You Can’t Come Home Again

“It’s a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers—you are the Indian.” – James Baldwin

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as he tried to enter his own home last week marks the official end of the post-racial honeymoon that followed the election of President Barack Obama.  Black is now the same old Black, especially if you are also male.

Professor Gates’ humiliating ordeal flooded my mind with memories of several incidents that happened to me during my undergraduate years at Yale and doctoral study at Princeton.  And like Gates, I was utterly stunned because in each case I was part of an elite academic and cultural community and believed (foolishly, it turned out) that my race no longer mattered.

The episode that came to mind immediately when I heard about the Gates incident occurred while I was in graduate school at Princeton University.  The year was 1988; and I was a first-year student in the Department of History.  I was at the time the Department’s only student of color and one of only four students of color who chose to live in the Graduate College, a magnificent Gothic edifice at the edge of campus.  Situated next to a golf course, the GC, as we called it, was peaceful, majestic, and a marvelous place to engage in the life of the mind.  I loved it.

One evening after dinner, I escorted a friend, a young White woman studying political science, back to her room.  Upon reaching that destination, we stood outside her door for several minutes and talked—about what I no longer remember.  While we were standing there, a uniformed Princeton University Public Safety officer approached, handed us a flier, and said that there had been several recent assaults on campus.  The officer then went on his way, presumably to hand out more fliers.  My friend and I looked at the handbill and simultaneously laughed at the description of the alleged assailant: “black male with dark complexion.”  I even remember saying something like, “Why, this describes me!”  We laughed some more, and I bid my friend good night.  I then returned to my room to finish my reading assignments for the next day’s classes.  About half an hour later, there was a knock at my door.  I opened it and discovered my friend.  She looked deeply troubled, and I invited her in immediately.

“Darryl,” she said, “Public Safety just left my room. They sent someone to see if I was okay.  They wanted to know who you were and where you lived.”  She did not tell them anything and, knowing my friend as I did, I am sure that she gave the Public Safety officers a piece of her mind.  We deduced that for some reason the officer handing out the handbills must have thought it strange that we were having a conversation in the hallway.  (Why?  Who knows what thoughts lurk in the minds of those who wear the badge.)  He might even have heard my comment about the vague description of the suspect in the assaults.  Whatever it was that got his spider-sense tingling, he acted on it.

My friend was horrified by what had happened and kept saying how sorry she was.  I was conflicted.  Of course, I wanted campus security to do its job.  What if the dark-skinned person the officer had seen with my friend had been someone who meant to harm her?  He followed his instinct and had been wrong.  But maybe the next time he did so would save someone’s life.  Maybe mine.

I comforted my friend as best I could.  I think I even made a joke, saying that if I had been arrested, I would not have to finish all of the reading I had to do for class the next day.  Inside, though, I was deeply hurt.  It was not the first time that my identity—my belonging—had been called into question by policemen; and I knew that it would not be the last.  What pained me more was the cruel realization that my Ivy League education and all of its purported advantages had not—and could not—shield me from racism, be it targeted or casual.

The experience of Professor Gates is an unwelcome but necessary reminder that though African Americans and other peoples of color have made impressive strides in American society, we always have to worry if the keys to the kingdom will actually unlock the doors before us.  Because if they do not (and sometimes even if they do), someone else might call the police.

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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I was fascinated by the off-hand joke that Obama made during his press conference. The same thing, he said, could have happened to him. The he caught himself: Well, not at the White House. At his house in Chicago. At the White House, he said, he’d have been shot.

    Talk about a sense of never quite belonging….

  2. This is a powerful story you tell. For some reason, as I reported to my new gig in the Middle East the other new folks and I spent a lot of time talking about race–mainly the American black/white interface. I’ve felt that feeling you describe in some places, and have had similar “check that guy out” incidents. I didn’t have to guess if it was because of my color, though–it was usually because I was American in another environment.

