'Shopping while black': When simply being African-American becomes a crime

If you are African-American (and presumably old enough) you have likely been forced into your Sunday best when “company” was expected.

I am of an age where I remember spray starching and pressing my bleached, white blouse and fastening my patent leather shoes. My mother would sit me between her knees to brush out my roller-set hair. Mary Jo made sure I was wearing the right shade of fingernail polish and that it wasn’t chipped; though it should be said that “clear” was the only color I was allowed to wear.

But, it wasn’t Sunday and we weren’t going to church. We were going to the airport to pick up our cousins from Texas. Back then you didn’t pull up to the curb. You met your party at the terminal gate and that meant other people would see you.

And, if I can speak plainly, by “other” people I mean white people.

The fact is, whether we were taking a trip to the mall or going to a concert, there were dress requirements back then. A tight belt, a full-slip under your dress, a shine to your shoes, and a dab of Vaseline on your ashy legs, face and elbows. What do you know about that?

Thoughts of those years often bring a gentle smile to my face and a shudder down my spine. My ears are still crispy from the searing-hot pressing comb my mother used to run through my hair. Looking back, Mother believed that if we conducted ourselves in an orderly fashion, if we were clean and spoke the King’s English, if we worked hard in school and showed ourselves worthy to participate in the broader economy, we could have more.

I believe in the power of “home training,” but I have also heard some of the tragically simplistic and flawed voices in the contemporary discourse. And while I do not subscribe to “respectability politics,” I am my mother’s child.

My children, grown-up now, and one with a daughter of her own, knew better than to “show their behinds” in a department store. They knew there would be hell to pay if somebody threw a tantrum, crawled under a rack, ran down an aisle or failed to end a  sentence with “ma’am.” And heaven help you if you took something that didn’t belong to you. I gave my own children the same ominous warning I got from my mother: Don’t embarrass me in front of these white people.

Explaining the complexities of social privilege to an 8-year-old is arguably more challenging than getting your husband to remember your mother’s birthday. Conveying those lessons, while not demonizing others by race and class, is like walking a tightrope in combat boots.

For me — and I know for my mother too — there was nothing particularly racial about our approach. We taught our children to embrace everyone, even those who could not find it in themselves to embrace them back.

We were driven largely by self-preservation. I knew there would be times when my kids would be in a store, a restaurant, a mall, an airport or some other public space without me. Thus, I taught them how to comport themselves. Not because I wanted them to live their lives in fear, and certainly not because I believed they should move about this world with submissive hearts, but because I wanted them to make it home and to be in the right if and when it became necessary for me to darken the doorway of a police precinct. At just under five feet tall, I cast a long, hard shadow, and my children knew it.

Maybe my mother and I were right to do what we did. But, maybe we were wrong to put so much onus on our children. Maybe we taught them too much about the strictures of race and gender, when we should have been teaching them more about seeing beyond them. Finding that balance is a reality that every parent grapples with.

This I do know: it is not always enough, but clothes don’t make the man.

When 19-year-old Trayon Christian walked into Barneys New York last April, he became one of the millions of black and brown young people in this country who are routinely profiled.

Christian, no matter your personal judgment about his choices, had both the desire and the means to make his purchase. I say his choices because what he went to buy, and why, are irrelevant. My grandmother (and probably yours, too) would advise me to “quit counting the money in other folks’ pockets.” Some have made an issue of Christian’s style of dress, as if a snazzy suit and tie would have kept New York City police officers from rousting him after he left the store.

Somebody in that store — a sales clerk, a security officer — somebody saw Christian in much the same way that Birmingham bus driver saw Rosa Parks. Someone saw him the same way the St. Louis city elections registrar likely saw my grandparents; the same way the sales clerk with that expensive pocketbook in a glass case in Switzerland saw Oprah Winfrey. They saw him the same way Gwinnett County, Georgia police saw my son, as he drove a black Mercedes with two white girls in the car one night after midnight.

They saw him the same way a store security team saw Treme star Rob Brown when they detained him.

Despite his roles in Coach Carter, Finding Forrester, and The Dark Knight Rises, Brown was handcuffed, paraded through the Herald Square Macy’s store in New York and locked in a holding cell. His crime? He purchased a $1,350 watch for his mother. Like Christian, Brown was suspected of using a fake debit or credit card for the transaction. Their real crime? They were both black and, because of that, somebody didn’t believe their cards were real.

But for racial profiling, maybe 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell would be alive today. Maybe. Maybe if the former Florida A&M football player, who was engaged to be married, had not been immediately judged a suspect he would not have been shot ten times by a police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina. Injured after a car accident, Ferrell sought help at the nearest house. The homeowner called the police. At that hour, I am not so sure I would not have done the same. But when the police arrived, they had a duty to render aid. Toxicology reports show Ferrell was not under the influence as some initially suspected.

There is no safe harbor in a finely tailored suit. I don’t want to see your drawers either, but a tight belt will not protect your civil liberties in an era of stop-and-frisk.

For the record, Medgar Evers always shined his shoes. The notion that, 50 years after Evers was murdered, my children still walk around as “suspects” — no matter how honorable their conduct, or what they are wearing, or how well spoken they are — is an American tragedy that continues to unfold. But back in my mother’s day, and in mine, we had people of influence who stepped up. People like Evers who, despite the very real personal and professional consequences, stood toe-to-toe with their brothers and sisters. They weren’t afraid of the fight, because they understood the fight was theirs, too.

They were musician-activists like Harry Belafonte, poets like Dr. Maya Angelou. They were people like Sammy Davis, Jr., Josephine Baker, Muhammad Ali, Dick Gregory and many others who all put their careers and their lives on the line in the pursuit of social justice. Many were turned away from nightclub gigs, saw their contracts cancelled, or endured death threats. They didn’t march the avenues, highways and byways of this country because it was “hip.”

They did it because it was right.

Whether worn down by the weight of the years, weary from the vast nature of the struggle, or hoodwinked into a mistaken sense of “I-have-overcome-ness,” too few of us are willing to help push the ball of social justice forward. Too few of us remember what our parents and grandparents did to survive, cope and make it through. Too few of us understand that the very same fight that opened a spring of opportunity for us must be waged anew to keep the river flowing for those who follow behind us.

“Clothes don’t make a man,” my Uncle Ross used to tell me. “But put enough money in his pocket and he’ll forget whose wagon he rode to the suit store in.”

Follow Goldie Taylor on Twitter at @GoldieTaylor, and join the discussion at @theGrio with the hashtag #BreakingBlack.