When I Was a Black Man

I have not told this story publicly, and Joelinda and I have not been sure of how/whether it was helpful to share. A version of it has been sitting in my blog drafts for well over a year. But. MLK weekend seems as good a time as any. 

You see, there was a time before Joelinda and I were dating that we had the police called on us.

We were walking through the front yard of an apartment complex because a friend, Britt, was letting us in the side door of the apartment in which she lived. We did this regularly.

We were let inside, and about half an hour later, there was a knock at the door. An officer, who I will make a point to say was very kind and professional, was called because a neighbor expressed concern about the safety of the elderly woman who resided in this apartment (our friend looked after and lived with this elderly woman, a dear and sweet servant of Jesus who went home to her Lord a few months ago). The officer left after figuring out the situation.  And all was fine.

Our friend, Britt (who is white), and myself, were both confused and puzzled. Nothing like this had ever happened before to either of us white adults. Nurses regularly came in and out of this side patio door with no problem. We thought it was just a random misunderstanding. Joelinda, on the other hand, was worried that it was because she was black. Britt and I thought that that was ridiculous, we told her she was being overly sensitive.

A few days later, through a few conversations with neighbors, it was found out that a neighbor had called the police to report “two black men breaking into the elderly woman’s apartment.”

I look back on that experience as the primary moment in which my worldview began to crack, and I began to see the very different worlds black and white live in in relationship to police, perception of danger, etc.  After this, I took the time to listen more closely to the experiences of black americans and began to understand how extremely different their relationship to the criminal justice system (beginning with that first stage of why and when people call the police) is from my own.

I wish that this was a fluke. I wish that the times my now-fiánce has been yelled slurs from across the street, or the times my mixed group of friends has been the recipient of ambiguous shouts from passing cars, were also flukes.

I wish I was merely “race-baiting,” and not telling the truth.

For a brief moment on that night, I was a black man in someone’s eyes, and the way the world saw and treated me was very different. Or, another way to look at it, Joelinda and I were perceived to be up to no good and “black men” was the category that was grasped to account for us, even though it was a category far from reality. I was wearing shorts, I should have been glowing in the dark with whiteness. But perception was more powerful than reality.

And now, with my coming marriage, I have the prospect of being the father to darker skinned boys. And I am already anxious about how to raise them, knowing that they will live in a reality very different than my own that I do not know how to prepare them for. I will tell them to work hard, to make good choices, to be kind and respectful and be better-than-perfect to avoid suspicion (but oh, what young man should ever have to live with that much pressure? To be better than perfect. Could I blame him if he snapped from under all the pressure? How do I also teach him grace? And how do I let him know that I love him even if he’s imperfect…but I’m afraid to say so, because imperfect could get him killed?). If he goes through a rebellious young adulthood phase as so many do, I hope and pray he could be loved back on track but all it could take is one night wandering the street high on the weed he took from his white friends who would never be arrested for it, and shot in cold blood 16 times, before I ever got a chance to hold him, to ask him what was wrong, to find him help from the drugs. If he was white, maybe society would have given him more of a chance to start over, to try again. But, statistically, if he is not shot he is likely to just be thrown into prison over and over again. And that sucks your hope away. That takes away any hope or incentive you have of trying for a better life. 

I want a world in which my son is afforded the same fair treatment and opportunity for reform as any other American. If he makes a mistake, or appears to have made a mistake, I want him to be treated with equity and dignity, treated as innocent until proven guilty, treated as a life that still has so much potential, not tried and executed on the street or thrown in prison for long periods of time for minor offenses, as is the reality for so many black men.

As a historical aside, let us not succumb to the danger of turning our ancestors into cartoon villains who gave no rationalization for their actions, and thereby distance ourselves from them artificially. What were the justifications for lynch mobs? “Black men are out of control.” “He stole something.” “He harassed a white woman.” “He was unruly.” Sometimes these were based in reality, sometimes not, but in all cases men were tried, brutally tortured, and publicly hanged with kids and picnic blankets and photo-ops abounding…without due process, without trial. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now. The real or imagined crimes of black people cannot be an excuse to have two distinct criminal justice systems…one harsh, unrelentless, and vigilante, the other cautious and with benefit of doubt.

He could be twelve years old, playing with his friend Jonny’s pellet gun that he was borrowing for the weekend, and be shot in the park. So many of my friends think guns should be a normalized part of life. It’s a hobby, or even a moral necessity.  I’m glad you have the freedom to have that conversation, it will be too risky for my sons to play with toy guns, much less ever own real ones. As adults they will make their own decisions about guns, of course, but my preference would be that they not own them. Maybe that will change. Maybe my mind will be changed by the prospect that they could be unarmed and shot at church in South Carolina. By the prospect that they could be shot by a solitary police officer alone on a backroad, even if unarmed, so maybe its better for them to have a last-resort protection in that impossible situation (isn’t that what all my white friends say guns are for? In case the government abuses its power?)? By the prospect that one of those white kids at the University of Missouri posting social media comments about ‘killing all the blacks’ might actually get serious? But no, no, it’s not worth the risk is it? My son seen with a gun could be the end of his life. Doesn’t matter if he’s safe, if he’s “a good guy.” 

