Wednesday, July 22, 2009


A new gig, taking care of a family's children four days a week. It's been a real cultural experience for me, and I'm not quite sure how to process it, but I've been thinking about for days now, and I'll say how soon.

But not today. Today I want to talk about Henry Gates. And my father.

Last week, esteemed Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested for disturbing the peace, for breaking into his own house. He'd come home from a business trip to China, tried to unlock the door and found it stuck. He had to, with the help of the taxi driver, force it open. Some witness to this suspected foul play and called the cops. Drama ensued, and this is the part we all know by heart. Cops in any city will rarely believe the word of a dark-skinner, never give him the benefit of the doubt. (If you don't believe me, examine the bullet holes of the man in New York who was shot thirty times while reaching for his identification.) "Driving while Black" it its ilk is such a stereotyped occurrence it seems almost a bad cliche, like it's not even real anymore. Except when it is. Gates was arrested, and his charges have just recently been dismissed.

Can we all stop talking about America being a postracial nation now? Obama may have a face so famous that his presidential ass will never get pulled over for being in the wrong neighborhood, but that doesn't change reality for the rest of us. The reality of the situation is that having a president of color hasn't changed anything for anyone, as far as ins and outs and day-to-days of relating to people. Black men are still a threat, a monster, a menace to society. And to prove it a man who owns the home he was trying to enter was arrested on a bogus charge.

Henry Louis Gates Jr is a professor; he's not a superstar athlete (which wouldn't make a difference) or a rock star (which also wouldn't make a difference), and unless you've read his work and seen his picture, he has a pretty unrecognizable face.

Is this an excuse to not try to solve the situation without another nigger in handcuffs? No

Maybe cops in Boston get snarky when dealing with university personnel. Gates showed officers his Harvard ID; maybe this pissed him off and they decided they wanted to make an example of him, to show this uppity college boy that even his intellect couldn't prevent the thin blue line from stealing his freedom.

Is this an excuse to not try to solve the situation without another nigger in handcuffs? No

I don't know anything about police protocol or what was or wasn't correctly handled. I just know that Gates was just trying to get into his home after a long workday. He wasn't drunk, he wasn't waving his big black dick around, and he wasn't threatening any white women. (because can we please just tell the truth and say that this kind of oversexualised animalistic behavior is what really scares white folks in the first place? Underneath all the tiptoeing cultural sensitivity, can't we all just get along dwells a fear and a hatred of the boogieman dressed as big black buck. Either they want it or they're terrified of it.)

When I was a girl and my father would come home from work I could always tell. I could hear his whistling as he crossed the street to check the mail, and I would hear the hitch, and then heavy roll of the garage door as he let himself in. If I listened very carefully and held my breath I could even hear his truck pull into the driveway. He would come upstairs and I would meet him at the top, or maybe go bounding down and grab him on the landing, and get a bristly, mustached kiss on the cheek and a big hug; I could feel all the sharp corners of his pocket protector and pens and work ID poking into my arms and chest. It was nice.

My parents recently moved to a new home, a big beautiful house in an affluent suburb. He told me that on his way home from work, which generally means about five pm, (ie. daylight) he got an unwanted escort from a police cruiser; a cop followed him from about a mile out, all the way into his driveway. He parked his truck and then went out to the police car to ask him what the fuck he was doing following him home--which to my father, and any black man who knows, translates as, "is there a problem, Officer?" My father's not too hotheaded, but he knows right from wrong, and I' m sure he was pissed at this cop (yes, white) who then stammered out some excuse about thinking he was lost or some bullshit, and wanting to make sure he got home okay. I'm also sure there was no give me your name and your badge, I'm gonna tell all my friends in the media and I'll have your job, Dickbrain. My dad just went inside and fumed silently.

My father is also incredibly civic-minded. He works the polls in his neighborhood, a proud democrat, and he recently worked the 2008 presidential election. He was so excited. When my sweetheart and I went home shortly thereafter, he told us all about it, about how he and my mother had voted, and spend the night glued to the tv, about how he would be in the middle of eating cereal, or reading the Bible or putting on his socks, and would pause in wonder, or even burst into tears, and an election he thought would not be possible in his lifetime.

Only one thing ruined it, he said. Some old white woman came to vote at his location. Evidently she said something incredibly rude and racist to him, so offensive he wouldn't repeat it, no matter how much I pressed him. I imagine she could have used words that have long gone into the annals of history as racial slurs, like sambo or coon. Maybe she talked about how nice it was that a nigger had made so much progress (say it with me, now), that he was so well-spoken. Maybe she said that she didn't care how much her son liked him, she could never bring herself to vote for a darkie. I don't know what she said; I don't know why she thought it was appropriate to say to my father, to anyone. All I know is that it took some of the joy and shine off my father's experience as an American citizen.

We must no longer wonder about the institutionalized fear of law enforcement in the black community--as if we didn't have enough reason to understand it before. I think, in situations like these, aren't police officers hired to protect the rights and properties of my father, and of Henry Gates, too? Aren't they supposed to protect and serve all of us, not just those of us who have the light skin that actually permits a belief of innocent until proven guilty? Don't I pay taxes so that I don't have to be afraid of cops, when I need help I can believe that the men in blue will help me, and not try to pin me to a car, humiliate and victimize me? I'm reminded of an episode of the Boondocks called "Thank You for Not Snitching". Why the hell would a person of color want to talk to the cops, if we think, and are proven right time and time again, that as far as we are concerned, they're agents of chaos, and not of order?

I love it when white people ask me if I'm mad. Don't ask me if I'm mad. Fuck yes, I'm mad. And if you don't know why then you haven't been paying attention.

President Obama has the good fortune of being a black man with a face that will be recognizable for the rest of his life. He will never, ever be just another black face in a rich neighborhood. He will draw focus for his celebrity, for his political career, for his ability to lead our nation. The rest of us aren't so lucky. We draw focus, every day, for just being black.


Julie K. said...

I can't believe your father has to deal with things like that. I'm so sorry. Someone like him being followed...

I wish White people talked more about how ashamed and angered we are by things like this happen. Why would we expect only Black people to be angered by acts of racism?

twunch said...

Love your blog. Love this blog in particular. Probably because I'm a sucker for discussions of race- the peculiar ebb and flow of statistics and anecdotal evidence (both in my opinion specious, both in my opinion always manipulated.)
I think the thing I value most in racial dialogue is precision of language. Obama's ability to speak extremely exactly on the topic of race relations, encourages me. Race is such a thorny and integral topic to American society (and yes, I agree that postracialism is an agendized strawman- nonsense) that it excites me to see a politician wade into that mire with precise wording rather than platitude.

I read today that Gates and Crowley have agreed to meet with Obama to have a beer. I wondered what your reaction is. Should Gates have turned down the invitation to avoid the appearance of tacit approval of a racist fascist police force?

Particularly, I liked Obama's offer to invite these two men over for "a beer." Connotatively, beer seems like a neighborly beverage- though that may be my life in the burbs. There's also a bit of machismo piped in as wel, beer having strong male demographics.

I'm intrigued by the development and wondered what your take was on the story's continuing development.

I've greatly enjoyed Gate's work on PBS and his arrest reminded me of Gerald Early, PhD's arrest in my hometown of St. Louis. He was arrested for windowshopping while black. But this was to quote Beckett, "a million years ago, in the nineties."

Delighted to read, Jess.

Jessica Young said...

Hi twunch,
thanks for your comment. A development this weekend still has me sussing out my response to how much this thing with Skip Gates continues; stay tuned for a follow-up.