Saturday, April 11, 2009
My Brother's Keeper
***WARNING: LONG POST AHEAD. What can I say, I have a story to tell!***
As many of you know, life in the "ivory tower" of academia can be quite a challenge for people of color, especially young black men. As much as I'd like to say that racism, classism, and stereotyping have no place among "enlightened" folks, that shit just isn't true. I can guarantee that ANY black man that has traveled the yard of a 'mainstream' institution of higher learning has encountered what I call that "that bullshit". Calls from security when too many of us congregate, the look of shock and awe when you say something profound in class, the look of WOW! when you acknowledge your doctoral studies, "can I touch your afro?", "is the myth about black men true?", getting followed in the bookstore, you know...that bullshit. I've seen some of it, experienced even more, and have heard ALL about it. It's sad, but after 9 years of higher education I'm quite numb to the foolishness. However, when I see other young brothers go through it, it kills me inside.
Yesterday, after getting inspired by attending my school's track meet with my dad (booyyy lemme tell you...cakes and thighs, CAKES AND THIGHS!!! Whooo!), I push it on to the campus gym for a late afternoon workout. After seeing how damn CROWDED it was and kicking myself for not going earlier, I get my gear on and go through the motions. As I'm doing my thang, I peep this Young Brotha I haven't seen around before getting his swole on. Young (about 20 I guessed), dark-skinned, very athletic, bald head, good looking brotha (ok he was sexy as hell but that's not the point LOL). I checked out his demeanor...seemed quite jovial and spirited; had great gym etiquette, was conscious of others' space, and was working hard. We acknowledge each other with a smile and a nod as I move to another room.
As I finish my knee rehab exercises (good LAWD when will this be OVER?!) and head back to the main room to hit the weights, I hear a commotion. I see Young Brotha squared up with 2 white guys, both dudes all up in his face in anger. Young Brotha has his hands up in a "hey I don't want any trouble" pose but is clearly not backing down from the other dudes. A gym attendant comes to break up the squabble, the two white guys following the attendant back to the front desk. Young Brotha shakes his head like "what the hell just happened?", shrugs, and goes back to his business. He heads outside to the outdoor gym area ands starts working on some martial arts moves and conditioning.
I head out to same area to finish my half assed workout, and I peep Young Brotha. He clearly looks pissed, but is moving on with his exercises. As I get through set 1 of the Circuit from Hell, here comes campus security. A white male officer approaches Young Brotha. Asks for his ID, questions him, you know...that bullshit. At this point, I decide to pay more attention to the scene playing before me than acting like I'm a 300 Spartan :). Young Brotha is trying to be polite and calm, but I can tell that nigga switch was itching to be pushed. From what I hear, Young Brotha asked repeatedly "What did I do wrong?" and "Man, I just want to workout!" while he's talking to the cops. A female cop joins her partner and the inquistion continues. By this time, a handful of looky-loos are watching from inside the main room, including one of the dudes that was in the squabble. Young Brotha respectfully holds his ground, the cops record something from his ID, and leave. Young Brotha looks up to the sky, curses something, and starts pacing. Shit.
Soon enough, his eyes meet mine and he gives me the "look". That look of "did that shit just happen to me? Did you see that?". That was my cue. I nod, head over to where he is, and take a seat close by. I take this young man in, and I see it all. The anger of being the presumed suspect, the embarrassment of having this all unfold publicly, the confusion over why he was the only one approached by police...it was written all over his face, but I FELT IT. Young Brotha is sitting next to me, eyes hard and focused forward, chest heaving, arms pumped, ready to go OFF. I exhale, put my hand on his shoulder, and say "Breathe." He looks me straight in the eye, eyes blazing, ready to strike out. I speak again: "Brotha you don't have to say a word...I know. Take a breath." He sizes me up, nods, takes a few deep breaths, and I feel a bit of the tension release.
We then start to talk. Young Brotha is 18, a freshmen, born and raised locally in South Central LA, and on academic scholarship. He's a former wrestler, black belt in Karate, and training as an MMA fighter (soo THAT explains that BODY, lol). He's been on campus since September, and he's fed up. Turns out this hasn't been his first run in with the bullshit...from the dorms, to the classroom, to hanging out with friends he has dealt with harassment and disrespect. I let the brother vent a little bit, and his stories are like deja vu to me. 10 years ago I was right where he was...an intelligent, amiable, young black man trying to play and be nice in an foreign environment that clearly doesn't think you belong there.
Right in the middle of us talking, a gym attendant approaches and hands him his identification. This guy offers a half-assed explanation for why the security was called and tries to assure Young Brotha that he was "just doing his job". Young Brotha snatches his stuff back, offers a tight lipped "Thank You" and returns to our conversation. The gym attendant interrupts again by saying "So umm, you should know that the gym closes in like 15 minutes, so like umm...yeah". We both turn and give him the "FUCK OFF!" look so he takes off. Now why do people come with that foolishness when grown folks are talking? DAMN! Anywho...
Being the good Black kid and turning the other cheek was getting tired for him. He felt that one of the only safe spaces he had on campus, the gym, had now been compromised. He wanted to kick some ass, literally. But he already knew that behavior would not only get him arrested or even shot, but would confirm those perceptions of Black Men as hostile troublemakers who needed to be kept on a short leash. Brotha was going through it right in front of me. That ish hurt my spirit. Then that single tear fell from his right eye. Shit. This beautiful young man...strong, proud, and full of life, was getting beat down emotionally in an environment that SHOULD be welcoming and full of promise.
His questions kept ringing through my head "What did I do?" "Why can I just workout in peace?". After he was done with his vent, I gave him some words. Let him know that no environment is immune to "the bullshit"; it comes with the territory of being a black man on campus. Told him that he didn't have to "do" anything, his sheer presence (a physically imposing young Black Man) is enough to make him a suspect, no matter how much he smiles or tries to be the good guy. I let him know that even though that may be the case, that's THEIR burden to bear, not YOURS. Do NOT embrace that bullshit as your own, it has nothing to do with you. I told him the challenge of dealing with this madness is to conduct yourself with poise and respect, but at the same time call people out on their shit and make them take a look at themselves in the mirror. If there is a burden to bear, it's the task of having to constantly show AND tell people how you demand to be treated without resorting to having "a nigga moment" when someone pushes the line just a bit too far. Being proactive instead of reactive is a burden. Anticipating the bullshit and dispatching it accordingly instead of internalizing it is a burden. I tried my best to impart my insights on this young man, who I feared might lash out our grow a serious chip on his shoulder if he didn't find a way to thrive in the midst of this drama.
After we finished talking, he pulled me into a brothaman hug, took a breath, and thanked me for talking to him. I told him he didn't need to thank me, i was doing my job as another brotha, but I'd gracious accept his thanks. We parted ways, and I said a prayer for this young man.
Am I my brother's keeper? Yes I am. Somebody's got to be.