girlz n the hood
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus, “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” He responded, “You must love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” But, the legal expert wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And, who is my neighbor?”
Luke 10: 25-29
Just to be clear: I did nothing wrong. There is nothing illegal or even shady about a car pulling into the tip of a driveway in order to back it up so that the car can head in the right direction. People do this all time. People travel north down narrow, residential streets and realize that they must go south. So, they pull into the tip of the first available driveway in order to back up and turn themselves around. People who are terrible at parking like me might also do this in order to better set themselves up to slide next to the curb and park without having to wrestle the car into submission only to leave an embarrassing, 3 foot diagonal gap between the car and the curb. Or, sometimes a person is dropping off a passenger and needs to turn the car around in order to give the passenger curbside treatment. Everything I just described is normal, everyday driving maneuvers and mannerisms. Nothing about anything that I just described could ever be thought of as weird or shady or suspicious behavior, even if done in the dead of night.
I did nothing wrong. But just to be clear… Let’s review, starting from the top with our neighborhood: I love our neighborhood. I walk and run miles along its sidewalks, nodding my head at the walkers I pass everyday and chugging behind runners that I see day in and day out as they speed by, leaving me trudging in their dust. These are the streets I drive to get to our life—our HEB, our Whole Foods, the Chase bank, Starbucks, Postmark’d, and our Alamo Drafthouse. I love each of these streets with their landscaped botanical borders, their tangles of cul-de-sacs, their hedges and hidden trails, their annual spectacular of bluebonnets, and their gnarled live oaks. We’ve lived in these streets and walked our dogs along these sidewalks everyday for the past four years. We've passed by our neighbors, some with their hands deep into their flower beds, others standing with a hose in hand, still others on the sidewalk beside us pushing new babies in strollers with kiddos tottering behind balancing on training wheels or riding in wagons—all of us smiling and waving as we each blithely pass through our days.
This summer we added one more happy routine to our neighborly living. Ms. C has graciously offered to teach you to bake. So, each Friday morning, we gather up your ingredients and I drive you three minutes away from our home to her house. And because of all the reasons I laid out above—i.e., I always manage to pass up Ms. C’s house and have to back up and turn around; I’m terrible at parking; and, I like giving you curbside treatment—I pull into the tip of the neighbor’s driveway to turn myself around, pull up to the curb in front of Ms. C’s house and watch you enter safely through Ms. C’s door. Then I leave the same way I came, with nothing to see and doing nothing that demands notice.
Yet, this Friday morning as we buckle ourselves into the car, you said with nervous laughter, “Isn’t it funny how twice Ms. C’s neighbor reported you to the neighborhood watch as suspicious?” Stunned and instantly hot mad, I couldn’t calm myself to ease your cautious laugh or will myself to cover up the truth with a blasé, ”Oh that’s so silly. Pay that neighbor no mind.” I shut the car off and sighed to myself saying, “And so, it begins. Right here I pass on the baton of this legacy.”
You are a beautiful, Black, 15 year-old teen who is eager to get your driver’s permit. I want to be eager for you, but lately I’m looking towards that day with a touch of foreboding and uncomfortable dis-ease resting in my belly. I know that driver’s ed will prepare you for what to do when the car suddenly spins out of control on a sheet of slick pavement, and I know it will teach you how to safely cross railroad tracks. But, I know that it will not prepare for the unspoken, unnamed moving violation that can only be described as driving while young and black—a crime punishable by humiliation, harassment and—way too many times—by death. Driver’s ed will not teach you that you will more than likely get pulled over for no reason other than you are Black. Period. It will not tell you that, when it happens, you must be as obedient and as emotionless as a drone, being sure to do everything the officer asks of you exactly how he asks it. It won’t teach you how to reach for your license and registration, keeping both hands visible and without making any sudden moves.
