I hadn’t planned on posting this piece until June, when it will be twenty-five and fifteen years since my shopping while Black incidents literally a block apart on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But in light of the Trayvon Martin murder — and that’s what this is, a murder — at the hands of the racist vigilante George Zimmerman more than three weeks ago, it makes sense to do this post now.
Tower Records, Friday afternoon, June 19th, ’87, the day after I graduated from Mount Vernon High School (see more from my “The Day After” post from June ’08). With high school now over, I was in a celebratory mood. I took the 2 train from 241st to 72nd and walked the six short blocks to the great Tower Records on 66th. I had my latest Walkman, my first Sony Walkman, actually, and my book bag with my recent tape investments, including a few I’d bought at Tower Records the previous Friday. Investments like Fleetwood Mac’s Tango In The Night, Genesis’ Invisible Touch, and Glass Tiger (yes, Glass Tiger — absolutely terrible).
I went into the store and began to browse the R&B and Pop/Rock sections for tapes. There I noticed some plastic wrapping on the floor, as if someone had taken a tape out of its case and stolen it. While I thought about the wrapper on the floor, three White security guards came out of nowhere, grabbed me and dragged me to a storage room downstairs.
“We got you for stealing,” one of them said, presumably the store’s head of security.
“You don’t have me for anything. Is this because I’m Black?”
“Well, how do you explain the wrappers we found on the floor and the tapes in your bag?”
“The wrappers were on the floor when I got there and the tapes . . .”
“You’re going to jail, asshole, when we bring the cops in here!”
“First of all, I’m not going anywhere. The tapes are all mine, and some of them I bought in this store last Friday. I have the receipt at home. Don’t you have ways to verify my purchases?”
“We don’t believe you!”
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe me. I’m under eighteen. You can’t hold me or turn me over to police without calling my parents. I’m not even from here, I’m from Westchester County, and my receipts are back home there.”
“If we were outside instead of in here, I’d slap you around, wise-ass!”
“Then I guess I’m the lucky one. Why don’t we check the receipts from your cash registers up front for my purchases from last Friday? I know they’ll show that I’m right and you’re wrong!”
The hotheaded White man who did all of the talking got up and made a threatening slap gesture with the back of his left hand before the other ones grabbed him and told him to calm down. They let me go. On my way out, I said, “I hope you learned that not every Black person coming in your store is a thief!” It would be ten years before I went into Tower Records again (of course, Tower Records went out of business in ’06).
That next time was May 12, ’97, and I had just finished a day-long interview for an assistant professor
position at Teacher College (Columbia University’s school of education). I had no problems as I browsed Tower Records for about twenty minutes. It was my first time there since the ’87 incident. Then I went across the street to the Barnes & Noble mega-store. From the moment I walked in the door until I left a half-hour later, a Latino security guard tailed me as I perused books in the African American nonfiction, Cultural Studies and Music sections of the store, across three floors. As I walked out, I walked up to the guard and said
“While you were stalking me, you probably let half a dozen White folks slip out of here with books and CDs. Did you learn anything while you were watching me?”
“I was just doing my job,” the dumb-ass security guard said in response.
“Well, if following a Black guy around for thirty minutes is part of your job, you deserve to lose your job,” I said as I walked out, not to return until Christmas ’02.
Over the years, I have been stopped by police in Mount Vernon, Pittsburgh, DC and L.A., followed by police in Maryland, Pittsburgh and L.A., patted down by police at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, and followed by more security guards — including ones guarding those precious gated communities — than I’d ever care to count. My only crime was being a Black male in America’s public sphere.
Like so many others, I could’ve easily been Trayvon Martin twenty-five, fifteen and even five years ago. This constant tightrope dance that we must do to make old White ladies and scared White guys and ig’nit Black folks feel comfortable. So that I’m not arrested, or maimed, or killed. So that I can go about the business of being me and making myself and the people in my life better. As Nathan McCall would say, it “makes me wanna holler.”
Short of moving to a nation not built on the imperialism and fear of Black males in particular, all I can do, for better and for worse, is to prepare my son for this very racial America in which we still live. And yes, that makes me angry.