to injustice. Because the opposite of “Black Lives Matter” is not the soppy “All Lives Matter”; it’s “Black Lives Don’t Matter.”
Mama and Daddy, I thank you. You raised five children who earned master’s degrees, without crime or drugs. We’re not alone. Millions. Yet no matter the achievements, the stain and sting of bias remain. Perhaps followed in stores. Harassed in parks or homes. Even worse.
Jane Austen ain’t no shield in the streets.
That officer on a grassy knoll assumed something was amiss just because of a black female passenger. Suspect. And, like Chelsea, “I can’t breathe.”