I was driving north up the coast of California, back to my home in the Bay Area. It was 12 days after Sandra Bland was pulled over and arrested by a police officer in Waller County after failing to signal a lane change. Nine days after she was found dead in her jail cell, a plastic bag wrapped around her neck. It was five days after a police officer pulled over Samuel DuBose for having his front license plate in the glove compartment. Five days after he was shot point blank in the head, safety belt fastened, his hands up. As I drove, I idly brainstormed a new protocol to follow if I were stopped by the police.
If stopped by the police, I thought to myself, I would set my phone to record audio and put it on the passenger seat. I would send a tweet that I was being stopped and had every intention of complying with the police officer. I would turn on Periscope and livestream the stop, crowdsourcing witnesses. I would text my family and tell them that I was not feeling angry or suicidal, that I was looking forward to seeing them soon. There would not be time to do all of these things, but maybe if I prepared in advance I could pull off one or two of them. What all of these plans had in common were that none of them were meant to secure my safety, but rather to ensure that my death looked suspicious enough to question.
I was figuring out how to enter evidence into the inquiry of my own death.
I like to listen to audiobooks on long drives because they level out my driving. Absorbed in a book, the part of my brain that would want to speed or impatiently weave through traffic is too preoccupied to bother. On this particular trip, I listened to Empire of Liberty, Gordon S. Wood’s history of the nascent United States of America in the aftermath of the revolution. As I drove up the freeway, Wood’s narrator described how the new nation’s first federal domestic tax had been met by opposition from those who believed it to be a betrayal and reversal of the Revolution itself. Though this opposition culminated in an armed rebellion against the federal government, it ended with the full pardon of all conspirators. I laughed at the incongruity between crime and punishment. Then, as I have before, I thought about Eric Garner, repeatedly harassed by the police for the crime of selling untaxed cigarettes, strangled by police officers on a Staten Island sidewalk.
Several minutes later, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a police SUV behind me, lights flashing in silence. I pulled into the right lane to let it by, and felt a twinge of revulsion as the SUV smoothly followed me. Stopping on the shoulder, I was too flustered to put into action any of my newly drafted plans. Instead, I rifled through my last few minutes on the road, trying to work out what I'd done to draw the officer's attention. I quickly ruled out everything I could think of. There's always the one reason, of course, but that was too stark to be left naked. I clothed it as best I could: Perhaps I had a broken tail light. I rolled down my passenger side window as the cop leaned over to speak to me.
Though the plans I’d made were too new and ill-formed for me to remember to use, the tactics I use to avoid being arrested or killed by the police have been instilled too deeply in me for me to forget. It is a carefully calibrated etiquette that feels like a delicate dance, based on the centuries of received wisdom passed down by the parents of black children in America. Answer questions quickly, but not so quickly that you come off as snippy. If you have to move, move deliberately, but not so slowly that you look reluctant to obey or are stalling for time. Speak calmly and conversationally, but be polite and not too familiar. Answer questions, but don’t offer any information you don’t have to. And on it goes, each balance to be carefully struck, each parameter to be tuned in response to changing circumstances.
This set of rules is often referred to as The Talk. My parents talked to me, but it wasn’t a single discrete conversation. Instead, I received The Talk as a series of mini-sermons my parents never failed to deliver in teachable moments. Neither were these restricted to how to manage the police. They were a guide to how to be alive and black in this world.
You are not like the other children. You can’t get into the same juvenile mischief your white friends get into. You represent something more than yourself and your family when you are outside this house. You will have to be twice as good as other people to be as successful as them. Remember that the wind is against you, remember that you will never be allowed to be ordinary, and so you can never allow yourself to be ordinary.
It is not a coincidence these lessons are accorded the same proper noun capitalization as is given to the discussion about sex that white parents have with their children. They are as essential and unavoidable.
I cannot tell you very much about the policeman’s appearance. He had the comfortably borne features and bearing of an average, anonymous white male. If there's an aspect of whiteness that I have often coveted, it is this anonymity, that white people can simply exist be without being seen, the ability to fade into the background, to just be one among many, humble and ordinary. My presence is always noticed and noted, as it was then.
"Do you know why I stopped you?" the officer asked, in the easy tone of a professor opening a Socratic dialogue. He didn't give me time to answer, only perfunctorily pausing before answering his own question: "I stopped you because you made an unsafe lane change." I looked in the general direction of his face without making eye contact. I could not remember making any lane changes recently at all, let alone any dangerous enough to be notable. "I did?" I responded inquisitively, like a child clarifying some wondrous point in science class. This tone was carefully chosen to sound pacifying and non-confrontational. He didn’t bother to hide the incredulous laughter in his voice as he responded, "You don't remember almost getting in a head-on collision when you passed a semi?"
