In middle school, as a rule, if my destination was within two miles, I would sprint wherever I had to go instead of taking the bus. I lived around the corner from my school and so did not qualify for a subsidized bus pass. Running significantly reduced my weekly transportation costs and allowed me to reserve my meager savings for more important items such as comic books and video games. Also, it was fun. I was fast and loved to dart in and out of the dense pedestrian traffic on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, racing against my friends as they rode along in the bus cheering me on. Generally, I won. When my stepmother caught wind of this behavior, however, she admonished me in a tone that I rarely heard. “Don’t run,” she said. “Walk, but never run. Be late.” Seeing the confusion on my face, she introduced me to the concept of “probable cause” and then proceeded to explain that, as a young black male, my mere presence in the area was cause for suspicion. Racing through crowded streets made me an outright suspect in any crime, real or imagined, that may or may not have been committed nearby. For my personal safety, it was therefore best that I remain as inconspicuous as possible.
My eldest turns 13 this month. In anticipation, I’ve been having a number of informal and impromptu discussions with him on the pertinent life lessons to help keep him safe during his teenage years. The scripts have been standard boiler plate (i.e. birds and bees, say “no” to drugs, etc.) and I largely pirated the speeches that my parents gave me when I was his age. Maybe it is just wishful thinking, but I believe that he has sincerely internalized these discussions and that they will have an impact on his future behavior. Recent news from Sanford, Florida, as well as the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” policies targeting New York City’s brown and black boys, remind me that there was one important lesson that I had forgotten to share. Don’t run. Don’t ever run. Be late. //Kenneth Bryant