You wanna know a secret? Whenever I get stressed, I work. I work a lot. As a soldier during the first Gulf War, I volunteered to literally burn shit in huge drums of kerosene because it was the only duty that I could do that would allow me the freedom and time to ease the stresses on my brain. I am sitting now, after a day of running, mowing the yard, fixing the mower, and cooking dinner. All this was done to avoid having to think about what was going on in Minneapolis and the rest of the country. You wanna know another secret? I was a choir boy growing up in Brooklyn, New York, literally and figuratively so. I was that kid that every mother loved; the kind she openly wanted her son to be: kind, compassionate, brilliant student and athlete, and a real nerd for history, arts and culture. I never smoked, never drank and never got in trouble for anything. I was a dope ass kid. Not everyone liked me and for that.
I had to learn to run.
This morning as I was getting dressed, preparing to head out to the nearby trails, my 14-year-old daughter followed me around and asked why I couldn’t exercise in the backyard. This was unusual because she never really expressed any interest in my workout habits. I was fully prepared to ignore her but then she started crying — I mean, really crying. She blurted out that she was terrified of me going out because she thought I could be in serious danger, what with the prevailing mood in the country. Her fears shook me to my very core, and in that moment, I resented everything about this country for making me have to comfort my daughter in this way.
From what I remember, 14 is a time of budding rebellion from the chains of parental control. A time of discovering a way past your own awkward interpretation of self into a world of teenage angst, new awakenings and what pretends to be love. So I am angry that she is not afforded that opportunity, and it is not like my wife and I haven’t tried to shelter her from the ugliness of the world. We have worked really hard at it but despite our best efforts, we keep falling short. We fell short when we could not protect her from being called a monkey in school, or being told by a middle school classmate on the school bus that his grandfather would have owned her grandfather. We fell short when we could not prevent her from the “Nigger Whispers”, which is apparently something that white middle schoolers do when they want you to hear their contempt for your presence, but can still feign ignorance and pretend that they were addressing someone else when challenged. We fell short when we couldn’t prevent her from hearing the sick jokes like “What do Black people and apples have in common?” The middle school answer: “They both look good hanging on trees.” I hate that my daughter is being forced to grow up too quickly and that she has to defend her existence every single second of the day. I resent being powerless to stop what is already here, and the troubles yet to come.
I left the house this morning in full agreement with my wife and daughter that I would check in every half hour or so, if only to ease their minds. After all, running outdoors is quite a new thing for me. The pandemic has meant that I can no longer go to the gym and the virus of eating every time I walk pass the refrigerator means that I need to get up and get active. So off I go, I run….
I ran from the IHOP on Ralph and Avenue K in Brooklyn, where I worked every single summer night in high school, because not running would mean a serious beat down from the idle white boys who sat outside the pizza shop waiting on me to pass on my way home. I would sprint 30 minutes nonstop from there to Kings Plaza Shopping Center dodging bottles, garbage cans, baseball bats and a torrential downfall of “Nigger this and Nigger that” just to make it home safely. And then, I would immediately worry about having to navigate those same streets again the next day. This was a year or two before Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year-old Black teen, who inquired about a used car, and was chased and murdered by a white mob in Bensonhurst. Already, my mother had warned me about going alone into Canarsie, Brighton Beach, Bay Ridge and Sheepshead Bay, but somehow, she forgot to mention Ralph and K.