    The guy I’m relieving as commander of the detachment felt it back home and will stay overseas as much as possible to avoid that feeling again. Even though my friend occasionally gets a blast of similar mess in foreign countries which are more casually racist or just unpleasant to us, he prefers it not come from his countrymen, I think.

    The thing that bothers me the most about this is that a sitting president just condemned a cop without due process. If the cop’s not in the wrong–which is possible–he’s smeared for life at best. (Again, as Crittenden below indicates.)

    I’ve seen some other comments on this that also were interesting: Boston journalist Jules Crittenden, Left Coast high tech entrepreneur Cobb and WSJ journalist James Taranto, all three rightish writers.

  3. You are way too nice to the Princeton cop — if she were having a problem, she had the chance to say something, and if they were concerned for her safety later, that was allayed when they saw her a second time — they didn’t need to get information on you.

  4. Well, unlike Chap, I thought it was refreshing to hear a President (or any prominent politician) suggest that might was wrong. For years, we’ve heard politicians using current events to stir fake racial outrage–Sotomayor said that “wise Latinas” were better judges than white men!, etc. I also think that there is no chance whatsoever that Gates would have been arrested–or even interrogated–if he were a middle-aged white man with a cane.

    Darryl, I’m glad to have found your blog via our mutual friend, Sharon B. I met you back at Princeton, when I was at Penn (I don’t expect that you remember me, though!) Come visit me at Historiann.com, any time.

  5. Looks like Taranto slept on it and has a revised opinion, for what that’s worth.

  6. Great post Darryl. You are always so insightful. Thanks for making me think.

  7. @historiann: It may be refreshing. The President may even have been right, although by his own admission he didn’t know all the facts of the case. However, the head of the executive branch short-circuiting the entire judicial process with public statements is bad news. That removes ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and removes the impartiality of the judicial process. You definitely wouldn’t like it if a president did that for someone you thought was being railroaded, right? (The Corey Maye case, linked from this roundup, is a good example of possible railroading that would be a better example of that, by the way.)

    I face a similar problem in my military job. Let’s say guy X is caught doing something bad. If I go and tell the crew “X did this bad thing” without any of the military justice procedures, I have just done wrong because I used undue command influence to change the course of the investigation and my action might cause bad actor X to go free–or convict an innocent man–because of my incorrect action. Same idea here.

  8. [...] out Philadelphia Negro in “You Can’t Come Home Again.”  Darryl is a certified all-ivy grad who (like every other black man in America) has had [...]

  9. [...] Penn professor” plea have worked?  Unfortunately, based on the experiences of so many of my African American friends who have been stopped by the police for merely walking/driving/sitting while Black, I know what [...]

  10. Great Post,

    Our “post-racism American Society” is a false-hood. Race relations continue to improve; however, the reality is that race is still a determining factor to many people. An Ivy-league education will not shield you from profiling; whether it’s walking a friend home from dinner or being a passenger on a bus that passes the Montgomery County Prison.

  11. Okay, found one I can generally agree with: Hitchens.

  12. I find it disheartening that you chose only one side of this. You are both black and law abiding. This was hardly the “stereotypical” black man-whatever you define him to be-this was a rich jackass of a professor who should NOT have been arrested. But I, as a law abiding citizen, must ask why the hell wouldn’t you just obey the officers’ commands? If you approach waving about and yelling you will be defused in whatever manner necessary. End of story. The officers were called there by his neighbor. The officers didn’t just happen by. What does his race have to do with this? The officer overreacted. But officers must unfortunately carry this chip on their shoulder. Their lives depend on it. This gentleman’s ego was the only thing he has to depend on.

    Black is the same old Black?? That is disheartening to say the least. Don’t fall on your sword and say its societies fault. I know you can do better than that. You’re smarter than that. And people of color are all that America is-there is no more “White Majority”. We as a nation are blessed to be transformed into multi colored by our neighbors. Even the ones that want to unlock their doors.

  13. bars window…

    Great post!…

  14. Insightful post… I’d hoped that things would one day be different, but unfortunately, it often feels like we’ve ‘successfully’ progressed to… oh… 1955.


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