George Zimmerman started following Trayvon Martin because Martin was suspicious. Half the country lost its mind defending Zimmerman from that moment on because theyve had scary experiences with suspicious people, too.
By MELVINA JOHNSON YOUNG
Special to The Star
As a Suspicious American (someone whos been followed around stores, had elevator doors closed in my face as Im running to catch them, been asked for ID when the white person in line ahead of me doing the exact same thing was not asked) Ive been thinking about this a lot.
Ive been followed around department stores so often Im afraid to reach for my cell phone in my purse for fear someone will think Im putting something in there thats not mine. Ive been given the stank-eye by someone to whom I was just trying to extend a little courtesy often enough that I actually want to thank strangers when they graciously accept my help.
What did I ever do to become suspicious? I suspect Ive been this way since birth. I know it starts early. Because there was a time that my 3-month-old baby became suspicious.
We lived in Athens, Ohio in the late 90s. There werent many African Americans in Athens, so I had to go to Columbus to get my hair done, find soul food, gossip with other sisters, etc.
Between Athens and Columbus were a few all-white, not black-friendly towns. But there was a little town called Lancaster (also not the friendliest place, but theyd tolerate a dark face or two) where the new mothers in my nursing group would take our babies for pictures at Sears every couple of months.
This time the white friend who was going to come with me had to back out. I really wanted new pictures of my baby and decided to brave the trip without her.
Well, wouldnt you know, my baby started crying about halfway there? Right smack in the heart of No-Blacksville.
I was already shaken with new mothers nerves and couldnt see her because she was in the backseat in a backward facing car seat. So I decided to press on in the hopes that shed calm herself and go to sleep.
The crying escalated, creeping from sobs to wails. And still I kept driving. My heart was thudding and my head was pounding and my baby was shrieking and I wouldnt stop.
But then she started screaming, and I got scared that something was really wrong. So, I finally decided to pull over. I looked for a place that was visible from the highway. No way in hell was I going to go too far off the beaten path.
I pulled onto a frontage road and parked in front of a van that had a For Sale sign on it. I thought, This is a public road with a little bit of traffic. If something happens, I can leave fast.
I pulled the baby from the backseat and inspected her. She was red and exhausted from howling. She looked so tiny and frightened that I felt like the worlds worst mother for letting her scream like that. I sat behind the wheel of my car and started to nurse her. Before long, she calmed down.
Right about then a white man in a SUV came towards me. He was looking directly at me as he reached down and pulled his out cell phone. I thought, This son of a bee is going to call the cops on me. But then I told myself I was just spooked because of the areas reputation.
Sure enough, less than two minutes later flashing lights and wailing sirens. The cop got out of his car and bounded toward me with his hand on his gun. I had time to think, Hes going to shoot me and hit the baby.
I wanted to put both hands on the wheel so he could see, like Ive been taught. But I was holding the baby. So I froze. He came up to the window and tapped on it. Only then when he could see into the car and see both my hands did I move them.
I lowered the window and said, Yes, Officer? He said, What are you doing here? Not Are you lost? or Can I help you? He said, What are you doing here? (I doubt I need to tell you how ugly his voice was, right?)
By then I was shaking and trying to hold back tears. I said, My baby was really upset. I stopped to see about her and nurse her. Hell, he could see me nursing her!
He asked me for ID and told me again that I didnt have the right to be there. I asked, Is this a private road? I thought it was public. Thats why I stopped here.
I was inserting Sir between almost every word, being so damned deferential you would have thought he was the Pope. No, he said, Its public, but you cant be here.
By then the tears started to well up in my eyes. And he started to feel bad. In a lowered tone he said, Look. Its not me. Okay? You just cant be here. Can you finish up as soon as possible and get going?
I said, Yes, sir.
He went back to his car and pulled away to another spot on the road to watch me. I took some deep breaths, let the baby nurse a little more and then put her back in her car seat. I got back into the drivers seat, made sure to use my blinker, got back on the highway ... and went home.
I walked in, handed the baby to her white father and told him that for as much as I loved him, I did not wish to see another face that day. I went upstairs and cried for hours.
Later my partner brought the baby upstairs and we just laid on the bed, holding each other.
It still seems surreal. Everything from the cop driving toward me like there was a murder in progress, leaping out of his car and bounding towards me with his hand on his gun to the way he pulled behind me to wait until I left.
Ive started thinking about being Suspicious American again because that word suspicious is getting tossed around so much in the wake of the Trayvon Martin trial that its become the racially-coded word du jour. (Note: Im not saying that suspicious the word is racist. Im saying that people are beginning to use it as a way to talk about race without saying the monsters name.)
I imagine the white guy who picked up the phone and called the cops on the woman breastfeeding her baby by the side of the road used that word. Suspicious.
You know the hardest thing about being Suspicious American? Its how hard you have to work to make people feel comfortable, to let them know youre no danger, that you wont steal anything, to let them know youve earned your own way, to let them know youre articulate, to let them know youre not a stereotype. Hard, tiring, crazy-making work.
But somebodys probably asking, Why do you care what other people think of you? Well ... when other people can affect whether you can be safe in your own community, respected in your job, free to move about in a store, free to drive without getting stopped when youre not breaking the law, etc. you better care.
Thats not the same as letting someone own you though. Im just talking about a skill set you learn and employ so you can stay sane and human.
Other people might make up who you are in their heads (As Zimmerman did to Trayvon or that cop-caller did to me). And that can have a devastating impact on your life. But no one else can define you to yourself. Am I right?
Id been up against all kinds of racism in my life. The racism of growing up in the segregated South. (The first words I learned to read were Whites Only and Colored Only.) The racism that comes with integrating into a previously all-white school where parents coached their kids to greet us with n*gger. The pernicious (hidden and systemic) racism of living in a racially polarized city like Milwaukee. The racism of being the only African American in a rigorous grad school program where other intellectuals assumed I was an affirmative action entrant even though I routinely excelled in classes. The racism of calling on the phone for a job or apartment and then getting there in person to be told it was just taken. The racism of being a racial minority in a small nearly all-white Ohio town.
But Id never personally come up against racism with a gun at its side. But my three-month old daughter already had.
Because shes Suspicious American, too. Apparently, she inherited it from me.
Melvina Johnson Young, of the Kansas City area, is a former university lecturer specializing in United States history, womens history and African-American history and cultural studies. She was a 2008 Midwest Voices panel writer.