This is what it feels like to be black in America. It sounds like the symphony of locking car doors as I traipse through a grocery store parking lot, armed with kale chips and turkey bacon. It looks like smiling when I don’t feel like it. It’s the instinct to enunciate differently, to use acceptable methods of signaling that I am safe to engage, or at least to disregard. “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” wrote the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. I feel that mask covering my soul, never allowing me to just freely exist.
I could argue that any negative reaction to my skin is a problem for others to grapple with and of no concern to me. I’ve tried that approach before; one memorable attempt ended with me being pulled out of my car by two police officers and handcuffed for the felonious infractions of having a blown headlight and insufficient self-abasement. It is an unspoken rule that blackness’ first and most important task is to make everyone feel safe from it. We ignore this mandate at our own peril, realizing that a simple misunderstanding is a life or death proposition.
Jonathan Ferrell ran towards police seeking help after a car accident and was given a hail of bullets for his troubles. Renisha McBride went in search of a Good Samaritan after her accident and a shotgun blast answered her knock. Teenager Trayvon Martin walked home with candy and tea and was greeted by the nervous trigger finger wrapped in an adult’s gun. Jordan Davis sat in a car outside a convenience store listening to music and a man who objected to the volume cut his life short with the boom of a firearm. The principal crime all of them committed, like countless others over the centuries, was being black and not sufficiently prostrating themselves to ensure the comfort of others.