I tell you all of this and you refuse to hear any of it. Who would want to hear some kind of mess like that? I can see in your face that you’re wondering how can this be. You look out your window, clearly pissed and clearly ashamed of my even speaking such a notion out loud. I can hear you preaching to yourself: “Has this crazy lady forgotten who I am? I’m Nadia Jordan Smothers, for goodness sake!” I get it baby. And you’re right - you are Nadia Jordan Smothers for goodness sake. People have been speaking of your greatness since the day they received the news of your conception. For crying out loud, in third grade you took third at the state science fair! And, just yesterday, I witnessed no less than six separate occasions of strangers gawking at you and verbally praising you on your beauty. Every teacher that has ever had you as a student has written that you are “sweet, bright, kind, a pleasure to have in the classroom." Your grandparents on both sides speak of your awesomeness to strangers in grocery stores and at church. You are Nadia and you are all those things. And now I’m telling you that your blackness—the same blackness that I’ve told you a thousand times was absolutely, unequivocally, without comparison capital B-Beautiful—is conspiring against you somehow? “What?” You preach silently to yourself, “Old lady, please. Not today. Not me.”
So, silently, I drive us to Ms. C’s and maneuver our car as usual, pulling into the tip of the neighbor’s driveway in order to turn my car around, only this time I stop and ask you, “Now what about that was suspicious or shady?” You tell me that you don’t want to talk about it. But I press, “No. Look at me.” You oblige with a glare. I continue, “Nothing about anything that I just did was suspicious. I’m driving a car that looks exactly like most every other car around here. It’s 9 in the morning. Anyone can clearly see you getting out of the car and walking into Ms. C’s every friggin’ Friday. The only thing that can possibly be suspicious is my black skin.” But you don’t want to hear any of it because you don’t believe me. You go inside Ms. C’s and bake delicious French macarons.
And why should you believe me? You should be incredulous at the thought of such a thing. We’ve lived in these streets and on these sidewalks for the past four years. The only thing I can honestly say is that I admit, I am a terrible, wonky-as-hell driver. But, I’ll venture that most drivers are. It’s not a crime. In your mind, surely the neighbor had every other reason except the one you can’t accept. You even exclaim, “Mom! She can’t even see into the car. She can’t see that you are black.” I remind you, “You mean she can’t see that we are black.” You relent and sigh, “She can’t see us.” I assure you that of course she can and that our UV tinted windows do not make us invisible. I wish they did.
You still don’t believe me—even today, months later. There’s simply not enough evidence. My sweet girl, there never is enough evidence in any case of racial bias. It’s always circumstantial. If we took this to court, at least a dozen people would testify that the neighbor is kind and serves at her church every Sunday. She would take the stand and remind the jury that she voted for Obama. She might even say, “My best friend is black.” Everything she says will be reasonable and none of it will disprove or prove anything. Because let’s face it, it’s not illegal to be biased. It’s not even illegal to out-and-out hate. There are no moving violations for bigots or racists. She will claim that she only reported me because there had been break-ins in the neighborhood and was only fulfilling her duty as part of the neighborhood watch. But really, my lovely girl, truth be told, she wouldn’t be the one they'd put on the stand. She wouldn’t be the one needing to defend herself. It would be the court vs. Us.
Besides, no harm was done, right? I drove home that day unaware of any call being made. I went on with my day as usual. Except now the truth has been spoken like a life sentence and I feel condemned and ashamed for no good reason. And now whenever I travel along these sidewalks and streets in this neighborhood it no longer feels like it’s mine, and I feel like I’m being watched like a criminal. I’m wondering over the past four years, how many more of my neighbors reported me as ‘suspicious’? What if all those times that I was getting in my morning runs, the occasional police cars that slowly drifted by weren’t coincidences or chance encounters? Will all my years of neighborly walks and friendly waves add up enough to keep me from staring down the barrel of the weapon of a good neighbor who felt threatened because I fit the description of “suspicious” and so “justly” acted? What if, one day, my running looks like fleeing?
Nothing feels the same anymore. The sidewalks are faulty and cracked. The cul-de-sacs feel like traps. The live oaks seem to whisper to the wind all manner of things against me. I’ve stopped waving. For weeks, you and I barely speak and you can barely even stand to look at this truth pulsing through me with my every breath and my every heartbeat that we are black and therefore sometimes for no reason assumed criminal. Our shared Blackness has become a barricade between us. Cautiously, we each bear the weight of our skin, and with every muscle within me I hate Mrs. C’s neighbor. For a few more days, heaven help me! I hate the whole wide world.