My relationship with my father was “civil,” which frankly was quite a minor miracle, because it could’ve been much worse as he was operating with the psychological handicap of being a vet of the Korean and Vietnam wars. The best way to describe it is that there was a certain melancholy around him that happened before I was born, and there was likely nothing I could’ve done to really make it disappear.
I mention the distant relationship I had with my father because this feature from NPR explained so much of my father’s seemingly odd behaviour when I was growing up.
When my parents moved to Mequon (a predominantly white suburb of Milwaukee), my father took it upon himself to introduce himself to the local police, thinking that if they knew him as a person and not just “some black guy” he wouldn’t be treated for being “black in the wrong place” (and honestly in the late 1970s you couldn’t fault his logic).
His strategy did work, as the one time he was racially profiled by a [nervous and subconsciously bigoted local], he had the police very much on his side, and the accuser rightfully had a lot of proverbial egg on their face.
All that said, growing up, I noticed that my father went out to of his way to avoid being alone in public without either myself, my mother, or preferably both of us. Much like the man in the NPR piece, I think it was because of that “thug” perception. He saw himself as a family man, but was aware (presumably from a traumatic experience) that the perception others would have of him would be considerably different. So my mother & I were his armour. Racism terrified a man who was a Vietnam POV.
And not once did he mention this directly, but he taught me to always carry myself in a somewhat deferential (but still proud) manner as a black man.
And even to this day when I’m in public, I feel a degree of anxiety about someone saying something based solely on my appearance, an appearance that I can’t do anything about. Whether it’s from being black, being gay, being American, I can never relax fully as the only black man in the room.
This seems to be unique to black men, as my mother never displayed or expressed any hesitation about being on her own in public in Mequon. Having grown up in Mequon, I was at ease there (it was my home, after all), but in places that are like it, I find myself getting the nervousness and hesitation that I think my father must’ve had.
Still, I manage to challenge my comfort zone–(If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have ever left Mequon!)–if only because I believe that one day I will feel relaxed as the only one whatever in the room.
My father passed away in 2002, so I have no idea what he would’ve made of the Michael Brown shooting. I can say that from the scant bits of news we get on it here in Australia, that a bit of a chill goes down my spine. I know that no matter what I have done and achieved, I can never override someone’s prejudices that they have in a split second. And that could very well be that second which determines if I live or die.
Below: The view out the window on Christmas morning at the house I grew up in Mequon.