The Talk: A Living While Black in America Survival Guide

The murder and execution of Ahmaud Arbery is currently the latest slaying of an innocent black person to capture the attention of the nation. Honestly, due to COVID-19, it’s attention was probably diverted a bit, but after the rattling video of him being gunned down as if he had no rights, had committed a crime, and as if he wasn’t human was something that is continuously etched into the minds the public. What was his role in all of this? What could he have done differently?

He could not have gone for a jog I guess… *crickets*

That’s right. The 25-year-old young man went for a Jog. He was unarmed. Three men “allegedly” did the killing. Two of which were father and son, one a former police officer, and the other a former investigator in the DA’s office. I’m not here to really focus on the horrific killing so much as to talk about a conversation that happens in Black households across the country. That conversation is about the reality your kids, family, and friends will face for just existing as a black person and how to prioritize survival.

The talk.

(Dad letting you know it’s about to go down)

There are levels to the talk, and my emersion into a survival guide was adjusted as my understanding grew from childhood/adolescence to teenager, to finally adulthood. I’m going to walk you through each of them. Why? Because this matters and we have to talk about it.

Childhood:

As a kid, I was fortunate and blessed enough to have two parents that poured every ounce of love they had to give in to their four kids. And early on, as a kid growing up in Jackson, MS, I was subjected to what I thought started out as a generic conversation (that actually would be a planned out guide for my survival). This kicked off when I was in a private school and had questions about black history, and civil rights started to be something I had a genuine spark about. Thinking about the experiences provided by the little books we had with their illustrations as a history lesson from the past. My parents proceeded to tell me that there will be some moments when you will be treated somewhat like how these heroes were. Some will be in your face, and some will be veiled, but it all will hurt just the same. All because of the color of your skin.

(Coming to grips with your reality as a kid)

Teenager:

This conversation may have been the most serious that not only I recall, but when I poll friends and colleagues, it seems that it was one of the most important conversations for a POC’s lifetime. Now I don’t want to paint the perception that every single Black person has this conversation in the U.S., but I do need to highlight just how important it can be. I was preteen and I remember walking in a store in the mall and my mom scolded me. I literally wasn’t sure what I did wrong as I just did the same thing as her and walked into the same store with her. I came to find out quickly I made a mistake in dealing with racial profiling. My hands were in my pocket. That’s right, I walked into a store while my hands were in my pockets. She let me know that I should take my hands out because she saw what she perceived as someone that looked to be profiling me. So I took them out. She said watch what happens. We walked around the store, and guess what. The employee was following us (and not in the I’m trying to be a helpful way). I felt terrible. This wasn’t my first racial experience, but it was a new experience where I felt blindsided, and as if it were something I should have had figured out.

How wild is that? I was a kid that thought I should have known that I was being targeted.

We get back to the car, and she lets me know that I didn’t “do” anything wrong. But, the reality of the dangers I face as a black person was going to be different from that of my white classmates. Even when it’s absent for others, it can’t be for you, because it’s something you may not come back from.

(When you realize this is like any other monday and you’re next up)

Fast forward, and I’m a little early. I pass my driver’s test and get my license. My dad says, “awesome, but we need to have a talk.” We make our way home and proceed to have the convo that has been instrumental in my perception of racial bias. I won’t divulge the entire convo, but I will share a portion about interacting with Police. My parents were teachers and believed firmly in showing others respect so I thought it was going to be a conversation on always showing Police offers hmmm respect. Nope. It was about survival. Essentially knowing when you’re being followed/tailed when driving, being pulled over for nothing, knowing what to say and when, and making it to see another day. One of the most impactful portions of the conversation came when I learned what counties, neighborhoods, and even roads to avoid altogether at certain times of the day.

Early Adulthood:

Up to this point, I had been called racially charged things, mistreated, spit on, profiled, followed, denied employment, and education at some point based on my racial identity. So I’m thinking to myself I’m not sure how much more there is for me to learn. I got a good experience of no matter where you are, or even in some cases what the educational level is of your attacker- despite the intent, a racially charged offense can occur.