I have a brief taste of the anxiety and impossible choices so many black parents know so intimately.

We still live in two Americas. Any progress must begin with the courage it takes to drop our defenses and preconceived notions, and step into the world of another. Dropping the assumption that clearly we know what they think, believe, how they act, what they value. The assumption that black communities don’t care about crime among their own is a particularly disturbing assumption that has no basis in reality.  These are largely brothers and sisters in Christ that we are talking about, and we do not give them the benefit of the doubt about their moral convictions or their desire for better for themselves, much less go check for ourselves. 

We must resist assuming we know their diagnosis from our perch high above them. It saddens me how much of race conversations rely on stereotypes and lack of intimate knowledge with the ‘other’ that is being described (myself included, I know very little outside my own bubbles).

And we must always begin with the logs in our own eyes before ever daring to mention whatever is in our brother or sister’s eye. 

With every word we speak, with every action or decision of inaction that we make, let us remember that Jesus sees. Jesus is weeping. And Jesus calls us to something greater.

He calls us up the mountaintop, together.

“In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.”  -Dr. King

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4 thoughts on “When I Was a Black Man

  1. Thank you, Kyle and Joelinda, for sharing this story and for the challenge it issues. I have never personally witnessed racial injustice, but over the past months I have begun to seriously consider that the reason for this is not because it hasn’t occurred, but rather because my eyes have not been open and I have not been willing to see the world through another’s. I want to live in repentance for that blindness, and step out of from the safety of inaction. Because that kind of blindness, the ability to live in simple ignorance, the ability to protest, “But I didn’t know,” is a privilege that many of my brothers and sisters in this country do not share. Thank you for being part of the call to step out from that.

  2. Hi Kyle J.,
    Grace to you ever more and thank you for posting your thoughts on this issue! As I read this post, an incident I experienced in early November 2009 was refreshed in my mind with a better understanding. November 2009 was my second time of visiting the United States (My first time was in Dec 2006, Urbana ’06). I was still serving then in North Africa and was invited by a Church somewhere in New Jersey to speak at their Missions Week. The church is a majority white church consisting of what I would regard as upper-middle class and of course with a mélange of people from the lower-middle class of the society. The church, being in a university town, has been influential in making disciples and sending our workers who serve in different parts of the world,

    During the week I was in that city, I was lodged in the home of a couple. The brother has a Ph.D. and has a good job. They lived in a white neighborhood of upper-middle class. The last day of the Missions Week was a Sunday and I was to preach in the church’s two services. I woke up early and got ready. I dressed well, but my dressing was more African than American (I think). My hosts asked me to take breakfast. I did not want to take breakfast until my task that day was done. So while the rest of the people in the house were taking their breakfast, I decided to take a walk outside to just look around and see the environment where I have been lodged for almost 5 days. I did not go far away. I was just looking around beside the home of my hosts.

    Within time space of about 10 minutes, a Police vehicle drove into the lane where the house was located. The officer (white guy) in the vehicle stepped out and called me to come. I went up to him and greeted him. Sincerely I had no preconceptions whatsoever. I just spoke with the officer, knowing he was just doing his job. So he began to interrogate me. My name, where I’m from, what I am doing there… etc.? I told him I am a guest to “the couple in this house” (pointing to the house); and that I am a Christian minister invited by a church in the city to speak at their Missions Week all through that week. I told the Officer, that in fact, I will be speaking in less than an hour in two services in the church. None of the information I supplied helped. He did not believe me.

    So I told him to please come with me and I will bring my Passport from the house and show him. And if he is in doubt, he could also ask my hosts, who were home getting ready for the Sunday morning service. He reluctantly accepted. So He went and knocked on the door of the house I pointed to him. My hosts came out and were alarmed that the Police has been interrogating me. He was a kind of very surprised that the Police would just come into their lane to begin interrogating someone.

    Then the Police officer told him that they received a call from someone in the neighborhood who saw me standing outside. That is what prompted the officer’s coming. My hosts, then wanted to find out who must have made that call, but we had no time to begin to ask around the other few houses around there because we must get to Church on time as I was to preach in the first service as well as the second. It was alarming! Later, my host found out that it was a woman, just opposite their house that made the call. The neighborhood was an entirely white neighborhood. Not too far from there was a hunting area where people use to go hunting.

