My childhood involved a great deal of awareness. I learned to be aware of my body—how I moved my hands. Whether they chopped through the Great American Sky, or whether they conveyed the sassy, sissy indoors—pink and lush. Mother made quite certain that we were bathed and perfumed (cologned for me). Body odor, or smelling ‘mouldy’ was tantamount to the ultimate sin. It was simply forbidden. I once teetered on the edge of transgression, and the First Lady of my church informed mother. She ordered my deodorant switched straightaway.
I was aware of my skin color, too—but maybe not in the way that you’re thinking. Unlike many of my Black American counterparts, my parents never remarked that “Black people don’t do [you name it]”. Life was without limit. However, my parents did remind my sisters and I, that our brown skin would cause some people to question our abilities. And that out there, in that ethereal locale, flowing with ink and money, people ultimately look out for their own kind.
But there was another consciousness, from which I could not escape—that of my limbs, my hands, and my fingers when shopping. While making our religious weekend rounds to A&P, Home Depot, and CVS we learned the rigid regulations for our bodies. We were not to put our hands in our pockets. We were not to touch anything unless instructed.
And we were never, under any circumstances, to go into Mother’s purse. Hell, she wouldn’t even go into her purse. My mother did not wait for the employees to follow us. She dispelled their fears of us shoplifting from the beginning.
I think that she was deathly afraid of being humiliated in front of her children. Having her bags and children searched for stolen goods would have accomplished this. These things never leave you.
Many years later, I still feel the heat of the shopkeepers eyes as I move about in their stores. Life has issued me the luxury of shopping in more high-end stores. I am thankful for this. But I still remove my cellphone from my pocket before entering any stores, lest it ring and send me shuffling. The most difficult, though, are probably the antique stores. I live in Cleveland, Tennessee, and I guess that no young Black guys here go strolling into antique shops in search of working typewriters. But I do. And I suffer the anomaly’s curse. The shopkeepers do the ‘nice-nasty’, where they offer to help you time and anon. Or they tell you that they do not have any of what you’re looking for, while standing at the front door.
In those moments, it feels like no one gives a shit about your pedigree, gentility, or the fact that you have the prologue of The Canterbury Tales memorized—in Middle English. This is it: I am judged upon sight. It is then my job to debunk the foolishness people ‘perceive’ about me. But this is tiring work, and really unfair.
I have discussed this with White associates who claim to have the same experience: “People judge me because I have [blonde hair, a beard, pasty-White skin].” But girlfriend, do those judgments assume bone deep characteristics that criminalize you? Like, how often do people follow you around a store, possibly because you are White? In my estimation, it is usually the contrary—people may cast judgments, but in all likelihood they are essentially ‘good’. Like, they might assume that because you are White, you have a college degree, and a good job, and can probably pay for whatever items you stand near. Or, they might presume that your parents can.
I think about these things often, but my body won’t let me change. I still tuck my limbs in whenever I’m in a space of mostly White people. I’m still trained to not make them feel uncomfortable in my presence.
As I walk at nights, these are the words I wish to communicate:
I’ll move. I’ll cross the street. I’ll walk ahead and let you get behind me, so you can see that I’m not a thug. I won’t engage you. Whatever you do, don’t scream. Don’t call the police, because they’ll jump to protect you—and kill me while doing it. The police are here for you, honey, not me.