I was driving to Lafayette today from New Orleans, about a two hour drive, when a man pulled next to me and begin pointing to my tires. I got off at the next exit and so did he, he passed by as I looked for a gas station that had air. I pulled up to one, by a man who was putting air in his tires. When I got out, I said I thought my tire was low, he looked at my truck and said, they both look low. He came over with his gage and checked each tire and filled all four and at the end he said, they each have 32 in them, so you’re good. I went into my purse and got $10 out and tried to hand it to him, and he said, “Oh no. No thanks. My pleasure.” And I said, well now, thanks very much. He smiled and wished me safe travels and a happy Thanksgiving.
On my way to Lafayette, I passed Lutcher, where I have a friend – to get to his house, I have to drive through the white neighborhood to get to the Black neighborhood. When I called him the night before about Ferguson, he said that police officers are dangerous and that we should all stay clear of them. My friend is 58 years old and he grew up going to an all boy school because when they were forced to integrate the schools, the good people of Lutcher did not want their white daughters going to school with Black boys. He’s old enough to have a certain resignation about the way things are, and to have been smart enough to let his drumming take him to Europe for most of his adult life.
I thought about the man who helped me this morning as I made my way down the highway because recently I had been sitting in with a group of people and a white older man said that he became interested in working on anti-racism after his college experience. He had had an old junker and would inevitably break down on his way to class, and always, it was a Black man who stopped to help him get his car running again. He said it happened more times than he could count and that it left a lasting impression on him about who Black men are versus who society tells us they are.
I went on Facebook for a few minutes this morning and Ferguson is trending, it will be the topic at the Thanksgiving table, it was in my rabbi’s newsletter that got sent out today, and I thought about how people tend to see things in black and white because of how easy that story is to narrate. So a Black boy was shot by a white police man and Black people rioted and that’s wrong – tsk tsk. The narrative is so simplistic that it almost makes my head explode. A friend had asked me if the officer had been Black would the outcry be the same?
The outcry was and is always the same. Mothers of young Black boys don’t want our sons killed. By anyone. We want our sons to be considered in all of their light and glory. The African American man who put air in my tires this morning was doing me a service, it was a good deed. In Judaism, we call it a mitzvah. This is how you live in community with others, through good deeds. This is how I was taught and obviously how my friend this morning was taught.
There are people rioting in Ferguson because they are outraged that a white cop killed a Black boy who was unarmed, but they are also undone about hundreds of years of the same tired old thing. The white cop gets to get off for doing it, the white cop gets to say he would do it again, the white cop gets to say he has a clear conscious. And the rest of us look at this man with our mouth agape – when did killing a kid become something that could leave you with a clear conscious? When did stealing merit death? When did Darrin Wilson lose his conscience?
Tomorrow, I’m headed across the lake for Thanksgiving with my family and I am grateful to the man who put air in my tires. I’m grateful to all the African American men who get up every day and serve their community despite how the media portrays them, despite how our institutions continue to ostracize them and despite the fact that it is easy to kill a Black man in our society. Too easy. And yet despite that fact and that some people in Ferguson are looting and burning as therapy, most Black men in America are getting up and putting on their pants, one leg at a time, and going to work and raising children and taking time to stop and help someone in need.
The morning after the Ferguson decision was handed down, my neighbor who has raised three beautiful Black sons into men, quietly put up his black, red and green flag. Michael Brown gets added to the list of victims this year. I pray for his family at their Thanksgiving table, may they find comfort in each other’s love.
Artist: Willie Birch