Michael Brown (Image: Facebook)
Last night, around 11:00 pm, as I was completing the last sets on a final exercise of a late night workout at the gym, my cell phone rang. The call was from my life and business partner, Zara Green. “Baby, our security alarm just went off,” she explained. “It’s probably just Comcast working on the phone lines again, but I didn’t want to chance it; I called 9-1-1 just to be safe. The police are on their way over now.”
“Okay, Baby,” I responded. “I’m leaving the gym right now and heading straight home to you. I’ll be there in 10 minutes.”
She thanks me (I’m so good to her!), we say our I-love-yous and hang up, and I start walking out of the gym. As I’m crossing the parking lot to get to my car, I stop to do something only a black man in America would think to do. I call Zara back: “Hello, Baby. Listen, when the police get there, be sure to tell them that I am on my way. I don’t want them to be surprised when I pull up to the house and mistake me for a suspect.”
Even though I’ve owned my home in that community for a decade, Zara doesn’t skip a beat (few black women would): “Yes, Baby. I understand. I’ll be sure to let them know you’re coming.”
This conversation came back to me as I was reading an article from Gawker.com shared by one of my Black Enterprise colleagues today: “What Black Parents Tell Their Sons About The Police” by Jazmine Hughes. The article focuses on what most black Americans know as The Talk, not about the birds and the bees, but about the dangers of being black and male in a country with a policing culture that sees the combination as threatening, if not inherently criminal.
Hughes’s article also reminded me of the first time I was given The Talk. It came from my mother to me and my brother Michael, when we were ages 14 and 13, respectively. Like most brothers, we were extremely close; in fact we had been treated like twins for most of our pre-teen lives. Also like most brothers, we fought a lot. I didn’t say argue. I said fight—as in punching, grappling, throwing, jabbing, pinning and other “martial” arts. We never really hurt each other during these hand-to-hand combat sessions; we were just easily bored kids with too much time and energy on our hands. We’d been bickering and battling like this since we were about six years old, and we’d often go at it in the yard and street in front of our house. However, this time it was different.
When this particular fight broke out between me and my brother in the front yard (I’d worked my brother into a frenzy by repeatedly slapping his head and running, after having snatched a ball from his hand), my mother rushed out of the house and separated us. “Stop it!,” she commanded. “I mean it! You’re too big to fight like this out in the street. If the police see you, they’re not going to see two boys roughhousing. They’re going to see two violent black men. So you can’t fight like that any more.”
We were a little shocked that anyone could look at us and see grown men; after all, we were scrawny (well, I was anyway, weighing in at 100 lbs. for the first time the previous year), barely initiated teenagers. But our mother’s message came through loud and clear: The police are not your friends. We were black, and police wouldn’t ask about our ages, or learn that I was an honor student, or that my brother loved building model cars, before responding accordingly. What would be dismissed as harmless horsing around by two white boys our age, could result in our being arrested, beaten or worse—the target of deadly force.
Needless to say, 40 years later, I’ve never forgotten The Talk. I gave it to my son, David, for the first time when he was about ten or 11, and several more times since. And I’m reminded of its necessity seemingly every year, punctuated by endlessly repeating accounts of police shooting unarmed black men. Names like Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, and now, Michael Brown and Eric Garner offer horrid reminders that encounters eminently survivable for white boys and men, are commonly deadly for us.
By the way, all was well when I got back to my house last night; the police, a nice young white officer and his Latino partner, had left just before I arrived, after thoroughly checking the house and confirming Zara was safe. (I also passed a Comcast service truck working on phone lines a few blocks from our house as I drove up.) Zara says that the young white policeman was fascinated by the paintings by African American artists on the walls of our home. He was blown away by a particular piece, I Am A Man, 2 by George Hunt (a 20-year employment anniversary gift from my colleagues at Black Enterprise), so much so that he coaxed a Black History Month lesson about the piece out of Zara before he left, much to her amusement.
The truth is, every encounter I’ve had with the police in my community has been respectful. But then, they always knew exactly who I was when our paths crossed. My anonymous, black and male humanity alone, absent identification, is not enough to guarantee my rights, nor my safety.
Right before I wrote this post, I called my son, now 22 and living on his own, and had The Talk with him, again. We both said we hoped that it would not be necessary for him to deliver it to his son, if and when he has one, and that things will have changed enough by then. I was doubtful.
David’s take, just before we ended our call: “Maybe I can be the one to change it.”
This blog is dedicated to my thoughts about money, entrepreneurship, leadership, mentorship and other things I need to get #OffMyChest. Follow me on Twitter at @AlfredEdmondJr.