Every night they would wait for me and every time I escaped, they seemed to grow angrier. Rain and thunderstorms were my salvation because when the rain fell, they wouldn’t be out then. Those nights were comforting. I could afford to rest easy with my own thoughts about school, soccer, and which girl I wanted to ask out. The hot summer nights were the worst because they would gather by the legions then, and those nights, I had to run. In fact, I quit the night after they almost caught me. That day at work, I was wrecked by migraines and simply had no energy left when I clocked out at 10pm to head home. As usual, my “friends” were waiting for me, but this time, they were spread out across two blocks in small groups, instead of congregating in front of the pizza shop as normal. I was terrified but immediately a sense of survival kicked in, and I began to survey the scene in front of me. Making a quick decision, I started running towards the largest group of boy, and at the last moment, dodging between two passing cars, I narrowly escaped getting hit and sprinted down the middle of the street. In the din of it, one of them screamed, “catch the nigger”, but there was no catching me that night. As the boys closed in from behind, I remember seeing the faces of the adults flashing by as they sat on their front steps, enjoying the nighttime breeze and Yankees baseball commentary. I remember them laughing when one of the boys got close enough to graze me with a punch on the side of my head. I remember running full speed at the group that was closing in from the front and lowering my shoulder to break through. God must have been with me that night because just as I was about to turn the corner to Kings Plaza, I was praying that a bus would be there. Fortunately, there it was, but as it was late, the driver decided to pull off a few minutes early, so I had to run a few extra blocks to catch it at the red light. Just as I arrived the light turned green, frantically I slapped the side of the bus hoping to get the driver’s attention, and thankfully, he slowed up enough, without completely stopping, allowing me to hop on. That was my last night at IHOP, but it was not my last time running.
Senior year, I am working the closing shift at the KFC on Kings Highway and Ocean Parkway, still in Brooklyn. It was right across the street from Cinema Kings, the seediest, most grimy movie theater that ever existed, deep in white boy territory, and yeah, I had to run again. Funny thing is, the same boys would show up in the restaurant during the day and they would be the most well manner people that one would ever hope to meet, but at night, the freaks would come out. These fuckers were vicious. Bigger too. Myself and the other young Black kids who worked there used to flag down passing patrol cars and the cops would flat out tell us that they couldn’t help us. Some nights, we would pool money to get a taxi to go two or three train stations down, just to avoid the white boys. As I was the odd man out who lived in the opposite direction in Coney Island, I had to run a lot more. I ran down busy streets; down train tracks, grabbed on the back of buses, I did whatever it took to survive, until I couldn’t take it anymore and quit.
I should have run at Albee Square Mall in downtown Brooklyn when a group of white cops started beating a Black vendor on the street for peddling goods without a license. The law stated then that the goods should have been confiscated and a summons issued, but since the law didn’t apparently apply to Black people, the cops started beating the young man without mercy. As a crowd gathered, my brother and I said loudly that the cops were in violation. Before we knew it, we too were being beaten. After that, we were dragged across the street to a paddy wagon, had hoods placed over our heads and repeatedly punched. The handcuffs were also applied so tightly that we started losing feeling in our fingers and wrists, and the verbal and physical abuse continued for several hours before we were finally released and issued a citation to reappear in court for resisting arrest.
I should have run when I walked out of a friend’s church’s choir practice (with Bible in hands) and less than 30 seconds later, was spread-eagled over the hood of a squad car with guns drawn for fitting the description of some “Magical Negro”, who commits a crime, goes to church, sings in the choir and comes out meticulously dressed in white with the Good Book in his hands.
My friends and I should have run when the Coney Island police would stop by our flag football games in the park near our house, force us into their cars and make us stand in mandatory criminal lineups for some victim or the other to point in our direction, and all the time we would say silent prayers to which ever God felt like answering to not let it be us.
My two younger brothers should have run when at 11 and 9 they were arrested for rape. That’s right, rape! It’s funny now because, as the eldest and the one who knew them best, I am quite certain that those two hadn’t even discovered how to pleasure themselves just yet, much less to rape someone. But again, they fit the “Magical Negro” description, but then again, they didn’t. The suspects were two Black males and that was about all they had in common. In less than five minutes, the entire neighborhood rallied and made such a racket at the police station that the cops had no choice but to release my brothers Even after the accused admitted to lying, my brothers still had to deal with pending charges of resisting arrest.
