It’s a hard world out there for Black people in America. Especially hard for Black men. When a Black man gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror as he grooms his face, teeth, and hair, he does not know if the executioner will carry out the unspoken death warrant on his life that day.
It is not easy to muster up the strength to walk out the door at the beginning of a new day, even before COVID-2019 arrived in the fall of 2019. The horrors inflicted on Black men in the full light of any given day on any given street in any given park in America sadden my soul.
Early in life, I learned that just because my skin was black, I had an extra burden to carry. I was told this one spring morning in 1956 in the building pictured above. That day my maternal grandmother, with tears in her eyes, explained the cruel reality of Jim Crow to me. This lesson on the nature of the ethos of white supremacy was so unfathomable to my five-year-old brain that I remember Granny’s words and the place she uttered them 63 years later. You could say, that moment in time seared into my mind forever.
“White folks will kill you baby if you get out of your place. I don’t mean to yell at you, but Mamma just wants you safe. You can’t go behind the counter where that cash register is,” she cried.
“But Mamma, I was just playing with the little boy, and the truck got away, and he ran back there to catch the truck, and I ran back there too,” I said.
“I know, baby, but he is white. He can go back there behind that counter. You’re Black, baby, you can’t do and go where white folks can,” she said, trying to make me understand the world according to white folks with a god complex.
On February 1, 2020, I drove down to my ancestral hometown, pulled up in the town square, and took this picture. The general store is now an office building. In the first half of the 20th century, this is where the farmers, both Black and white, went to purchase their farming supplies and groceries they did not grow or raise.
I watched my maternal grandfather interact with white people. He was a quiet, no-nonsense man who kept his shotgun at the ready above his bed. He did not shuffle, jive, or kowtow. If a situation became stressful, Granny would stand behind him, wringing her hands with obvious worry on her face.
At the time, I did not understand this juxtaposition between my grandparents’ body language when in the presence of white people. I now realize that Granny was fearful that my grandad’s posture did not show the proper deference to white men and that it could lead to a violent attack. No racial harm ever came to him. In the early 1940s, he had taken a pitchfork to a white laborer he had employed. The laborer claimed grandad had cheated him out of his wages. The word traveled fast; Charlie was not just a Black man; he was a man.
In 1960, he retired, sold the farm and moved into the city where he seldom came into contact with white people. For the next 20 years, he would travel once a month the 25 miles or so back to Crawford County, Georgia, and trade with the proprietor of this general store. I would often drive him back and roam the four corners of that store as a young Black man, who by this time had read Baldwin, Hughes, Wright, Killens, King, Carmichael, and X.
While the contours and content of this building have changed, the lesson that Granny taught that day about the need white people have to project what they perceive as their supremacy has not changed.
During much of the last half of the 1950s, Granny always said she did not want me to end up like Emmit Till. She taught to be on good behavior when around white people so as not to give them a cause to turn violent against you.
Events in recent days continue to prove that Granny’s concerns were well-founded. Amy Cooper’s parents were not alive when Granny gave me that speech in the old Bankston General Store back in 1956. Amy instinctively knew that if she sounded like a white damsel in distress, especially distress caused by a Black man, the police would come running, guns blazing, questions asked later.
Fortunately, for the young Black man who encountered Amy, the police did not respond right away. He is alive today with a video that shows how the privilege of white superiority has played out since 1619, specifically for white women who have falsely accused Black men down through the ages.
Amy Cooper knew that a Black man walks around with a death sentence on his life as a matter of course; and if she had to kill a Black man to allow her to walk her dog unleashed in a park in peace, well then, she was willing to have a Black man killed by those paid to protect and serve white women against Black men.
What self-respecting white person would object to that?
Then in the same week, a Minnesota police officer places his knee on the neck of a subdued Black man, George Floyd. His alleged crime, passing a bad check, which in the criminal scheme of things, is a petty white-collar crime. If convicted, the maximum punishment is something much less than death.
But the operative word here is not the crime; it is that Floyd was a Black man and a Black man, according to white people with a god complex, must of necessity be killed at every opportunity. The justification for executing a Black man who comes into contact with law enforcement is above reproach. Every white cop in America knows this to be accurate and acts on it without compulsion.
Why would a self-respecting white person object to killing a Black thief?
While Floyd cries out that he can not breathe and that his stomach and neck hurt, the officer continues to apply maximum force with his knee bringing all of his weight to bear on Floyd’s neck, minute by minute chocking off the air to his lungs, until Floyd gave up the holy ghost in front of the whole world.
While Floyd, under the control of a hateful white man, struggles to live to fight his case in court, other white police officers, some white men, and some white women look on and watch the denial of oxygen to Floyd. They are not trying to bring Floyd under control; there is no need for that as he is under control, so the other officers let the racist cop act out his misguided belief that the only good Black man is a dead Black man.
Now down in Brunswick, Georgia, it’s the same story, two white men with ties to law enforcement in the local community hunt down a Black man jogging in a predominately white subdivision and shoot him to death. The two white guys claim they suspected Ahmoud Arbery of trespassing on a construction site in the community.
If you say a Black man was on a vacant construction site is out for no good, what self-respecting white person in their right mind will disagree with you?
Here again, a crime if proven, merits much less than the death penalty. Yet once more, this case points out how whites operating under a god complex, escalate encounters with Black men as Amy Cooper did in New York.
This racial ethos that whites operate under doesn’t care if you live in the north or south. It doesn’t care if you are a frontline worker during the pandemic or a bird watcher. The principal is the same, point the finger at a Black man, set back and watch the authorities shoot or strangle him until he is no more a part of this reality. This default to racial hatred is the way it has always been, and if not checked by good white people, this is the way it will always be.
The right place for white people to start is with your grandchildren. Tell them a different story than the story of the white superiority complex that my grandmom told me white people had when I was five years old. I guess I could be politically correct and say white privilege, but that is putting sugar on the coat. Let’s just call the white superiority complex — the root of the problem — what it is, a white superiority complex. Tell the grandchildren stories of the vast majority of Black people who do remarkable things day in and day out without fanfare. Teach them to love and respect the diverse complexions of people on the planet.
Trust me; those stories will stay with them a lifetime and bring them much joy and happiness. The alternative, Black men with guns who are authorized by law to make a citizen arrest, whenever they encounter a police officer or anyone unlawfully abusing Black people, is too gruesome to fathom.
Harold Michael Harvey is the author of Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is a Past President of the Gate City Bar Association. He is the recipient of Gate City’s R. E. Thomas Civil Rights Award, which he received for his pro bono representation of Black college students arrested during Freaknik celebrations in the mid to late 1990s. An avid public speaker, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.