A few years ago my friends and I packed ourselves into a rather broken down VW bus to make our way to the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. The line-up was fantastic: Sweet Honey in the Rock, for example, was going to be performing, as was a then-unknown singer and guitar player who would completely blow our minds (Tracy Chapman). Most of us – all African American women and one pre-teen – had never been to the festival and had never driven as far west as Michigan or as far north as northwestern Michigan, which is where the festival was being (and is) held. For a variety of reasons, we were looking forward to the trip, not the least of which is that we wanted to camp out and listen to music with a bunch of naked and semi-naked women from around the world, as well as to escape the heat, humidity, noisiness and grime that is Washington, D.C. in the late summer.
As we left the city, the landscape became greener, wider. It was nice to see farms and trees and cows – something other than apartment buildings and office buildings and traffic and lawyers and politicians. The sky, once we left Washington, seemed impossibly vast and really, really blue.
And of course, the further we traveled from D.C., the whiter were the people whom we encountered.
As was always the case when I traveled outside of the parameters of a city, I became wary, for lingering in the back of my mind was my parents’ admonition that I should “be careful” because “there are crazy people out there.” I understood them to mean that when I traveled outside of the city (or even through segregated white urban enclaves), I needed to watch out for white people (especially men) who (as my parents saw it, and too often for good reason) were likely to act and be crazy the farther away they lived from a sizeable city or from black people.
So, alongside the joy that I felt as my sisters and I made our way to Michigan sat a sometimes consuming worry, a feeling of unease that only dissipated when I spotted the occasional black or brown person in whatever small town we found ourselves in when we stopped for gas or food or the bathroom.
As we trekked further and finally up the state of Michigan, those black and brown faces became few and far between. And the worry? Well, it took up space in that cramped VW bus.
At some point we stopped for one final bathroom run in a small town that was approximately an hour or so outside of our destination. The town didn’t feel particularly friendly, but in truth it didn’t feel unfriendly, either. However, there were no black or brown people around, so we understood that the sooner we left, the better.
But the bus had a different agenda. After a few sputters and spurts, it seemed that it had finally broken down for good. Carla, who knew nothing about car maintenance (she lived most of her life in New York City) proceeded to tinker with it anyway, probably to calm her nerves. All of us, of course, were hot with anxiety, but played it as cool as we could and said nothing to suggest that we felt otherwise.
As we waited and wondered if Carla would somehow channel the spirit of some ancient car mechanic, a white “biker guy” pulled up behind us in his Harley. You know the type: handkerchief wrapped around his head, long hair, dark sunglasses, tattoos – the kind of white guy you imagine riding with Hell’s Angels and, well, the kind you can imagine dragging some black person tied to the back of a pickup truck. This was not a pleasant moment for us, so when he got off of his bike and started walking our way, we all wondered why the hell we left the safety and security of Chocolate City – in a vehicle plastered with “Free South Africa” bumper stickers, no less! – for an area as remote and as white as this.
Biker guy nodded his head at Carla as he approached. “I’m going to help you all if I can,” he said calmly, “‘cause I don’t agree with what goes on around here.” To say that we were shocked is an understatement (we were, in fact, rendered speechless). Without waiting for our response or our consent, biker guy went to work straightaway on the van and got it started in a matter of minutes.
When we finally found our voices, we couldn’t thank him enough. We also couldn’t drive out of that town fast enough, for we most certainly didn’t want to wait around to see exactly what went on around there.
It wasn’t until we got back on the road and a few miles out that we allowed ourselves to laugh, hysterically, not only about our fear and the danger that we faced, but also about what we assumed when we first saw the man who offered to us his help. Although we had expected him to be one of those crazy (white) people about whom all of our parents warned us, the folks we had to pay attention to were the respectable looking white folks who lived in that small town, the ones who filled up their minivans with groceries and children and who apparently had been committing acts that compelled this man – whom we completely misread – to help make us safe.
That was quite a few years ago, and although I am mindful of the existence of such white men as the one who assisted me and my friends – those who “don’t agree with what goes on around here” – I still have cause to be wary when I find myself venturing outside of urban spaces or through segregated white neighborhoods. Although The Scary Black Male looms large in the imagination of many white folk, the truth is that white violence, and particularly violence at the hands of white men, is an ever-present reality that touches the lives of African Americans in both systemic and intimate ways.
Thus, it’s not just the white male policemen in cities and elsewhere who pose a danger to black folk. Just attend a tea party rally or listen to talk radio and you’ll understand that the police are really only the tip of the iceberg. You’ll also understand that this particular danger has become even more pronounced since Obama took office (a fact to which the increase in hate groups attests). Yet it is rarely the subject of articles or talk shows or confessions, and even the George Zimmerman moment has yet to produce a serious dialogue about white male violence. Instead, we – or I should say, white folks– focus on The Scary Black Male, even if only to debunk the myth.
As a result, The Scary Black Male figures as a ubiquitous character, as one who apparently traverses any and all white communities and thus exists wherever white folk can be found (so powerful is this idea that even whites who live in highly segregated communities and who rarely, if ever, interact with black people nevertheless feel endangered by black men and boys). White men, on the other hand, figure as either victims of The Scary Black Male or as those whose violence constitutes righteous acts of protection through which (white) communities are made safe.
Now, I’m not encouraging the creation of (nor do I buy into) a Scary White Male counter-myth. And I certainly don’t walk around worried about every white male whom I encounter. I just would rather do away with The Scary Black Male myth altogether because, among other things, it constitutes a failure to address violence as it has evolved from the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and colonialism and as it manifests in this “New Jim Crow” and neocolonial moment. Even more to the point: the myth represents a refusal to examine how this violence gets expressed in specifically gendered terms. After all, the truth of the matter is that part of the relief my friends and I felt in leaving Washington, D.C. for the Michigan Women’s Festival was that we were finally able to get some respite from the verbal and physical harassment to which we were constantly subjected in the segregated neighborhoods in which we lived, an experience that compelled me on more than one occasion to carry a walking stick when I ventured out (imagine my relief when I moved to Los Angeles and realized the safety that having to drive everywhere provided). And quiet as it’s kept, many white women who clutch their purses when they see an African American man approach go home to their “safe” white neighborhoods only to get accosted by white men who, because white, had not figured as men whom these women were bound to suspect.
I have to wonder just to what degree the violence of segregation shapes and determines experiences such as these, experiences I have been more prone to think of only in terms of gender (this is not to say that women are somehow innocent bystanders who, out of necessity, have to negotiate this violence. Indeed, many of us have been willingly complicit in creating and sustaining it, whether at the level of raising our sons and feeding them on hate or investing in Chevron. And certainly there are specific ways in which we express violence that is absolutely marked by how we are situated in the New Jim Crow landscape).
I do have faith that at some point not only will I, but indeed all of us, will be able to walk and travel wherever we please, and in true peace. But that can’t happen as long as we continue to treat white male violence as some kind of anomaly that is generally unnecessary to discuss or to critique. We can’t transform what we don’t talk about or what we choose to obfuscate. And we most certainly cannot heal.