It’s easy to see that my interaction with the police has never been a great one, and I was the quintessential good kid. It was not a relationship built on reciprocal trust and respect. It has always been adversarial. It is a relationship of contempt and anger, and that anger subsides, only to rear itself again when Black people are murdered in the street, and in their homes, their cars, the parks, and department stores, and their murderers continue to get away. It is difficult I imagine for my white colleagues to understand how we (Black people) are often approached by the police. There are no pleasantries exchanged, no small talk, no conversation, only fear, contempt, an assumption of guilt, and hands on guns. They reek of fear because after all, myself and many others like me represents a clear and present danger. I hear it all the time about how intimidating and scary I am. How unapproachable…how terrifying I seem. I know now there is a vast disconnect between how white people generally see me and how I see myself. They want me to laugh to make them comfortable because their idea of me terrifies them more than the reality.
The truth is I care about people, all people. I could not be a coach and be otherwise. I am compassionate to a fault, empathetic and hate to see anyone, regardless of race, gender, or creed, being taken advantage of. Credit to my parents for raising me so. I am a lover of music, culture, great books, and wine, even though I am likely to sip on the same glass for an entire night. I have close friends in Ghana and South Africa, and in Mexico, and in the Arab quarter in Granada. Some of my best friends are Romani who dance flamenco in the hills and caves of Andalusia, and others are Rastafarians, deep in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. Many of my closest colleagues in coaching are Croatian and Hungarian. I’ve had lovers in Turkey, Germany and Colombia — please don’t tell my wife — but how is that they can all see my complex nuances, my many faces, but here at home, I am vilified?
The one thing that the murder of George Floyd brings to the forefront is that we may yet find a cure for Covid-19, but the vaccine for racism, some 500 years later, proves unattainable. I had to shield my daughter’s innocence when Sandra Bland was murdered, and Tamir Rice, and Ahmaud Arbery, and now George Floyd. As a combat veteran, who has seen the ravages of death up close, I still cannot bring myself to watch the video, and try as I may to prevent my daughter from watching it, I know that it is an impossible battle to win. The little that I have seen of it remains etched in my brain and truthfully, it haunts my sleep. It robs, steals and destroys my energy, and it burdens me with worries. I worry about my children, my cousins, my nieces and nephews. I worry that their youthful naivety is being ripped away and hate that they must live in an unforgiven and callous adult world. I worry that the world will not offer them the benefit of doubt and unlike their white peers, they cannot sit back and think about lake cottages and summer vacations. Our living is not easy, so this morning, after all these bloody years, I had to run again.
I have to pretend to be okay and not say anything controversial. And while running, I have to be careful to not make anyone feel threatened or frightened by my presence. I have learned to manufacture coughs and make arbitrary noises with every step, so the white ladies on the trail are not startled when I am near. I have to make sure to run at midday when the sun is hot and a lot of people are on the trail because my wife has reminded me that I can be a suspect for anything that happens early in the morning, or late at night because every Black man fits that Magical Negro description. I am almost 50 years old but may seriously have to consider the offer from a wonderful friend (who happens to be white) to be my running chaperone. I am tired though. And I am weary. I no longer have the energy to entertain the foolishness. Just this fall while on a preseason bonding trip on Crystal River with my team, an older white woman saw fit to block my canoe from passing, requesting to see my passport. Her son and husband had to talk her down but this is one of many situations where I’ve had to manage my anger, manage my response, and truthfully, I cannot do it anymore.
I am angry about the silence from so many — angry that they would be more upset if a dog or cat was killed but not George Floyd. I am angry because so many people continue to offer so many bullshit excuses instead of declaring on principle that what happened to George Floyd was wrong. No human being deserve that treatment. If Dylan Roof can walk into a church, kill nine people and be offered a meal and empathy, why not George? I am angry because I know that George could easily be me, and no matter how calm and reasoned I am, there is no telling how I would choose to react to someone who is hell bent on killing me. If it could be me, would the people who know me would still choose to remain silent? I am not certain of that, what I am certain of is that I am done running.
Lumumba Shabazz is the current Head Coach of the Men’s Soccer Team at Kalamazoo College, MI. Prior to his coaching career, he spent several years as an actor and spoken word performance artist, appearing in productions across the U.S. and in Europe.