Walking softly while black

February 19th, 2016

Samuel L. Jackson, the world-famous actor, told a very poignant story in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. It ended with him facedown in the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Jackson said that while filming the Quentin Tarantino movie "Pulp Fiction," he had a six-week break during which he took a role in a play. One night after the performance, he and some friends went out to dinner. After eating, they left the restaurant, stood out on the street and talked.

Five law enforcement vehicles pulled up. Officers got out, pointed guns at them and ordered them to get on the ground.

Jackson and his friends, guilty of nothing, did as they were told. He wasn’t a bona fide star yet — he described himself as “on the verge of breaking through” — so the officers apparently didn’t recognize him. Jackson said he asked one of them why they had done this.

“Oh, we got a report of five black guys standing on the corner with guns and bats,” the officer replied. 

Jackson and his friends didn’t have any bats or guns. Yet they had been forced to lay facedown on the street like criminals.

That encounter with the police happened over 20 years ago but Jackson said that he still “walks softly” in L.A. because of that night. Is he paranoid? Crazy? Hypersensitive? As a black man, I don’t think so. I suspect most of us “walk softly” in our own ways in the communities where we live.

We’ve seen Eric Garner get choked to death for not being compliant enough when officers confronted him for illegally selling cigarettes in New York. We’ve seen Walter Scott shot in the back for running away from a traffic stop because he owed child support. We’ve seen Laquan McDonald shot to death in Chicago for — well, we still don’t know why since he wasn’t a threat to the officers who confronted him.

These men were killed for minor offenses when their punishment should have been being taken into custody.

I don’t believe many of our white friends understand the burden of walking softly while black. Perhaps because they’ve come to know us as neighbors, co-workers, church members, maybe even family members.

And they, whether by nature or nurture, see us as Dr. Martin Luther King taught: by the content of our character, not the color of our skin; as real people, not media-hyped stereotypes.

So they assume that their experience is ours. It may never occur to them that no matter what neighborhood we live in or what our job title is, we live in two worlds at once — and one of those worlds is fraught with dangers most of them will never face.    

Still, there are blessings in these relationships that cross the artificial line of race. One is that it allows us to learn from and share with each other. It also gives us the opportunity to oppose and push back against bigotry together.

We won’t all do this the same way. Some will do it the way one white stranger did for me in a San Diego grocery line, offering to pay for a purchase when she thought I was short of money. Others will do it more dramatically as Jackson did, revealing painful, private moments to share important truths.

In these moments, we see the best of humanity — charity, courage, truth-telling. Perhaps we’re even catching glimpses of God.

But some of us will still have to walk softly. Because everyone ain’t there yet.

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