Eric Garner and Me

By Clifford ThompsonMarch 13, 2015

Eric Garner and Me

PLEASE PERMIT ME a crude analogy. The fall of 2014 was like an unforeseen rainstorm, a cracking open of a heretofore cloudless sky of the kind that used to occur on bad sitcoms of years gone by: everyone who was caught unprepared — i.e., everyone — scrambled for the nearest cover, these people heading to that awning, those people to another. The rain, in this analogy, is the non-indictment of the police officers who choked Eric Garner to death, as shown on the videotape seen by the entire world — this, close on the heels of the non-indictment of the police officer who shot Michael Brown to death, and 16 months after the non-conviction of the self-appointed public guardian who shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The awnings, in this analogy, are our ready-made opinions about it all. From the crowd under one awning: This is the kind of justice blacks can expect in a white society, which is no justice at all. From the other side of the street: The so-called victims must have been doing something wrong.

And then there were those of us, few at first glance, caught in the middle of the street. I am not merely trying to seem different or special, like the kid who answers “Present” instead of “Here” when the teacher takes attendance. And I don’t mean to suggest that I was neutral in the debate. In fact, I was one of those shutting down traffic on Broadway in New York while chanting, in an echo of Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe!” But to stretch this analogy possibly further than it will go, I went out to protest in the falling rain, the squall blinding me to what I had long believed, perhaps blinding me to the existence of others who, just maybe, were getting drenched along with me.

I am black. The unpunished killings of men with skin like mine got me angry enough to voice an unequivocal statement — This must stop! — of the kind I seldom seem able to make. I lack ideological cover. For many, that cover is merely being black; for many, blackness, like a press secretary, determines their responses to life and events, externally if not internally. My own press secretary has long cowered under his desk, driven there by others’ anger at his words, by his own lack of faith in what he says, by his occasional struggle even to form a statement, by new information that would make that statement obsolete.

I am mixing metaphors, usually a sign of confusion, of a need to simplify, step back, breathe deeply, start at the beginning.

The beginning is the family I was born into 52 years ago now, becoming its seventh member, joining my parents, three (much) older siblings, and my maternal grandmother in an entirely black, lower-middle-class/working-poor neighborhood of Washington, DC. Everyone can complain about his childhood, but I have no more complaints than anyone else, and fewer than most. I was cared for, loved. I was raised, though not purposely, to see the world in neutral terms. Our small, semidetached red-brick house did not have an abundance of space (for years I slept in a room with three other people), but we had a basement and a backyard, where the view of a housing project, in which my friends lived, reminded me that I was not actually poor. It’s not that I thought I was rich; rich was what you saw on TV. But seeing that most of the TV-rich were white did not lead me to any conclusions, since not all of the TV whites were rich, and, hell, the black family on The Jeffersons had their own maid. Maybe the twin pillars of the neutrality with which I viewed the world were the things missing from my little corner of it: (1) discussion of white people — my family simply never talked about them; and (2) white people themselves. In those formative years, I had no scarring experiences, in fact very few experiences of any kind, with whites — unless you count my being told, by classmates, that I talked like one. I knew, of course, about slavery — everyone knew about slavery — but I also knew, or at least sensed, that a new day had come. There were still racists, of course, but racism as the law of the land had ended. Maybe, once, most white people had been evil. But that was over. The clock had been reset.

And so, in the early 1980s — in this new era for which Martin Luther King Jr. had died — when I went away to a rather prestigious, mostly white college in the cornfields of Ohio (the reward for my nerdy, studious ways), a surprise awaited me, though it wasn’t white racism. Instead, when a black student circulated a pamphlet about the need to address the prejudice and discrimination we blacks suffered, I honestly did not know what he was talking about. I felt like I had landed in a 3-D movie house where I alone was without glasses. Weren’t we all allowed to enroll in the same classes, live in the same dorms? Any segregation, it seemed to me, was voluntary: in the cafeteria, black students tended to eat together, and many if not most of them lived in African Heritage House, a dorm I had seen listed as I filled out housing forms but had not chosen. That decision did not reflect any disdain; I simply didn’t see the need. I was proud of my heritage — as an elementary school student I had turned in unassigned reports based on entries in my Afro-American history book — but my pride did not require a whole dorm. So I was assigned to a residence where (another surprise) I turned out to be the only black male. Not that it bothered me, not particularly. I befriended some of the whites around me; I dated one (for far too long), and then, later, another. Ironically, it was after moving into a different dorm my sophomore year, and making a couple of black friends, that I learned how much contempt a lot of black students had for me. And that’s when the philosophy my family had implicitly passed on to me hardened into a creed, an emotional armor: I would judge people as individuals, if I had to judge them at all. I would befriend, date, marry whomever I wanted. If you didn’t like it, to hell with you.

