What I am about to tell you must never be repeated by you to anyone. It is imperative that you guard this information safely in your heart and within the recesses of your mind. A life may be at stake. This is exactly how they made me feel when it was finally over. It was as if they had given me this stern warning, “You must tell no-one about what we did to you, or else…”
It was on a Friday night and I was in a celebratory mood. I had just left my two friends Mei Ling and Ting Ting. My life had taken a remarkable turn, it seemed, for the better. I had one job in a cutting-edge technology firm; I just met the CEO of Hilton Worldwide in an interview I went for on the top floor; and I was offered another job on the spot at a hedge fund in McLean, Virginia. It was about time to celebrate after all the vicissitudes of the last few years: heart break and divorce from the woman I had loved for eight years. And she was a Harvard educated lawyer. And I had no lawyer! Can you imagine what that court room was like – a court room presided over by a Harvard educated judge, deciding a case concerning a Harvard educated rising female attorney – for a black man in America? Besides, I liked Ting Ting: she was my best friend – of many best friends. We had an understanding.
For a moment, I was starting to believe the African Juju was affecting my destiny and throwing all those curveballs in my path. Juju is the prototype of the infamous Voodoo practiced in New Orleans and Haiti. Yoruba captives had taken the religion and beliefs to the Americas, and retained remarkably strong elements, where they could.
Nothing occurs by coincidence. Mr. Robert Ludlum implies it in his spy axioms laid out in his bestselling Bourne series. To paraphrase the author: “if you turn the alley and see the same guy from a previous street turn behind you, it is a coincidence. However, if you turn the second alley, and he is still there with you, then it is no coincidence. That fucker is following you!”
I took this precept to heart: Nothing is an accident.
Hmm…but the waiter spilled my coke all over my shirt. He literally dumped it on my yellow Polo shirt. I had planned on wearing my pink Thomas Pink shirt. Thank heavens, I changed my mind. He said he’d tripped; and kept saying sorry…but he wasn’t sprawled out on the floor.
It’s Cheesecake Factory, and for some reason, I suddenly realize I am about the only black guy there sitting with two Asian girls. They both attended a private school I had attended. I had tried not to draw attention, but it was quite impossible now that the waiter spilled coke all over me, but he’s not sprawled out. And the tray landed on my head!
Ting Ting swears under her breath, “what a clumsy idiot!” After he scuttles away to get a replacement, I wryly offer a “do you think he did it on purpose?” They both look puzzled and in unison: “No.”
I did not know what to think: Juju or jaundice?
About an hour later, I exhaled when I squinted at the bill, because of Cheesecake Factory’s dim ambience: “Jaundice,” I sighed with a smile, relieved it was not Juju. Just jealous. Ting Ting misunderstands me, “I will help with the bill…it is so high.” I stop her, “Please, it is all on me ladies. It has been an amazing week!” I would have expected him to make the coke a courtesy on the house, for his “error.” It would cost me more to dry-clean the yellow designer shirt.
But now it appeared I had spoken too soon, as I felt excruciating pain on the bus ride. My pastor was saying prayers for me over the phone…his words sounded like explosions in my ears. Tears welled up in my eyes, but I did not cry because I was in public. I limp off the bus. The driver asks, “mister, are you okay?” I nod without looking back, as I disembark, slowly, agonizingly: one foot forward at a time…one foot forward. I am standing in front of a bush. My good fortune – I scamper towards it as my pastor continues to cast out demons in “Jesus’ name.”
I get in the midst of the shrubs, and look left, look right and I start to unbuckle…Suddenly, an extraterrestrial’s bright lights inundate me. It’s a siren from a police car. My heart skips a beat and gets stuck in my mouth, as I spin around in shock. She is already on me…right beside me. I was in shock.
She initially has a knowing smile, “how much have you had to drink?” I do not drink, I respond. But she doesn’t believe me, “oh, I have heard that before.” My pastor, still on the phone, stops binding spirits from the village in Nigeria. “Yepa, Olopa o!” He exclaims, calling out the word for police in Yoruba.
I tell the cop in her twenties that I was being honest, and she could confirm from my pastor that I do not drink, and I am not feeling well. Suddenly, four additional police cars pull up! Great, just my luck. Now there’s a bottleneck and my neighbors driving through are staring in disbelief from their cars. Four police officers alighted from their cars, blocking a passage of the road. She asks me to sit on the ground. I comply without a comment. She refuses to speak with my pastor. I hang up.
“Officer, I am really not feeling well. I walked over twenty miles today. But I hurt my knee at the gym about four months ago, and the pain has returned. I have been walking long distance to lose weight. My wife said I was too fat. I missed my stop on the bus. My house is just a 10-minute walk away.”
Ironically, my cousin was a lawyer, who just passed the bar, and he was sitting at home eager to be a civil-rights attorney. And just on the other side, barely five minutes away was another first cousin, and Howard University Law School graduate, who had practiced law for eight years. I was sitting in equidistance from two of my first cousins who were both lawyers and who were passionate about taking on police harassment of minorities. And yet I was holed up by the callow young cops who had formed a circle around me as I remained on the ground. I was in a vulnerable position.
“Officers, I don’t have a record, I just got a scholarship into law school. I have never broken the law. I wouldn’t break the law. Please you can speak with my uncle. This is my neighborhood.”
