Early on the morning of Saturday, August 9, the sun was high, the sky was clear, and my family and I were at last ready for our long-anticipated summer vacation when my wife made one last stop for a hot tea in Berkeley before we set off. When she returned to the car, she told me about a brief encounter she’d had in the coffee shop that would prove more striking in light of what would come to pass later that day in Missouri.
After getting her tea, she went to the nearby counter to doctor it with milk and honey. There was a very large man there who was in the way in the cramped space. He moved to one side to make room for her just as she moved in the same direction. Neither could get around. Then they both moved simultaneously in the opposite direction to make way. My wife smiled and said, “It looks like we’re dancing.” It was at this point that the man, who had seemed stiff and uncomfortable, a neutral expression on his face, laughed and broke into a wide grin, and his whole body relaxed. His smile, she said, was winning and beautiful.
My wife is a petite woman who looks to the outsider, perhaps, vaguely Jewish—dark hair, pale skin. Most would call her white. (She’s half-English, half-Mexican, all American.) The man with whom she was dancing at the coffee bar was tall, heavyset, and black. When the man smiled at her and laughed, my wife said it was like she could see the man’s armor come down, the armor he probably has to carry in spaces like these—filled mostly with white people—offering a glimpse of the human being beneath.
“Looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day,” he said, as they each sugared their drinks.
“It does, doesn’t it?” she replied, and then wished him a great Saturday.
For a little while in the car afterward we talked about the carapace that so many people of color have to wear in situations like this, and that so many black men in particular, and especially large black men, have to wear. We talked about the ways in which most white folks (ourselves included) really don’t have a clue about the de-humanizing psychological effects this must have on a person. We talked about why it was so hard for most white folks to acknowledge the kinds of microaggressions that people of color are subjected to constantly, the microagressions that lead one to develop that requisite armor. We agreed that this was a tragedy, and that acknowledging the humanity of others—offering a simple smile or a dance—was so important, and a place to begin.
Then a couple of hours later, in the wake of the most macro and final of aggressions, Michael Brown was left dead on the street for four hours, and Ferguson, Missouri exploded.
* * *
We continued on our long car drive to the Pacific Northwest, completely oblivious. The places we were staying had no televisions or newspapers, and we turned off all the notifications on our smart phones. We wanted to unplug for a while and enjoy ourselves. We were totally clueless about what was happening in the outside world.
About a week into our trip, I finally peeked at my news feeds, and began seeing #Ferguson Ferguson FERGUSON!! everywhere. Something about a black man being killed by a (probably white) police officer. The same awful, too familiar story, except that this one was obviously different. News reports coming fast and furious. Friends posting their outrage—at the police, at the media—friends calling for understanding, friends saying look at this, look at this, look at this!!
It was too much to take in. This was supposed to be a much-needed vacation. A vacation unplugged. I felt vaguely ill, and I had to work hard to forget it for a few more days. The pretty scenery helped:
This is what we Americans are often good at: forgetting. And when it’s white (“white”?) Americans thinking about race, and especially white people thinking about black people, we are very good at forgetting. We—the privileged we—take vacations of the mind all the time.
* * *
When we returned home after almost two weeks away, it was still too much, but I tried to sort through the broad outlines and the specifics, trying to make sense not only of the sequence of events, but also of how to put it all in context, and, finally, of what to do about it.
There have been many incisive things written and said about the matter, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of them, but among those things, I’ll offer five here. This is as much, or more, a marker for me as it is for you, the reader, who has probably seen these already.
But if not, these five are more than worth your while, each of them offering concrete steps we can take–as parents, as citizens, and as a government–to avoid tragedies like those that befell Michael Brown, and to help redress such tragedies that, sadly, are sure to happen again:
First, this post, “A Mother’s White Privilege,” by Elizabeth Broadbent. What mothers of white children do, and don’t, have to worry about.
Next, “Dear White Moms,” an impassioned plea from Keesha Beckford that all people, and white folks especially, should heed.
Then there is this much-shared piece by Air Force veteran Michael Bell, in which he describes what he discovered about what happens when police investigate a shooting by one of their officers. (The answer is what you’d expect: pretty much nothing.) The first paragraph runs as follows:
“After police in Kenosha, Wis., shot my 21-year-old son to death outside his house ten years ago — and then immediately cleared themselves of all wrongdoing — an African-American man approached me and said: ‘If they can shoot a white boy like a dog, imagine what we’ve been going through.'”
And then this commentary from John Oliver, who is fast establishing himself as a go-to man for putting complex political situations into an accessible, and often hilarious, context:
Finally, though I hope you look at all of the above links, if you read only one of them, make it this one: “Reparations for Ferguson,“ a commentary by Ta-Nehisi Coates, correspondent from The Atlantic and another go-to man for cultural and political commentary.
His earlier May 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations,” was so well done and thought provoking that I went out and bought a print copy of the magazine so I could digest his writing more fully. Upon closer inspection, the article proved to be even more impressive, such that I immediately subscribed to The Atlantic in print for three years.
In “Reparations for Ferguson,” Coates extends and further specifies the arguments of his original piece in a way that is all the more powerful in the wake of Ferguson. His article serves as a reminder (for those of us who need the reminding) that many more Fergusons are in our future if we don’t take steps—individually and as a country—to address them. Now.