by Donald Whitehead
I was a part of a small group of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds who often played a lively game of tag football in the Burnet Avenue U.S Post office parking lot in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I had just scored a long touchdown. As I was finishing my touchdown celebration, I noticed a University of Cincinnati Police cruiser drive by. I saw the woman in the back pointing at some of the people in the parking lot. Minutes later, the parking lot was swamped with police cars. Campus police and Cincinnati officers jumped out in mass with guns drawn, and suddenly we were ordered against the vehicles, and guns were pointed at our heads. We were confused and terrified about what was happening what we had done other than play football on the lot for several hours. Why was there so much anger coming from the police officers? Why did they have their guns drawn?
I can still hear my best friend say, “let’s run for it.” I sometimes wonder what might have happened if we had taken his advice. We know from recent history that running would have been a mistake, potentially a fatal mistake. Luckily one of my brothers who wasn’t placed against the car had gone to get our parents. Our houses were less than a hundred yards away.
The white woman in the police car pointing had been robbed and assaulted by a group of black boys, and we fit the description. To her credit, after further inspection, the woman realized that none of our group was involved. The tension faded; however, the damage was done. We were good kids; we went to church every Sunday and sang in the Church Choir; none of us had ever been in trouble.
This was our first contact with law enforcement ever.
We did not commit the robbery; in fact, it was us that got robbed that day. We were robbed of innocence, robbed of trust in those that protect and serve—robbed of our belief in a colorblind world. This is not a unique scenario; it is a lot more common than many would believe.
No child should have to learn such painful lessons with a gun pointed at their head.
That day was the first of many pen pricks of racism that I experienced and still experience to this day.
The incident also taught me not to be silent in the face of discrimination. Our silence is negligence; we cannot see or experience injustice without protest or at the very least identify it. Our minor protest resulted in season-tickets-for-life to the University of Cincinnati football games.
The other lesson learned for me was the need to understand how and why I fit the description. Why am I suspicious without provocation? Why is my excellence somehow seen as out of the ordinary or achieved through dishonesty or criminality? I immediately wanted to understand history, my history, our collective history. I became a Dr. Martin Luther King fan; unfortunately, this was the only historical figure fully accessible in my post-secondary education.
I became my own historian, and the more I have learned over the years, the more I have wanted to know.
I have been completely horrified by the middle passage, chattel slavery, black codes, and Jim Crow practices.
I have also been so proud and grateful to my ancestors. I am so respectful of their incredible resilience and their ability to survive the unthinkable horrors they endured.
As my teams and I work to reintroduce the world to our full history, we often encounter the voices of the apathetic or the discouraged. The level of internalized racism is surprisingly significant. I find myself troubled by the thought that nothing will change from some in the community.
To not believe in change is disrespectful to the many changemakers who have given their lives. Things have changed in many ways, most notably, the end of chattel slavery and the opportunity to gain civil rights have been hard-fought and slow and painful.
In many ways, it does appear that we are going in the wrong direction. From Charlottesville to massive voter depression efforts, it’s easy to be discouraged. It’s easy to ignore the senate election in Georgia or the election of Barack Obama when the Supreme court weakens the civil rights amendment. Watching angry crowds protest students having the ability to learn the unfiltered history of the United States by misrepresenting every attempt as the misunderstood Critical Race Theory, it’s easy to overlook that the Secretary of Defense is a dark-skinned black man.
Our racial reconciliation is recent in history; the first African Americans landed on the continent’s shores in 1619. Brown versus Board of Education was passed in 1954. For 300 years, we survived on a steady diet of resilience, pride, and hope; we must never abandon those ideals.
Those discouraged by the current state of our country learn from the setbacks and rejoice about the progress and never stop believing in change. Every living breathing African Americans is a product of success. We are descendants of unfathomable resilience. Resilience from the 400 years of all of the things I mentioned earlier and resilience from the pen pricks of racism today and those yet to come. The great Booker T. Washington said “Success should not be judged by ones station in life but the obstacles they had to overcome to get there.”