    Sincerely, I never made a link between that call and the fact that I am African, until I read your post. Some of the brothers and sisters in the leadership of the church where I preached, when they heard of what had happened early that morning, were alarmed. Some may have also thought it was because there was this ‘poor black African young man’ roaming around the neighborhood of upper-middle class white Americans. What was he doing here, by the way? (Some may have asked themselves). I said to myself Wow!

    On reading your post, I come to realize that I am yet to grasp the pain of injustice that black Americans go through. I returned to the United States in 2011, to begin theological studies. Within the few years that I have been here in the United States, I have interacted with materials in the news Media, have come across a few stories that portray the systemic and socio-cultural imbalance while searching for illustrations german to American culture and context to flesh out a sermon to be preached. One of those that touched me most, among many others, is Steve Locke’s story: “I fit the description” http://artandeverythingafter.com/i-fit-the-description/ (Accessed: Dec. 5, 2015). Locke’s post attracted many comments. One white American simply wrote: “I am so sorry. This is not the America I worked so hard to see. I’m so sorry.”

    My thesis on this issue is this: The sin that works in world continues to make its foray in every society, but in different ways and forms. The eyes of those who call themselves “developed, civilized, advanced” remain veiled by the workings of Mr. and Mrs. Sin. Many refuse to see the blind spots. For example, even though we say slavery has been abolished, yet it continues in our 21st century world, this time putting on a different garb. Furthermore (as per my thesis), let us not think much would change yet. Those who love Jesus must continue to live out the light of Christ according the measure of grace God gives to us. Wherever we could work to seek a change, let us do so with the might that the Holy Spirit gives – not only locally, but with also with a global perspective in mind; for we all now live in a global village. Nevertheless, we must never think that we (as humans) would be the ones to solve the whole problem. I am more inclined to say it would continue until Christ returns to restore all things. Thus, as we labor and play the part God may assign us to do in our time and place, let us make sure we continue to groan for the return of the Prince of Peace, Who alone, will be in the position and has the power and authority to bring an end to the systemic injustice and imbalance in our sin-broken world. That said, we should not live in despondency. Rather, in the midst our pain and suffering, in the face of injustice (when it happens to us or to those dear and near to us), let us follow in the foot-steps of Him, Who, when He was unjustly judged, threatened not his malefactors, but instead committed Himself to God Who judges justly. Thank you and God be with you.

    In Him,
    Uchenna D. Anyanwu
    “For me to live is Christ, and to die [in Him] will be gain.” Phil 1:21

  3. Spencer, thank you for being so candid. The reaction of alarm is simply a reality for millions notwithstanding socio-economics or education. I am honestly not surprised or alarmed. Bro. Uchenna, I also enjoyed reading your story; I can relate all too well… Bad memories of injustice and intimidation linger even today as a 44 year old remembering back when I was nine years old sitting in the back seat of our side-panel station wagon and gasping with fear as a white police officer pulled us over for “speeding”. I was observing his smug look of hatred and dominance poisoning the atmosphere during his harassment and provocation towards my genteel father. There nothing my dad could do at that time; as a result, he paid a hefty “speeding” ticket even enormous for the 80s. Every minority family in America has a story to tell but often maintains the status quo of silence out of respect for white fragility and not wanting them to feel uncomfortable: My brother-in-law was beaten to a pulp by white police officers for simply “being” in a wealthy, white neighborhood, driving an imported car–the police officers did not believe that he was a medical student at Harvard (top of his class)…sadly, he lost his faith as a result of this situation. I was showing interested buyers my property in a gated community and walked them directly on the scenic golf course, a neighbor walked right outside her door with her arms crossed, and abruptly asked me: “Is there something I can help YOU with?” Translation: “you do not belong here; you’re lost and obviously in need of help from me.” I told her that I am the owner of the condo right over there and that I do not need her help. In my professional career, EVERY job that I have had, someone [always white] asks me HOW I got that job and insists that I got it because I was black (insinuating, that THEY [the white majority] must of felt sorry for me and just GAVE it to me)… My white, female friends and colleagues have not had the luxury of enduring such scrutiny. Why? That still needs to be answered amidst the illusions and perceptions perpetrating the captured voice of black Americans. In my opinion, it starts with the church and seminaries in America. God’s people need to challenge the assumptions they’ve been raised with toward non-whites. I’ve had to correct false encryptions of what I was saying to the majority in Christian circles who tacitly give remarks showing ignorance, prejudice and pride. A classmate of mine at Gordon-Conwell commented to a class of 50 students during a discussion on race relations: “I’m afraid to talk to black people, but I don’t have anything against them.” Spencer, the neighbor who was afraid to talk to you and Joelinda, was unafraid to talk to the police. The “us and them” stigma of racism is daunting.

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