History, Context, and the Benefit of Doubt

22 July 2009

I was five when I learned that I had an uncle I would never meet because he was strange fruit on an Alabama poplar tree.

I was ten years old the first time the word “Nigger” was hurled at me with venom.

I was eleven the first time I noticed bias from a teacher directed at the only Black kid in the class.

I was fourteen the first time that I found myself on the thoroughly correct side of the law but the wrong side of a police officer who took me to the station in handcuffs because I had the “wrong attitude” and the temerity to be “uppity” when I was right.

I was sixteen the first time a store clerk not so subtly hinted that I couldn’t afford to shop were I was standing.

I was seventeen the first time I was stopped for driving a car in neighborhood where most people who drove there didn’t look like me.  “Failure to come to a complete stop” was the reason.

I was eighteen the first time I was advised by some Caucasian gentleman that I might need only a half tank of gas and should move on.

I was twenty the first time I was asked if I was an “affirmative action hire.”

I was twenty three the first time a grocery store owner asked to inspect my bag before leaving the store.

I was twenty five the first time I had a series of terrific phone interviews, but saw the change in an interviewer’s eyes upon first meeting, followed by the shortest interview on record.

I was twenty eight when a false alarm at my home led to the arrival of a couple of police cars, me being handcuffed in front of my then wife and neighbors, before I received an apology for the “misunderstanding.”

I was thirty the first time I began writing down the time, date, location, and taxi number of every working cab that passed me when I needed a ride home.  At the end of each week I sent dozens of incidents from the prior seven days to the taxi cab commission for investigation.  Eight months of letters, and nearly eight years later I’m still waiting for the call back.

I don’t know if it was the first time, but the first time I remember being told by a woman that she “doesn’t date black men” was when I was thirty two.

I was thirty four the last time I was confused for a valet, bellman, porter, busboy, etc. even though I was the boss*.

I was thirty six the last time someone asked for the manager and upon seeing me declared that they’d rather speak with someone in charge.

It was two weeks ago that I stood at the host stand of one the “best” restaurants in the city I was visiting when I was ignored by some past her prime flibidigibit.  A Caucasian couple entering after I did was greeted warmly and taken right to their table.

No one would call me a militant or an “angry black man.”** I have two advanced degrees from top universities, national recognition as an expert in my field, multiple publications to my credit, and am widely recognized in my city.  None of that protected me from all of the aforementioned slights and it didn’t protect Harvard Professor Skip Gates either.  There are two sides to every story, but history – mine, his, and the world’s – demand that the professor gets the benefit of all doubts.

* all of those jobs are noble and necessary occupations, and I wouldn’t be ashamed of any of them, but white guys in tailored suits aren’t often thought to work at those level jobs

** not that militancy or anger wouldn’t be a bit understandable