WHEN I REALIZED BEING BLACK COULD BE DANGEROUS
This may sound strange, but I was 18 years old before I fully realized that racism was still alive. I grew up in Gary, Indiana, which is about 99.999% Black. And Gary is a part of northwest Indiana aka “the region,” one of the most diverse areas of the entire state. While certain cities in the region are predominantly one ethnicity or another, Merrillville still stands as our own little melting pot. Along with the region’s best shopping and restaurants, you can find all kinds of people there. And thinking back to my childhood and teen years, I can’t remember race being an issue at all in the region. Up until the summer of 2005, I thought that people of all different ethnic backgrounds across America got along just as harmoniously as we seemed to in Northwest Indiana.
I thought blatant racism was for my mom’s generation. Born in the 50s, her birth certificate actually says, “Colored,” and she can remember a time when Gary was still segregated. Or for my grandmother’s time. Growing up in Mississippi, her Black mother and White father were forced to hide their wife/husband relationship with a nanny/boss charade whenever they left the safe confines of their small community.
Racism was for them, for the old days. Not for my generation. We had overcome.
Or so I thought.
It was June 18, 2005. My mom, my uncle and I loaded up his brand-new Cadillac with a bunch of clothes and electronics, and headed south on I-65 towards Bloomington, Indiana. That day marked the start of college for me. We were going to Indiana University, and all my family could talk about the whole ride down was how proud they were of me for working towards becoming the first Smith to graduate from college.
Being the first came with a lot of pressure. 18 years of my mother scrubbing floors to support us had led up to this moment. I had to deliver.
After passing through Indianapolis about 2 ½ hours into the drive, I realized I had gotten us lost with the directions I printed from MapQuest. This was in 2005 — well before everyone walked around with Google Maps in their pocket. Totally clueless about where we were, we had no choice but to stop and ask for help. When we came to the next gas station, my mom and I went in to get directions.
“Hi. We’re trying to get to Indiana University, but I think we made a wrong turn somewhere,” my mom said to the clerk. “Can you tell us how to get to 37?”
The clerk looked up at us, and then down at the pen and crumpled paper I held in my hands to take note of her instructions.
With a country drawl, she said, “Okay, I’m going to tell y’all how to get out of here, but I need to let you know, they don’t like Blacks around here, so be careful.”
The clerk’s statement confused me. Was she saying that, in 2005, there are still places in this country that proudly hate people just because of the color of their skin? And I was about to go away to college somewhere in the general vicinity of said places? Oh hell naw.
For me, the whole scene felt like we had stepped back into the 50s, and I wanted desperately to get back to 2005.
Back to that blissfully ignorant state of mind that allowed me to believe for 18 years that this brand of racism was dead, that it wouldn’t be something that people of my generation would have to deal with.
I looked at my mom. I could tell she was startled — and a little hurt — by what the clerk said. She nodded in the clerk’s direction and let out a soft, “Okay.”
The clerk ran down the directions, and I wrote as fast as I could. We must’ve repeated those instructions to the clerk two or three times for confirmation. We didn’t want to be lost anymore. We just wanted to get to Bloomington — safely.
We left out of the station and headed to the car. My mom, always one to soften our tough moments with comedy, said, “Come on Bran. Let’s get our Black asses the hell outta here!” and trotted to the car.
We weren’t angered by the clerk’s words. Looking back, I think we were both grateful for her honesty, and grateful that she wasn’t one of the ones who didn’t like Black people.
About an hour later, we made it to IU safe and sound. And for the entire 5 ½ years I went to school and worked in Bloomington after finishing my degree, my car only stopped along that stretch between Indianapolis and Bloomington one other time. I got a flat tire in Martinsville my junior year. As I heard the thump, thump, thump of the rubber, I instantly thought about that clerk, and my stomach dropped. I was alone. My phone had died. And I had no choice but to hop out and fix it myself, and you better believe — I jacked that car up and changed that tire with NASCAR speed. I then promptly got my Black ass the hell outta there.
I’m sharing this story because of Renisha McBride, a 19-year-old woman who was shot in the face because of racism. And Trayvon Martin, who was shot in the chest by racism. And Jordan Davis. And Oscar Grant. And any other person who has been victimized or murdered just because of who they are. Because looking back at these pivotal moments in my life, I realize now that it could have easily been me.