June 12th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
A couple of weeks ago in a promless spring amid a season of plague, I wrote about a promless spring 53 years ago and the disease that caused it. Awaiting a vaccine for Covid-19 in the present, we remain in want of a cure for the racism that killed proms all those years ago and took the life of George Floyd just the other week.
As far as we may think we’ve come, an image that might have been used to define slavery back in the day – the image of a white man’s knee on a black man’s neck – became a broad daylight image live on screens across all platforms in our day.
Just as current events took me back to my high school class of 1967, the first integrated graduating class at White Station High School, marches here and across America have taken me back again, reminding me of just how lucky I am.
In the spring of 1966, I brought my date home from a party about 1:30 in the morning and headed home myself. I was feeling fine and looking fine in my momma’s convertible, weaving a bit with the radio turned up and the top down, lit by the moon and several beers.
And lit up by the cop I passed.
As I saw him doing a U-turn in my rearview mirror, I hung a right and a quick left, and accelerated. Add reckless driving and running from the cops to the DUI, and wanton stupidity. Not seeing him back in my mirror, I pulled into a long curving driveway and cut my lights. I figured I’d wait 10 minutes or so, raise the convertible roof, and then make my way.......
That’s when the cop car pulled right in behind me.
Both cops got out, working their way down either side of my car. When the one on my side got to me, he said, “Son, if you’re trying to hide a car in the dark, you might want to take your foot off the brake.”
No matter how hard you try, you’ll never guess what happened next. Well, maybe you will if you grew up in East Memphis. Maybe you will if you grew up white.
The cops took my license, backed out of the driveway, and then followed me home to my parents’ house, told me to be careful, and gave me my license back.
I was lucky.
And no matter how hard you try, you know that never would have happened had I been a black kid. Not then. Not now.
I was white.
My life wasn’t severely altered, or ruined ... or forfeited ... because of that stupid, dangerous incident. I wasn’t threatened, beaten, arrested or jailed ... or killed. There is nothing on my record. I graduated on time in few months. I was accepted into college.
I ran from the cops, people. I was driving drunk. The driveway I was parked in belonged to a prominent Memphian, then and now. Then and now, there’s every reason to believe if I’d been black in that driveway, I might never have left that driveway.
The worst part is I’ve told that story as an amusing anecdote over the years. My run for it. The brake light line from the cop. Lucky kid.
Lucky white kid.
Circumstances of my birth saved me that night, just as those circumstances cost Trayvon Martin his life in 2012 in Sanford, Florida. He was the age I was in 1966.
Those same circumstances cost Ahmaud Arbery his life last February in Atlanta, and Breonna Taylor her life in March in Louisville, and George Floyd his life right in front of all of us in Minneapolis.
And so many more, who have died – died around the country, died right here – no matter the other circumstances – from being born black.
This is not about guilt. This is about awareness. If you were born white, you did absolutely nothing to deserve the privileges you’ve enjoyed because of it, any more than those born black did anything to deserve having to start so far back in the contest of living.
That was true in that driveway in 1966, and still depressingly true 54 years later. It will remain true until white people do the following:
Own it. Earn it.
Own the fact that you have privilege you never earned, and start earning it by giving back what you’ve taken by using it. Own it by admitting the big things – like what you’re doing when you suppress voting, when you send public money to private schools, when you close the borders of a country built by immigrants, when you stack people in prisons like firewood for non-violent crimes, when you deny insurance to the working poor and a living wage to everyone – when you ask a police force to keep order in the face of the disorder big injustice causes.
Own it by admitting the little things – like telling stories like mine and thinking they’re funny.
I’m a Memphian, and I was born lucky.
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