In 2015, I took my then-8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to a play called “Anne and Emmett.” The play centers on a fictitious conversation between Anne Frank, the German-Jewish teen who died in a Nazi concentration camp, and Emmett Till, the Black teen who died at the hands of racists in Mississippi. The dialogue includes several racial slurs. I will never forget my son turning to me to ask what a “n—–” was. I told him that I would explain it to him after the show, hoping that he would forget. He didn’t.
I was conflicted. On the one hand, I was relieved that he didn’t know the history of the word, which meant that he didn’t know the pain that is associated with it. On the other hand, I felt guilty as I pondered whether my former wife and I had sheltered our younger children too much.
This memory came flooding back to me last Sunday after an incident with a 20-something white male. While on a grocery run, I made a legal U-turn at an intersection (as had several cars in front of me). This young man was turning right to go in the same direction. He pulled sideways in front of my car, gave me the middle finger and made a lewd gesture with his tongue and two fingers. Though I was surprised, I shrugged it off.
At the next light, which was red, his car stopped immediately behind mine. He hopped out, ostensibly to give money to a panhandler. But this was a pre-text. On his way back to his car he deliberately threw a small object at my car, hitting my door.
I jumped out of my car to confront him. As I approached his car, he began rolling up his window. (I may or may not have issued a strongly-worded challenge for him to exit his vehicle.) Initially, he declined my request, so I turned to go back to my car.
Up to this point, my subconscious assumption was that this was simply a conflict between two men; it hadn’t occurred to me that race was a factor. It was. He began calling me “n—–,” so I again asked him to get out of his car. He did, but not before securing a weapon that was similar to a crowbar, except that it had a handle instead of a curve on the end.
I approached him with the intent to fight. However, I suddenly became aware of screaming coming from three rows away. It was a 20-something white woman who was pleading with me to return to my car. In trying to convince me, she said, “Stop! I know it’s not you! Please get back in your car!” I paused for a second to consider my options. Then I turned and went to my car.
My two teens, brother and grandson were in the car. My daughter asked me what had happened. (She, my brother and my son were oblivious as to what was going on.) My kids were quite surprised to learn what had transpired, but that didn’t keep them from upbraiding me for potentially putting my loved ones in danger. I tried to explain how no self-respecting Black man would let such an incident pass, but they remained unconvinced. (Thankfully, my brother was squarely on my side.)
It had been several years since I had experienced anything similar, so I was caught off guard. In that moment, none of my titles, my degrees or my accomplishments mattered to me. (I’m certain that they wouldn’t have mattered to him had he known about those things.) My daughter suggested that I could have ended up in a jail cell if someone had called the police. Worse, I could have become a hashtag. Yet, all that mattered to me was defending my honor and my race.
I am reminded of Dr. King’s admonition about “the myth of time.” He warned us that racial progress “does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” I don’t know whether this young man is representative of his generation any more than young Black men who commit violent acts are representative of theirs. I do know that we, as a nation, are still far from the presumed goal of racial harmony.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.