The inspiration for the pieces “BWB” and “Self-Portrait”
“Old tapes”: that’s an anachronistic phrase in the era of I-pods, You Tube and downloads. CDs are almost going the way of the 8-track or cassette tape (ask your parents).
I was fourteen, growing up in Winston-Salem, NC. I pulled out a pick to comb my afro (had one then). It was one of those folding-handle jobs: one side red, the other green, Black Nationalist colors. I was too young to know that or how it mattered. What I was doing was fixing my “do,” getting my ‘fro right, looking at model cars and toys in King’s Department store as my mother shopped for clothes; reminiscing when this was my whole focus in the world.
He was big: bald receding hairline, hair on the sides like Larry of “Moe, Larry and Curly” but greasy and laid flat with flakes of dandruff. He had a pot belly lapping over his large belt buckle. I was a little over five feet tall and 110 lbs. He was over six feet and outweighed me by about 200 lbs.
“What you doing, boy?”
I was startled, and turned around. I was as respectable as my parents had taught me to be in situations like this: “Nothing,” I said, and turned away.
“What’s in your pocket?”
“My pick!” and frankly, that’s all that was in my pocket. This man, who hadn’t announced who he was or why I was getting the 4-1-1, was beyond annoying me.
“Up against the wall!” he barked.
The wall was again, a shelf of model cars and toys only kids would like. “This isn’t much of a wall,” I quipped.
I was grabbed by the throat and left arm, shoved hard into the toy shelves. An avalanche fell on my ‘fro denting my styling. At this point, I was in shock.
“Who are you, man!?”
“Store detective…” He flipped me like an omelet. I was being bodily frisked…against my will.
“I didn’t steal anything,” I said, “the only thing in my pockets is a pick you prick!”
“SHUT UP, boy: I knows nigras steal!”
Bad English and an epithet! Outweighed and outmanned, I went “Michael Evans (Good Times)” on him, trying to engage him in “the dozens”: “’Knows’ isn’t the proper verb tense, and it’s ‘Negro’ in 1976!”
“Boy, don’t you sass me!” A fat finger wagged in my nose as he jerked me to meet his eyes.
Turning me back around, to continue this unauthorized search, I spied four white kids in the shoe department donning four pairs of Keds and robbing Colombo/Col-DUMBO blind!
“Err, you’re missing something…”
“Boy, I ain’t missing nothing!”
“I’ve had it with boy, I’ve had it with insults, and I’ve had it with YOU!” Luckily, my mom showed up, because I didn’t necessarily have a plan, I was just fed up.
“What’s going on?”
“I was frisking him.”
“For what,” my mother asked.
“I think he stole something.”
“YOU THINK?" To me: "Did you steal anything?”
“No ma’am. I was picking my hair, and he grabbed me and pushed me into this wall for nothing!” Her arrival made my words leap out staccato; the emotions made my voice crack. It also made her crack.
“YOU,” she pushed her finger into his fat navel and made this man-mountain wince in pain, “GET me the store manager NOW!!!”
Fat boy had some speed. He ran and got the manager, who knew my mother, and knew me since I was born. I’d never seen her so upset, and I to this day never heard my mother SWEAR so beautifully, if there’s such a thing. By the time Mildred Dean was finished dressing them up one side and down the other, they were both sweating mightily; the fat mall detective’s matted hair dripped water and oil on his cheap store-brand polyester shirt.
“I…I…I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”
“Better be. By the way: am I paying for this?” My mother held up a dress.
“No. No! Please take it as compliments of the store,” the nervous manger replied. My first example of leveraging a situation…
King Department store closed soon after that, something about losing too much revenue in items stolen from the store (not by me). Security cameras have replaced rude, blind-as-a-bat racist mall cops but technology hasn’t changed the human heart.
In post soul America, there’s no black/white music charts, American Bandstand and Soul Train. You can see teens sharing music through their two-terminal ear buds; no discussion as at my prom whether and how much Top 40 music or black music would be played. They’ve thankfully, blended into their own culture, and if any are of the Neanderthal attitudes of the past, it was taught to them by parents afraid of a global, uncertain future; romanticizing a secure white picket fenced past that except for a 1% privileged few never really for most existed.
My tapes, however were not imagined, they were as real as my sister going out to Civil Rights marches and rallies and my four-year-old body racked with terror that each time she walked out bravely to be spat on, kicked, punched, hosed, dog-bit and jailed would be the last time I’d see her.
It’s supposed to be a post-racial America after the election of the nation’s first black president, yet the Southern Poverty Law Center states the number of hate groups in 2011 reached 1,018, and their rhetoric is reinforced by talk radio hosts that can tweet/sound bite the familiar southern dog whistles and hide behind the worn excuse: “I’m just an entertainer.” Targets on web sites can get Gabrielle Gifford almost killed and disabled for life; and a teenager can die for a hoodie, an iced tea and a bag of skittles because of a “stand your ground” law in 31 states that puts a target on every teenager’s back, specifically African American male teenagers because they “look dangerous” wearing their hoodies in the rain, or picking their hair.
My Valkyrie left me peacefully in 2009, joining my father ten years after his death. I miss them both.
I am Trayvon Martin.