The clutched purse phenomenon and The Warmth of Other Suns

I pulled my suitcase and my laptop behind me as I walked from Lake Merritt BART station towards home last night. I got to my least favorite part of the walk–a stretch with no businesses, poor lighting, and the highway underpass. A guy crossed the street towards me and I deliberately worked to make my face appear neutral and nonjudgmental.
“Hey! How’s it going?” he said in a voice far too friendly to sound natural as he walked past me, giving me an intentionally wide berth.
“Cool, thanks,” I responded, face still neutral.
That moment played itself out in a sad echo of our nation’s history with race. That guy, with his dreds and his hoodie, knew that an apparently white woman crossing the street at night would assume he was a potential assailant, and he sent every cue he could not to be afraid. And I worked hard to pretend that I wasn’t at all anxious as he crossed the road towards me, but I was thinking to myself, “I have EVERYTHING valuable in that laptop case right now and it’s the easiest thing to steal.” Because in this fragile community, many people are forced to steal and many steal because they can, and many of us of all races walk the streets in fear or don’t walk the streets.

I’m reading the book “The Warmth of Other Suns” right now, which is about the Great Migration of Black Americans from the south to the north and the west coast. During a chapter on the era after Reconstruction, as the south began to transition to what became a reign of terror for many African Americans in the emerging Jim Crow south of the early 1900s, the book states, “They killed colored residents and set fire to their homes on rumors of black impropriety, as authorities stood by or participated. In the darkest hours of this era, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass saw his health fade just as everything he spent his life fighting for was falling apart. He said, in his last great public lecture, delivered in Baltimore in January 1894, a year before his death, “I hope and trust all will come out right in the end, but the immediate future looks dark and troubled. I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me.””

In that era, a Black man was lynched for the accusation he had stolen 75 cents. Confessions were forced and punishment was brutal. Black Americans lived with constant low-grade fear because Whites could do whatever they wanted with impunity. But the fear that was perpetuated in film, stage and newspapers was fear of Blacks. And so Black men could not make eye contact with White women for fear of the accusation they were planning a violent sexual act.

The man who passed me was clearly educated–he was probably a student on his way to Laney College. And I know crime (specifically mugging) is up in Oakland (with Asian and Latino people a slightly higher target group than others, as well as people on cell phones). And I know I would probably have been scared of anyone approaching me. And I know that many Black women would have felt the same series of emotions of trying not to be irrational but also knowing we’re more vulnerable to attack in isolated areas when we’re by ourselves.

But as he passed me in his exceedingly gracious way, I was aware he was playing out a moment that has been played out in this country in cruel ways in uninterrupted fashion for generations–he was saying, “Please do not feel threatened by me,” whether he should have needed to or not. And I wonder how many other ways Jim Crow continues to affect our interactions in ways of which we’re not the slightest bit conscious.

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