In the Bluff View area, a hodgepodge of ‘artsy’, I watched the young White woman glance up at me. The flash of fear in her azure eyes betrayed that well-bred Southern smile. I did what I always did. I took this chunk of brown fear-inspiring flesh, and moved to the side. Once she had passed me, I saw her small shoulders relax. She rounded the artful bend into a brick and mortar oblivion, backlit by the setting sun.
In many conversations with other Black guys over the years, I have understood that this is not my solitary experience. The realization that our bodies are frightening is something that a wealth of young African-American men inevitably confront. Our bodies are seen as capable, more capable than our White counterparts, of rape, murder, and perhaps—physical labor. For this cause, it is so easy for people of darker complexion to be labelled ‘aggressive’ or ‘combative’.
As of late, I’ve embraced the notion of the Bildungsroman in daily life. This term is usually employed to categorize the novel of development. But we also have Bildungsroman moments, in which our eyes are suddenly opened to the pungent cruelty of the world. Or in which we realize that we, too, are complicit in this wickedness somehow.
My coming-of-age moment, in terms of my body, happened while I was running on the Bronx River Pathway one evening. I passed a middle-aged White woman—she epitomized white-collar. Not traditionally ‘stunning’ with looks, yet very well-dressed. I flashed past her, but slowly enough to see her tighten the grip on her purse. Her face was face-lift taut. She did not return my nod. If she would have looked into mine eyes, even ever so briefly, perhaps her heart would have been warmed like hot coffee and breakfast after a very terrible night.
It pained me that people could be scared of me. Around the time of that first encounter, I was reading The Tempest. I could not help but identify with Caliban—whom I imagine with bumpy, scaly skin. I was imprisoned in a brown body that even frightened me.
Subconsciously, I had begun to work out ways to seem less intimidating. Whenever I entered antique shops, I spoke a few notches higher, and put my English degree to work. I made small-talk with the clerks to indicate that I was not a threat, that I had studied Yeats and Keats. I became very aware of the space I was in, and that I ought not to take up too much. I never wore athletic clothing anywhere other than the gym. I felt that the only indicators of my ‘class’ were the business casual attire I consistently donned, and my $400 watch. These things would ward the police off when they glanced in my direction. These things would give credence to my crisp suburban accent. I could not be mistaken for a thug and arrested. I could drive my parents’ Mercedes without fear of being stopped, searched, and sequestered.
To be flatly honest, I fooled myself.
When I came to the South, I experienced a revival of these fetters. Dwelling in towns with an impressively low POC population, I received my own share of infantile questions. But I think the worst were the moments that I could sense the fear in others.
Walking on Cleveland’s Greenway one night, I had a deeply spiritual conversation with myself. We live in one world. If you are afraid of me, and you do nothing to check your fear, then that is on you. I will not coddle. I will not move. I will walk freely.
Hear me clearly: I am still working this out. I just became angry enough to want change. You don’t get to be afraid and then have someone else move out of your way. ‘True Americans’ say that they are afraid and call the police. Police say that they are afraid, and then shoot. I say that I am afraid, and everyone asks why.
Featured image: Caliban (Twelve Characters from Shakespeare), John Hamilton Mortimer (1775)