The department store doors have barely closed behind us when my brother slides his hands into his trouser pockets. I approximate his move, drawing my arms close to the sides of my seersucker dress and pressing a palm securely against each thigh.
Eric and I are practiced at this. We act before Mama issues her rote orders: “Don’t touch nothing … Y’all know how these white folks is. They are watching us. And I don’t feel like fighting no white folks today.”
It is 1968. I’m a second-grader. Pfeifer-Blass, that Arkansas department store, is only a few years into letting black shoppers use the front entrance.
So, the resentments of some white sales clerks are expressed in cold, harassing stares and disingenuous “May I help you?” queries whose real purpose is to put us on high alert.
“They think all Negroes want to steal something,” Mama, the hell-raiser, had explained the first time we’d trailed her into that store.
Back in the day, back in Little Rock, a black child had to take some necessary precautions when it came to certain kinds of white people.
On account of their lived experiences, my parents firmly knew that. They hammered that notion into our heads. They schooled our sibling group of five in skills designed to ensure our sanity and survival in a race-fixated world.
Minutes after George Zimmerman’s acquittal by a Florida jury of five whites and one Latina, my Brooklyn girlfriend Genea Martin sounded a whole lot like my mother.
In fiery indignation, my friend posted this on Facebook: “So what is the lesson? Do we teach our young black men not to walk with your friends, talking loud, cursing, drinking, fighting, with your pants sagging? Or maybe to not go to the store by yourself at night, wearing a hoodie … ?
“No, I got it! We must teach our young black men … how not to be black! Clearly, that is the only thing that will not get them killed!”
That’s the kind of exaggeration you post, given the current facts. It’s a sign that you are fed up. You are stunned but hardly surprised that a half-white man who kills an unarmed, minding-his-own-business black boy is pronounced “not guilty.”
If one killer vigilante gets off scot-free, does that give license to another and another and another?
Some have contended that the slaying of Trayvon Benjamin Martin, 17, never was much about race. People like that would rather believe the lie. They also are the likeliest to dismiss black fears that other Zimmermans are laying in wait for other Trayvons as full-on paranoia.
But those fears are palpable.
They are steeped in a certain history—and in the reality that much has changed and much has stayed the same since my mother inveighed back then against the broad-brush demonizing of all black people.
As some of us ponder the what-next of this tragic killing and acquittal, my friend Genea—who is not related to the aggrieved Martins of blood-stained Florida—asks some appropriate questions.
What do we tell black boys who are targeted on account of their skin color, posture and very presence? How do we take the proverbial bull’s eye off their chests?
In the not-too-distant past of my career as a newspaper reporter, I profiled a Long Island, New York, group that gave black boys a “What to Do When Stopped By Police” pamphlet during one phase of a months-long rite-of-passage project.
It made common sense, according to the black men who ran that program, that black boys would be savvy on this front. The sundry tips included these: When stopped by police while driving, pull over, put your hands on the steering wheel, turn on the overhead light. Make no fast moves. Do what the officer says.
Some police will stop you just because you’re black.
Some vigilantes will stalk you just because you are black.
Racial-profiling is an actuality. Teaching the racially profiled about the hazards of being in that unenviable position is essential and, perhaps, especially so for black boys whom some see as a monolithic menace.
They must be aware of their surroundings. As much as possible, they need to be steered out of harm’s way.
In an age too often marked by fever-pitch confrontation—the sort that gets lauded on, say, reality television shows—it also is necessary to tell the racially profiled to flee when there is a way of escape.
“A good run beats a bad fall any day,” is how my mother would put. Even at a tender, tense moment such as this, that’s what she would say.
To invoke her good advice is not to blame Trayvon Benjamin Martin for daring to challenge Zimmerman, the stalker. It is to suggest, singularly, that sometimes the Trayvons of the world are being watched for all the wrong reasons.
And, as youth, they require our protection.
Katti Gray is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers comments.