A Lifetime on Parole – Blackness in America

Hands Up, Don't Shoot
Photo Credit Getty

I am one of the good ones. This could never happen to me.

This is the lie I tell myself.

I’ve been on parole my whole life for a crime I committed at birth: being black.

Growing up in a mixed-race household, I was fuzzy on the concept of race. My dad was pink in the sun, my mother a deep brown. My brother could pass for tan, while my own complexion often misidentified me as Latino. In my world, people were different shades; that’s just the way things were.

When Rodney King’s brutal beating at the hands of Los Angeles police officers came to light, I wasn’t even two years old. By the time I was old enough to understand what had happened, my first and only thought was “what had he done?”

I am one of the good ones. That could never happen to me.

This was the lie I reassured myself with.

I was the darker one, but our friends insisted my brother to be the black one. Because he played basketball. Because he dropped the “g” at the end of his “ing”. Because his curls were tighter. It made no sense. How could he be the black one when I was the darker one? It was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that first taught me what it meant to be black.

Carlton, with his preppy clothes and his perfect diction wasn’t really black – Carlton just happened to be black. Jazz, with his uncouth flirtations and his clumsy English and his sagging clothes – Jazz was black.

In Mistaken Identity, one of the early episodes of Fresh Prince, Carlton is pulled over while driving slowly as he searches for a freeway entrance. While Will is quick to realize the racial undertones, Carlton blames his brush with the law on not having had a map. With a map, he reasons, he wouldn’t have been driving slowly, and he wouldn’t have been pulled over. A map is a disguise, a mask that keeps the world from seeing you as black. A map says to the world:

I am one of the good ones. I deserve to be here.

Black Americans learn to carry maps everywhere, as a justification of their presence. For Lanre Akinsiku, a college ID made the perfect “map”. But the true maps are complete personality modulations, subconscious restructurings of every trait that could possibly be seen as threatening. An interest in reading: science-fiction and classical literature alike. Careful, erudite diction. Snappy clothes. Are these my traits, the outward expression of my inner cultivation? Or are they just my own map?

I’ll never get the chance to know, because the map is not for me. I don’t always need to know where I’m going. I’m okay flying by the seat of my pants, driving off the prescribed path, and setting my own road. The map is for the potential threats out there, the George Zimmermans and the Darren Wilsons. The map is for them to say:

This nigger isn’t lost. He knows just where he needs to be. He knows his place.

I am one of the good ones. That could never happen to me.

This was the lie I told myself more and more as I became an adult. When I got the first-class, constant “help” aka surveillance of a store employee. When I drove. When I walked late at night. When a cop passed by. Then the terms of parole tightened nation-wide, and my lie began to unravel.

Trayvon Martin violated his parole by wearing a hoodie late at night, and was shot to death for it.

John Crawford violated his parole when he considered buying a toy gun at Walmart, and was shot to death for it.

I recently violated my own parole when I opted for comfort of a t-shirt and a hoodie as I marched and chanted #HandsUpDontShoot. I was let off with a warning and a dose of pepper spray.

What hurt worst wasn’t the searing physical pain that tapered off in an hour but lingered for days. I wore my corporeal discomfort as a badge of the struggle by black Americans to have their humanity recognized. My ancestors were hosed and set upon by dogs; I was only pepper sprayed. Maybe my children will only be shouted down.

What hurt worst wasn’t even the violation of trust by my government, and the sense of worthlessness I felt for days. That had already been made clear to me by the growing list of unarmed black men killed for no discernible reason. My experience really struck home what black folk had been telling me for my whole life:

That could easily happen to me.

One thing hurt worse than that realization. The one question asked by anybody I shared my story with:

“What did you do?”

As if I was a ticking time bomb of criminality that had finally gone off. As though they somehow expected, against all knowledge of me, that it was only a matter of time before I slipped up, and violated my parole. To her credit, the first friend to ask immediately realized her unintended implications and apologized profusely. The rest of the world seemed oblivious to the idiocy of their question, to the struggles of black Americans to retain even a sliver of their dignity, to the implication – unintended but all too societally relevant – that I was an unrealized criminal waiting to be unleashed.

I’ve been on parole my whole life. But my greatest fear isn’t that I’ll slip up around an officer or a white vigilante and pay the ultimate price. My greatest fear is that if the unthinkable does happen, that’s all I’ll be remembered for. To blacks, I’ll be a helpless innocent who ultimately couldn’t fight the system, and to whites, I’ll be just another criminal who couldn’t keep his parole. There’s no room for me to be remembered as myself, because it’s never been safe for me to live as anything but a criminal.

I am one of the lucky ones. That hasn’t happened to me.

2 Comments on “A Lifetime on Parole – Blackness in America

  1. “What did you do?” would for some just be a way of asking what situation you were in, totally without any assumption that you were doing something wrong.


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