No such thing had occurred. I was now so confused that I actually glanced at the road. We were on the shoulder of a four-lane freeway with guardrails and a grove in the median separating the southbound and northbound lanes. He caught my glance. "Not right now," he said, "10 minutes ago on the two-lane highway. You don’t remember?" I had been on a two-lane highway a while ago, but I hadn't made such a lane change. In fact, I couldn't remember the last time I'd passed on a two-lane road. It had to have been years. I did not want to directly contradict him, which might anger and provoke him. But neither did I want to admit to an infraction which I did not commit. I did not want to know the consequences of that admission.
It occurred to me how little was under my control. I politely told him that I did not remember, an unforced note of bemusement in my voice. He responded by describing my unsafe pass in detail, describing how the semi had been forced to hit the brakes hard to let me back in, describing the truck’s size, color, and the company whose name it bore, at one point even standing and craning his neck at the road to see if he could point out its approach. After each detail he paused and waited for me to acknowledge that this incident had, in fact, happened. At each of these implied questions, I answered with some variation of “I don’t remember,” trying my best to sound genuine and not lawyerly.
He eventually stopped trying to convince me, said that he was going to run my license, and walked back to his patrol car. When he returned, he told me it was possible he’d gotten the wrong car, that maybe in the time it had taken him to catch up, the actual culprit had escaped. He wasn’t sure how this could have happened since my car was so distinctive, but it was possible. He told me he had been mandated to catch drunk drivers, and as I didn’t appear to be drunk and hadn’t been driving erratically when he caught up with me, I was free to go.
None of this explanation made sense to me. How could he have seen the incident in such detail but not be close enough to pull me over sooner? If he’d suspected that I was a drunk driver who’d just narrowly avoided causing a fatal accident, why hadn’t he turned his sirens on to catch up with me quickly? What was unique about my cheap and aging domestic compact?
I thanked him, although I wondered what exactly I was thanking him for, and pulled back onto the road. I drove in silence and did not return to my book.
Half an hour later, I stopped for gas in a small town I’d once known. As I began to fill my car, I realized that several years before I had been to the park across the street. The woman who was not yet then my wife had driven me there one evening while we were in college. We sat there in the car talking as dusk fell, under the strange shadows made by sunset and streetlights through tree branches. I don’t remember what we talked about, only that we spoke with the unembarrassed, giddy excitement of children, honestly and openly and freely. Looking back now, we did not realize we were still children.
I remember that my head was against the passenger window when the police officer tapped on it. I remember squinting at the flashlight he shone in our faces, the hot brightness like an interrogation room’s naked bulb. I remember the officer asking to see our identification, looking past me to ask her if she was OK. If she was OK, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car underneath the street lights of a public park in a residential neighborhood at 9 p.m. If there was anything wrong, because she was sitting there, blond haired and blue-eyed, with a black man in her passenger seat. I remember sitting in an angry and humiliated silence after the officer had left us alone again. I remember wondering if the officer would have shown such heartfelt concern for her safety if she had been a black woman and I a white man.
Later that evening, I kissed her for the first time, tenderly and urgently, cupping her face in my hand, feeling not quite in control. Much later, I told her that I had felt as if I were drowning.
I left the park and patrolman and headed up the road, but I did not leave them behind, not entirely. I'd sloughed off a little lightness of heart, exchanged it for a tightening in my chest, a slow strangling. The fullness of racism's cruel bounty is not found in the bodies of the dead alone, but also in the spirits of the living. Most of us will not be killed by police officers. White supremacy will not kill us so directly, so flagrantly. Instead it dogs our steps, wages niggling wars on our peace itself. Its power is in the daily theft of our joy, our dignity, our sanity. It is in the way we always have to weigh and calculate, how we can never assume good intentions and honest mistakes. Because it is always there, in swirling eddies around our ankles, waiting to drag us under.
I can no more safely forget racism than a sea captain can forget about waves and weather. It must be heeded and understood to be navigated, and if I refuse, I will drown. I may drown anyway, despite my best efforts. That is not in my hands, and in a strange way it is freeing to know that even perfection might not be enough.
“Don’t let yourself become bitter,” my mom once taught me. She did not say this to suggest I fulfill some idealistic piety, that I must forgive and forget. She said this because bitterness leeches out love, the love it takes to struggle, to fight, to live. James Baldwin once said that he could not afford the luxury of despair, and neither can I afford to maintain a deficit of love. It is a difficult accounting. I am doing my best.
Lead Photo: (Photo: Barbol/Shutterstock)