Let us fast-forward to 2014, when I found myself somehow no longer in my college years but deep in that hazily defined period called middle age. I have two daughters, one newly grown, one nearly so. My wife is white. So is, for the most part, the Brooklyn neighborhood where I have lived for longer than two decades. Over the years, as I’ve gotten farther physically from the black community (wherever that is), I’ve come to understand more about what plagues it. There was never a movie-style “Aha!” moment; more a piecemeal gathering of information, a gradual putting-together of a puzzle with a few areas still to be filled in. (I am always suspicious of those who see the puzzle as child’s play.) I’ve learned some things just by walking around with brown skin — getting followed out of stores, having someone call the police after seeing me leave my own residence. I’ve learned other things studying history over three decades, such as the Southern practice of convict leasing, or arresting men essentially for the crime of being black and then hiring them out as (unpaid) prison labor until they died, a system that extended slavery, in all but name, into the 20th century; incidents including the epidemic of lynching and the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which whites burned the nation’s wealthiest black community to the ground; and the exclusion of blacks, during the post–World War II boom, from housing loans of the kind that allowed whites to accumulate and pass on property and wealth, which contributes to disparities to this day. All of it adds up to a more detailed version of what I already knew about, what everyone knows about: the terrible abuse blacks have faced in America, and — allow me to drop the past-perfect tense — continue to face, from harsher prison sentencing, to the placing of toxic waste near poor (i.e., black and Hispanic) neighborhoods, to the congressional stonewalling of the country’s first black president, to things that, no doubt, we aren’t even aware of.

And yet what other country do we have? Most of us, for all the kente cloth we like to wear, have never been to Africa. While learning more about blacks’ often miserable experience in these United States, I have learned more, too, about what we’ve accomplished in spite of it all, which includes giving this nation its sound as well as large parts of its culture. The pride I felt even as a boy reading his Afro-American history book has only grown, and I cannot feel that the black American story has been a wholly bad one. Through it all — my marriage attests to this — I’ve maintained my faith, above all else, in assessing people for who they are, not what they look like. It is, simply, the right thing to do.

Oh, I get angry. Sometimes I talk to other blacks who seem to think — they never come out and say so, but I can tell — that I just don’t get it, “it” being the hard kernel at the center of things, the undeniable, fundamental unfairness of our situation, the one proper starting point for any discussion of race; if I did get it, I would feel the other “it,” the anger that is like an unscratchable itch, one as difficult to put into words as the effect of a child’s death, one that a nonblack person will never understand. Oh, but I get “it.” I get the feeling that comes with living in a place where so many in the dominant group, if not purposely or consciously racist, don’t seem to have a clue. I get it when a nonblack person asks me what it was like to grow up in an entirely black neighborhood, the implication being that I was raised by monkeys or wolves; I get it when someone wants to know whether my hair would be straight, i.e., normal, if I combed it out. I get why a lot of black people feel that life’s too short to expose yourself to this crap and that it’s easier to simply avoid white people whenever possible.

