I prefer to run after dusk. This poses somewhat of a problem, because I am black. And for certain people, the sight of a relatively large Negro male barreling ungracefully toward them in the growing dark can be a bit unnerving. I wonder sometimes if their reaction would be different if I had additional padding around the midsection. Would it be more difficult then to mistake my intentions? Would I somehow look less threatening if my skin were a shade or two lighter? Is it more practical to run during the afternoon, at tracks and other places where joggers congregate? Doing so would likely better prevent anyone from mistaking my “running” for “evading law enforcement.”
I try not to dwell on these questions, but I have been followed by police cruisers more times than I’d like to recall. And I’ve begun to lose my good humor about it.
The first time it happened I almost didn’t notice. I’d just moved to Norfolk, Va. The particular neighborhood where I had found a place to live was touted by my fellow employees as an oasis of progressives in a traditionally conservative city. Not that I gave a damn about that, but the rent was fairly affordable, and that was enough.
Soon I began running after work. Late one evening, I came upon what looked to be two towheaded kids playing in the middle of the sidewalk. As I clomped forward, a woman arrived at the scene. She shot me a glance, immediately picked them up in each arm and ferried them inside the gate, which she then closed. I felt slightly insulted, not by the action, which, for all I knew, might have been instinctuala mother protecting her young from encroaching danger. But as I ran, I heard the soundthe result of her overly emphatic slamming of the gate, a metal upon metal clang that hung in the air. As I passed, she was standing at the top of the steps near the front door of her house, still holding her bewildered-looking children. She looked. I looked. And I realized in that moment we were both ruled by paranoia. I kept running. It would be 10 minutes before I heard the first siren. Fifteen before I was sitting on a sidewalk waiting while a Norfolk police officer ran my ID.
Months later, after I’d accepted a position at the Indy, my Norfolk colleagues, whose housing recommendations I’d previously accepted, began offering their take on what would be my new home.
“Durham. Oh, that area’s great. Lots of progressives,” the subtext being: “It’s just like Norfolk. You’ll love it.”
The words made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
I later shared my concerns with a (black) colleague who had lived for a while in Durham. “Yes, white folks love them some Triangle,” he said, somewhat cryptically. “You’re just going to have to be more careful.”
I pressed him to elaborate, but he’d already skipped ahead to another topic. I’m still not sure what he meant. I think about it every time I lace up my sneakers.