Mistaken Identity

When I was 12, my mother and I went to Greece. Because she was afraid to fly, we sailed across the Atlantic on the Queen Frederika. She was probably equally fearful of drowning, but I had a ball exploring, playing, swimming, eating whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. Once in Greece, it was more of the same. By the time we arrived back home, I had put on some healthy weight and developed a deep, rich tan.

On the return voyage, I made friends with two sisters who lived downtown. During one visit, a boy came up to us outside their building and angrily asked why they were playing with a n*****. We looked at him, confused, and he pointed at me and shouted, “Look at her! She’s a n*****! Just look at her!” We didn’t understand, but I never went back.

Years later, when we moved to Houston, I had trouble finding a job. I would interview in the mornings and spend my afternoons swimming in our apartment pool. Each day, a neighbor asked how the job search was going, and each day my answer was the same. One day he explained my frustration. “They don’t know what you are.” “I’m a teacher,” I answered. “They can’t tell whether you are Black or Mexican,” he clarified. Now I understood why people moved away from my husband and me in the movie theater.

Around 15 years ago, a colleague and I drove to New Orleans for a conference. Our route was

I-10 east, passing through unremarkable small towns. And then there’s Vidor, a bedroom community near Beaumont that was once known as a “sundown town,” a place where blacks were not welcome after dark. These towns usually had a sign that said something bland, like “whites only after dark.” Vidor’s sign was not quite this generic. “According to legend, the sign said in big, painted letters: “N*****, don’t let the sun set on your black ass!” Not that the sign was really necessary; Vidor’s reputation was deterrent enough. If you were a black man traveling through town in the bad old days and you got a flat, the smart move would be to ride on a rim until you reached the city limit sign” (https://humanparts.medium.com/i-grew-up-in-the-most-hateful-town-in-america-a4e91e6b3bc).

My friend is Black. He’d moved from Pittsburgh to Houston 25 years earlier. It was around 10 AM when we drove through Vidor with a full tank and well-inflated tires. When a police car magically appeared behind us, we pulled to the side of the road and waited until the officer materialized at my window and signaled for me to roll it down. “Good morning, ma’am. I just wanted to make sure you are okay.” I looked from the weapon strapped to his hip into his mirrored sun glasses, unable to see what I was positive were blue eyes. Without skipping a beat, I smiled, and replied, “why wouldn’t I be, officer. My husband and I are on our way to New Orleans for a second honeymoon.”

I don’t know where I got the nerve. I just knew that I couldn’t say what I was really thinking.

His cheeks turned crimson as he croaked, “have a nice day,” and stepped away so we could continue on our trip. We were well beyond the Vidor city limits before either of us exhaled.

So this is what it’s like to be stopped when driving while Black. To sit perfectly still, hands visible at ten and two on the steering wheel. Waiting. Praying.

. . . Elijah McClain, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Sean Reed, Steven Demarco Taylor, Breonna Taylor, Ariane McCree, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Miles Hall, Oscar Grant, Keith Lamont Scott, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Michael Brown, Dontre Hamilton, Trayvon Martin . . .

What were they thinking and praying?

Tamir Rice should have graduated from high school this month. Trayvon Martin should have been able to pursue his dreams. Breonna Taylor should be serving on the front lines of the corona virus pandemic. Ahmaud Arberry should be jogging his way to a long, healthy life. They should all still be alive.

Christian Cooper should be able to pursue his birdwatching hobby without being threatened by a woman who was flagrantly violating park regulations while she exploited every racist trope available to her to put his life needlessly at risk.

Of course, all lives matter. But in the United States, Black lives clearly don’t matter quite as much. A century after the Civil War, Martin Luther King dreamed that his children would “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

Obviously, that hasn’t happened yet.


This article is part of a continuing series dealing with reports of Greek POWs in Asia Minor in the Thessaloniki newspaper, Makedonia in July 1936.

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