What I don’t get, and never have, is why I’m supposed to feel that way. I once read a quote from a black person about Clarence Thomas, a quote that I don’t have in front of me but that was very close to, “The fact that he gets in bed with a white woman every night tells me all I need to know about him.” I want to make it clear that I am no fan of Clarence Thomas, but his sins, to my mind, do not include getting in bed every night with a white woman — or else, obviously, I am a sinner, too. What might this sin of Clarence Thomas and Clifford Thompson be? Thinking so little of ourselves as black men — and, by extension, thinking so little of other blacks — that we share a bed with a representative of the oppressor? This logic holds only if you consider one person of a given skin color to be as good as another, i.e., if you consider any white person a stand-in for all racist whites, which is the opposite of the creed I adopted in my youth. And this old creed of mine has taken a beating over the years, but it has never given out or — at least before 2014 — even threatened to. For every white person who has asked me an idiotic question like those mentioned above, there has been another who has listened to my problems, who has shared his or her own, who has laughed and joked with me, who has, simply put, loved me. (And black friends have done the same.) Is part of what they love the idea of having a black friend? You’d have to ask them, but assume for a moment that the answer is yes, and consider that in some integrated situations, blacks have approached me in friendship for the same reason. There are nonblacks I can’t stand the sight of, and there are blacks I love, and the reverse is also true. It is that simple.

Well, nearly. There are those depressing moments when it seems there is a black way of looking at things and a white way of looking at things and never the twain shall meet. One day several years ago I was on a fairly crowded Brooklyn-bound subway train whose passengers included a white mother and her inconsolable toddler. What the little girl needed consoling over was not clear, unless it was that her mother — if their display was at all representative — was incapable of impressing on this child that nothing was actually wrong and that therefore the child should, for others’ sake if not her own, relax and stop her damn shrieking. Then a man sitting near the two began playing his acoustic guitar and singing to the child, who, surprised into forgetting she was supposed to be upset, stopped her racket and actually smiled. I watched the other whites on the train smile too, as they gazed at one another in shared appreciation of the moment; and then my eyes met those of a black woman, and we shook our heads, registering the same thought: This child is being taught to whine with dissatisfaction until she gets her way or the next shiny thing comes along, and we are watching it happen. And in our exchange was an unspoken judgment on the ways of white folks.

Whites, of course, have their judgments on the ways of black folks, too. Often these judgments are wrong. Much of what ails blacks is not our fault. Blacks are at an economic disadvantage in this country for reasons including some I’ve already mentioned, and this puts us at an educational disadvantage: poor neighborhoods do not have the tax base for well-funded public schools and do not have parents contributing extra educational resources, the way, say, Park Slope does, and this educational disadvantage only reinforces the economic one. And blacks are, there is no denying it, victims of discrimination — conscious or unconscious — in myriad areas of life, from housing to criminal justice to employment. Also true: we do not always help ourselves. Two-thirds of births among black women are out-of-wedlock, compared with one-quarter for white women, and according to the research organization Child Trends, “Among Hispanic and white women, 68 percent of all nonmarital births [occur] within cohabiting unions, compared with only 35 and 45 percent, respectively, among black and Asian women.” I have nothing but respect and admiration for black single mothers — and there are a lot of them — who work two jobs to try to hold their families together; I feel a bit differently toward black men who bring children into the world and can’t be bothered to raise them, who populate poor neighborhoods with children whose role models are out on the corner. Am I airing dirty laundry? To paraphrase the now-despised Bill Cosby, our dirty laundry gets out every weekday at 2:45. Am I blaming the victim? Yes, I am, because the truth — not a black or white but a human truth, as timeless as it is unfair — is that the sympathy people feel toward victims turns to contempt when those victims appear to be contributing, to whatever degree, to their own problems. No less a black symbol than Louis Farrakhan called, some twenty years ago, for black men to atone — his word — for their failures in their own communities; no less a civil rights icon than Jesse Jackson admitted years ago, with regard to black crime, that he was weary of hearing footsteps behind him outside at night and being relieved on discovering that they belonged to a white person.

(That said, a small, irrational part of me — let’s call him Eldridge — knowing how much whites fear strange black men, thinks: Good. That is the price you pay for everything else.)

Where does all this leave us? I can say only where it leaves me: with a finger to point at everyone, I point it with total conviction at no one; unable to fit the crowns of guilt or innocence securely on the head of any whole race, I am back where I started at the age of 19, judging people — I say it once more — as individuals. I was back there, at any rate, until the events of 2014.

