It’s hard to imagine the temperature of justified Black rage.
The father roared at his son through the screen door from inside the ground-level apartment in married student housing at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
He raged out the door, snatched the grape Popsicle from the boy’s hand, threw it into the empty flowerbed under the apartment’s front picture window and dragged his crying son back through the door by one arm. I watched them retreat into the darkness of the interior, the BANG of the slamming screen door bouncing around my brain.
It’s one of my very first memories, maybe the first one. I clearly recall what the father shouted –
“WE are not going to take anything from them. EVER! You understand? NEVER!”
It was the spring of 1972.
I was about 3½ years old.
My Black friend was about the same age.
I don’t remember much else, other than I was badly shaken. I’m guessing my parents explained that my friend’s father wasn’t mad at me, that he was angry about something that had nothing to do with me or his son or the cold treat. And that, yes, of course it was OK to be friends with the little boy who lived four or five doors down.
I’ve thought about that moment often over the years. It’s come back to me more and more as a seemingly never-ending string of Black people have been crucified by police.
I thought about the purple Popsicle in 1991 when Los Angeles police beat Rodney King nearly to death and nothing happened to them. Zero. And again in 2014 when cops killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. And again, no consequences for the cops.
When officers killed Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. When, days before the trial of Floyd’s murderer came to an end, a white cop in the same metro area shot and killed Daunte Wright. And about an hour after the judge read the guilty verdicts against Derek Chauvin, when I learned at the very moment judgement was being handed down, cops in Ohio were killing yet another Black person, this one 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant.
The list of Black people killed by cops seems to go on forever. It continues to grow longer. Every time, I hear the voice of actor Will Smith in my mind –
“Racism isn’t getting worse,” he said. “It’s getting filmed.”
And every time I am enraged, just like my friend’s father was, nearly 50 years ago now.
But if I live a hundred more years or even a thousand, I will never begin to be able to imagine what he and other Black people have felt, and continue to feel, as the very people who are supposed to protect all of us cut them down. I can’t imagine the sense of helplessness, not just at the lack of justice, but at the inability to go anywhere without literally and justifiably being concerned for their lives. I can’t imagine the temperature of the rage.
Fifty years ago.
Four years earlier there had been mass protests and riots across the nation in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and tensions were still high. As one brief history put it, “Racial tensions were high in 1970, as Blacks became frustrated with economic conditions that did not improve despite advancements in civil rights.” According to another, “(King) understood that the great legislative achievements of civil rights… were necessary for rectifying past and present injustices, but far from sufficient to address the aching need for human dignity that white society denied African Americans.”
Perhaps it was those conditions that so incensed my Black friend’s father, to the point that he wouldn’t allow his son to eat a Popsicle from the white kid who lived four or five doors down. That he didn’t want his son taking anything from any white person. Ever.
Given how Black people were treated then and still are, it was probably all of those things plus indignities and injustices he suffered himself daily as a young Black man working his way through college.
Whatever it was, after nearly 50 years and witnessing too many public injustices against BIPOC, I can better appreciate, if not comprehend, the complexity and enormity of the possibilities that might make a Black man so furious in 1972.
And in 2021.
It’s all hard for me to grasp. I just don’t get how people believe they’re better than others for something as innate as skin color.
I was brought up to understand I am no better than anyone else. I learned to behave decently and respectfully toward everyone, no matter what they look like. And I was taught the clichés –
- Never judge a book by its cover.
- Never judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
I’ve never looked at an Asian woman or a Native American man or a Black child and thought of them as anything but a woman, a man or a child, as deserving of the good in life as I am. I’m not saying I don’t see color. I do, as we all do, and I believe it’s important that we continue to. What matters is what we think, how we act and how we react when we see color, or whiteness.
When I watched Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck for that deadly eternity, I felt more than anger. My reaction was a mix of disgust, empathy and despondency, all rolled together in a hard knot that floated from my stomach up to my own throat.
I’m pleased Chauvin will pay for his crimes, those he committed against George Floyd and those he committed against humanity. But I don’t feel joy. There’s none to be found in a greater understanding that humans can do things like this to one another and in the process believe they are justified. Besides, whatever Chauvin winds up paying, in time or otherwise, it will never level out the scales.
George Floyd and the thousands of other Black people killed by police and white mobs are gone. One lousy cop going to prison won’t bring any of them back. That is not justice.
I hope more white cops will be held accountable for their heinous actions against Black, Indigenous and other people of color. Better yet, I hope we can get to a place where they’re no longer committing heinous acts against BIPOC. Even better still, I hope we as a society can entirely scrap what we call a “criminal justice system” without a hint of irony and start over with a focus on humanity and a helping hand rather than armed interveners rushing into every situation that has people at odds.
I’ve hesitated to write about this. I don’t want to co-opt anyone’s righteous indignation, and I believe the right to speak up and speak out rests with those most injured. As I said, even with a hundred or a thousand more years, I’d never fully understand.
I am not Black. I am not Asian. I am not Native American. I am not Hispanic. I am not Middle Eastern. I am not any of the beautiful shades that make up the glorious rainbow of humanity.
Instead, I am privilege; a middle-aged white guy. Had I been raised in another way, I might be a big part of the problem. Hate and superiority are learned. Thankfully, I learned differently.
But then again, maybe people like me have a responsibility to speak up, to speak out, to help effect change.
So I do what I can, and writing about these atrocities is one of the things I can do.
Still, tragically, I do not doubt that on yet another day I will hear about yet another Black person killed by yet another white cop. I’ll be enraged.
But I’ll keep hoping, too.
I’ll hope the slaughter of Black people at the hands of white cops will end, and that the entrenched systems that create disparities between whites and BIPOC can be changed.
And deep down, I’ll hope a certain Black father and his 3½-year-old son have aged nearly 50 more years, as I have. I’ll hope they’ve been able to make their way in this whitewashed world despite everything stacked against them. I’ll hope they’re O.K.
Because, like the purple Popsicle in the dead flowerbed, it’s not about me.
Featured image by Silvestri Matteo via Unsplash