Like Billy Taylor (and later Nina Simone) sang more than 50 years ago: “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.”
When a black woman says to her son who’s about to begin a road trip with a buddy, “Be safe, be smart, be responsible! Have fun!” those words are fraught with more meaning than they might for anyone who is not black. You see, he has to beware of the danger that lurks from white people who are easily discomfited by the mere presence of anyone of the darker hue.
And these days we are hearing about a lot of those uncomfortable people.
While black males particularly trigger this reaction in some white people, black women also know the consequences of white people being so unnerved by their being in what’s considered white people’s space that they call the police.
While pervasive violence is at the heart of the performer Childish Gambino’s disturbing video, “This is America,” more of us might say that it is the everyday occurrence of white people calling the police on black people who are just trying to be themselves that more clearly defines America.
I wish you could know what it means to be me/Then you’d see and agree/That every man should be free…
Lolade Siyonbola would say, “All I was doing was sleeping.”
Ms. Siyonbola is the Yale graduate student who, exhausted from her studies, took a nap in a common area in her dormitory. A white student, who apparently had a history of being discomfited by the presence of blacks, called the police. Jolted from her sleep by the booming voice of an officer, Ms. Siyonbola had to justify her presence — to Yale’s embarrassment.
“This is just what happens to black people in America every day,” Ms. Siyonbola told reporters.
You might say she exaggerated if you had never been on the receiving end or had not been paying attention to the news lately. There were the two guys who were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia when, a couple of minutes after they sat down, a white manager of the café called the police because the men had not ordered anything. In York County, Pa., the police were called on five black women golfers who were apparently playing too slow. Last week three black women found themselves surrounded by seven police cars as they were leaving an Airbnb rental in Rialto, Calif. A nosy neighbor had called the police because they aroused her suspicion when they did not smile or wave when she gestured to them.
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live/I wish I could do all the things I can do…
“I just wanted to go to the park,” recalled Phill Branch, an educator and filmmaker who lives in Baltimore and is an acquaintance of mine.
While at a park playground with his 3-year-old son, he — and not the white parents there with their children — was accosted by a police officer who said he was looking for a black homeless woman who had been stealing wallets and, like Phill, was wearing a gray hat and a gray t-shirt. Satisfied that he was not in cahoots with this bandit, the officer walked away, leaving Phill barely containing his fury at being singled out among the playground parents. Some of those who saw with their own eyes what happened, and what happens, came over to apologize and express empathy.
That’s a start, I suppose.
As with so many things, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his short life said it best: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.”
This is not time for voyeurs or those like Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly, who says that the way to make America great is to “stop talking about discrimination.” You who know better must check people who do not. The well-being of blacks and other people of color depends upon your willingness to demonstrate that this criminalizing of our presence is not the norm, that this is not America.
You see, whether at a Starbucks or a Waffle House, whether in an upscale department store or a fitness club, whether sitting in a public park or strolling on a public street admiring beautiful houses, whether playing golf at a country club or using an Airbnb on vacation, we’re just trying to be.
I wish I knew how it would feel to be free…
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.