One of the male cops cackles a sarcastic reply, “well there is always a first time, since you are about to go to jail now.” He looks puzzled as I wince and wrap my head in my hands in anguish. A few minutes go by and after taking a statement, while listening to my story, somebody asks if I needed an ambulance and would prefer to spend the night at the hospital because of my condition, as it was evident one leg was swollen. I had rolled up my pants.
I politely decline the offer. I have a healthy distrust of doctors. Many are in it for the money, and put dollars before the safety of the patient. One had insisted on butchering my forearm – he cut me up – after I got a common simple fracture that required just a cast. He insisted fixing pins in my arm was the most expedient thing to do for a teenage boy’s bone to heal. What a rocket scientist! I still bore the scars: on my disfigured, once beautiful forearm. I bore the scar emotionally, as I consciously hid the scar in the long-sleeved yellow polo shirt I wore in the heat of summer.
It was why I wanted to be a doctor and was preparing for medical school, to be one of the good ones to help underserved communities. But then she left me. And everything came crashing. And now this.
Thirty minutes go by and the female officer hands me a ticket with the wrong address. I inform her, “that’s not my address! You have written down the wrong address. I can show you my address; it’s on my driver’s license. Can I get it please, so you can correct it?”
“No!” The one black male cop almost screams at me. In retrospect, he was pleading with me.
“Just go home now,” he says. “You can call the station tomorrow to have it changed for your court date. The judge will not send you to jail. She’ll throw the case out. Just go home now. Hurry!”
“But she is asking me to sign an untrue statement. She has written down the wrong address. If I sign it, won’t that mean I supplied false information and misled you? Is that not like perjury?” I calmly protested.
“Hey, just write ‘refused’ and hand him the ticket!’”
The officer who had been eager to observe that I would be headed off to jail for the first time, chimed in. Earlier, he had tried to allay my fears, after he observed me scrupulously for a few minutes.
“Look, I wouldn’t write you a ticket for this shit! I can see you are a clean guy. I have taken a few leaks on the sidewalk myself. But it’s her call, dammit.”
After hearing that not too few black men had been killed during routine stops by cops for the most trivial reasons, I realized I may have narrowly escaped with my life. I did not have to be stopped on a seemingly innocuous routine check to be killed by cops. It could be while taking a nap in a car, or even taking a nap in my own house. She could just make her way into my home uninvited. And a cop, a complete stranger could kill a black man in America; like Amber Guyger killed Botham Jean, the accountant.
But I couldn’t have known then. I was an accountant who neither watched nor owned a television. I didn’t listen to the radio either. I just read and went to work. I thought I had eliminated the risk of “driving while black” by deliberately not driving for over a decade but choosing to use public transportation – and thank God for Uber. In context, I now understood the alarm of the only black cop, and why he was so agitated that I make it home and not worry about getting a ticket.
As I surreptitiously sneak into the house, trying to hide my “sordid” encounter with the cops—the ordeal left me feeling nauseatingly dirty—a strange thought went through my head; “why is it always the white women that are mean to me? Why are white men always nice to me instead? I thought the trope was supposed to manifest the other way around?” What bad luck! I virtually did all my best to stay out of the path of the former, as my poor mom had tearfully implored me, after I informed her I had chosen to go to school in a predominantly white community in Alabama.
I recalled her words exhorting me that, when I see a white girl walking towards me from the left, go right; and if she comes at me from the right, to go left. Anywhere she advances from, flee to the opposite direction. My widely traveled mother is not prejudiced. Her travels to over thirty countries at least made her broadminded. But she loved me, and her friends had convinced her that I had made a bad decision to study in rural Alabama. I’d wanted an idyllic setting, free from distraction so I could immerse myself in my studies, and in my reading. But she had been persuaded that black men were hanged there for even looking at a white woman.
So, she made me promise not to go near them in Alabama to save my neck. I did promise her. But this was not Alabama. It was further up north. And I did not go to her, this white woman came to me. And she had a loaded gun.
Fast forward a few years later, and I am in Oxford studying human rights law. The myths about any animus that white women may potentially have towards me as a black man have been obliterated. My extra level of caution and radars are sedated. I was quite exhausted from my jogging as I ask a beautiful Englishwoman for directions.
I study their faces now, something I never did, since for years I was accustomed to looking beyond their faces and not really looking, because of my promise to my mom. I just picked a spot on top of their head, and they couldn’t tell. Or didn’t care. She lit up, like they all seem to do in the parts I had been to in the U.K. As if they had been waiting all their lives for you to come to them. Okay, not really, but they do not clutch their bags, when they see me and I don’t get that perfunctory American manufactured gelid smile, which we all do. A person…very beautiful person is smiling at me. And I smile back too.
I have jogged for 10 miles. I still have five more to go, before I make it back to New College – the building, where the Harry Potter films were shot in Oxford University. I had decided to go by the Thames River. Lots of woods. It’s déjà vu. My knee hurts. I had been told it was tendonitis; my loins burn and my stomach churned. My workouts are intense. There’s no way I can hold this in for another five miles. I can no longer jog. I deliberately set out without my wallet, so I would not be able to get on a bus and return to campus until I was done. I would have to at least walk all the way. A siren howls far off. But British cops are chilled. Just like their girls. They don’t even have guns.
I run into a nearby bush. It’s been a few years, and I have unfinished business. I look left…I look right. All clear, and I go for it.