Twenty-twelve and 2013 had been horrific enough, with young Trayvon Martin followed because he was black and wearing a hoodie and then shot to death by a man who then went free. As outrageous as Martin’s death was, there was some small uncertainty as to what took place between him and George Zimmerman in that land of Stand Your Ground, and even the event at the center of the 2014 Ferguson episode, for all of the ugliness surrounding it, was not entirely clear. Uncertainty, though, was entirely — and painfully — absent in the video showing Eric Garner’s death, for which, once again, no one was punished. It was less that incident than what it demonstrated — the blatant lack of justice for black Americans in matters involving the police and the courts — that made me question the way I had operated in the world all these years. Was my credo — my overriding concern for treating people as individuals, in a society tilted against people who looked like me — the mark of a fool? Was it the equivalent of saying “Come on, guys, play nice” in the middle of a war? Or would the abandonment of my core principles in the face of doubt have meant that I lacked integrity?

“Integrity,” of course, and ironically, is the state achieved by the process of integration, or forming an undivided whole, and from that point of view, I was not in danger of losing my integrity, since I’d never had any. Undivided? Me, the man who never encountered an issue of which he could not see at least two sides? Even in the face of the blatant horror that was Eric Garner’s killing, I had conflicting thoughts — not about the sheer wrong of the police response to a man helplessly repeating “I can’t breathe” while his head is pressed to the pavement, but about my own response. I felt something like horror at myself, living as possibly the least upscale member of an increasingly upscale, increasingly white community, basking in my superiority to those ever-engaged in making their petty racial distinctions — this, while the Eric Garners of our nation were being taken from their families and neighborhoods to prison or the grave, largely if not entirely because they were black. I am friends on Facebook with a young black woman I barely know, whose posts suggest that she has spent as large a proportion of her life around whites as I have: in the thick of the events of 2014, one of her posts read simply, “I love you, black people.” I understood, oh, I understood perfectly, the feeling behind that post. I had a similar impulse — to run with my arms outstretched to a black neighborhood, shouting, “I’m sorry! Take me back!” A number of things prevented my doing that, however, of which a couple are relevant here.

First: sorry for what, when we get right down to it? For having deprived the black community of my (nonexistent) wealth? For having denied my people my gifts? (The one day I spent teaching classes in an inner-city neighborhood convinced me, as if I had needed convincing, that that is not where my talents lie.) For having withheld my preternaturally desirable self and the fruits of my grade-A gene pool from a black woman? (Which woman? Or is there, somewhere, one who embodies all black women, a kind of sub-Christ? What’s Her email address?) I love you, black people. And, actually, I do, in a sense of loving: I love the way, in the face of everything, understanding what we understand, exchanging a knowing glance here and there, we carry on with our lives; I love that in any field of endeavor you care to name, you can find at least one of us, his or her presence representing an improbable journey; I love the selflessness with which so many of us care for each other. But that kind of love is distinct from its in-the-flesh counterpart. I cannot claim to love black people, for the simple reason that I will never meet the vast majority. I love some black people, just as there are some white people I love. All of which left me, once again, where I started, older but no wiser, if anything more confused than before.

My wife, watching me brood, suggested that I participate in a rally that was about to take place in Manhattan; it would help, she said, to be around like-minded people. I wasn’t sure there was another mind like mine out there — if so, God help the person it belonged to — but I took her advice anyway. She was not able to go to the first rally I attended, which got underway near City Hall as the sun was going down, but there was no shortage of people in the park, black and white and Asian and Latino, shouting slogans into the chilly air — “Black lives matter,” “No justice, no peace, no racist police” — in preparation to marching up the middle of Broadway, making the cars and buses go around us. But at another rally, on a late morning in Union Square, where it was colder but sunnier as we took to the streets, my wife joined me. Our voices were two among thousands, indistinguishable but adding to the roar — fittingly, since, as I finally, finally understood, none of this was about my little life. And yet it confirmed for me the rightness of what I had always believed, as people of every shade came together, their color less important than their desire to see the right thing done.


Clifford Thompson received a Whiting Writer's Award in 2013 for his book Love for Sale and Other Essays. His memoir, Twin of Blackness, will be published in July.

LARB Contributor

Clifford Thompson is the author of Twin of Blackness: A Memoir, Love for Sale and Other Essays, and a novel, Signifying Nothing. His upcoming book, What It is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man's Blues, will be published in the fall.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!