An example of this was during my time in grad school at Tufts University in Medford, MA. I had just finished undergrad at Berklee College of Music in Boston within 3 years and was off to get my Masters Degree in a subject called Ethnomusicology. A particular prominent professor called me to let me know I had been admitted with a full presidential scholarship and a position as a TA. In all, it was a fantastic offer. Going into the school, I knew I was probably going to be one of the only people of color, and sure enough spot on, I was the only one for that year admitted to the program.

This is all-important to set the scene of one of the most important conversations I ended up having with my father in my life. I was in a particular class led by the same professor that once called me to let me know I had been admitted. And as we were covering a book about ethnomusicologist Steven Feld and his studies, an example was poorly made of how the terminology for “Pygmy” was synonymous with the word “Nigga.” I should mention that this professor was white. He didn’t even look like he knew why he was attempting to make the example. In the seminar, my white colleagues looked uncomfortable. And to be honest, I was just disappointed.

(Live footage of me in the seminar)

I had previously ignored an issue with another professor during an intro grant writing session. After noticing the materials the school had related to artifacts and archives significant to HBCU’s (Historically Black College and Universities) such as Fisk University, I suggested a grant proposal. The proposal and idea centered around developing a relationship with HBCU’s to highlight and mirror something similar to the relationship Brown University and Tougaloo College shares. The biggest complaint he had. That we (Tufts) had no real business setting this up. Essentially it was pointless because Fisk or another school should have to do that themselves. I wholeheartedly and currently disagree with that take that was announced in the seminar. Still, I bring it up because I made the decision to shut up to get my degree and pass the class rather than argue what seemed like an antiquated perspective.

Fast forward back to my seminar where my professor is dropping “Nigga,” I stay after and talk with some of my colleagues. To which a few say, “They didn’t take it like that,” and “not to make to much of it” essentially. (This wasn’t the stance of everyone but the majority of those in the convo). I proceeded to call my dad right after discussing it with him. I respected my father so much, that I felt sure someone who had as much experience navigating the realm of higher education he surely would tell me to do what I previously did to get the degree. That’s not what happened.

He says, yeah, I know you’re worried about backlash. But you are in that class. He said, “I understand how hearing about the situation makes me feel, but how does it make you feel.” Forget that professor has tenure. Just be honest. And when I decided to be transparent, I told him I was fuming. I expected more. We discuss culture and music in the highest form of Academia. So when I heard a leader in his field of study not showing care to the discussion of such a sensitive topic and my colleagues not taking a stand, I was appalled.

My dad told me something that I’ll never forget. “Sometimes, you have to be the person that risk to lose everything for what you know is right.” He went on to say it was my decision, and he stood by whatever decision I made.

I decided.

I went to one of my other professors. I felt I could trust and talked to him about it. Only to see what the best route of action was to bring a complaint to the department. I went to the then Chair of the department who would later become my thesis advisor and told him exactly what happened, how I felt, and how it wasn’t cool.

I ended up receiving an apology, not losing my scholarship, and excelling in my studies. Not saying that’s all that should have happened. BUT, you learn half of the battle is learning to count your wins.

(Same)

Takeaway:

This isn’t meant to be a walkthrough memory lane of my personal experiences, because there are harsher offenses that could have been highlighted. This is intended to show one of the things the black community often must go through to survive. Lessons have to be given paired with examples of those who were just living their lives as anyone would but, had been lost due to no fault of their own. The justice system for the most advanced nation in the world failing them in mass numbers historically and even now. About Ahmaud Arbery, Botham Jean, Sean Reed, Atatiana Jefferson, Stephon Clark, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, Alton Sterling, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray this could be you so we have to prepare you for any and all possible scenarios. My message to black families and communities, keep having these conversations. My hope is that our white neighbors and those that identify as white- acknowledge that there is a problem. When you get a detailed video, there shouldn’t be thought of what in some cases this little kid could have done differently. Don’t doubt your black neighbors. It’s not always as complicated as you may think. Be honest about the reality of how a whole race of people are treated and denied the rights they are promised and deserve. Reach out a hand of love and stand up for what is right.

(Keep smiling kids)

This is dedicated to the late W. Cortez and Kathy Castilla. Thank you for teaching us so much regarding loving our blackness and the importance of passing on a legacy worth sharing.

This post was previously published on Equality Includes You and is republished here with permission from the author.

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Photo credit: iStock

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