ONCE, I WAS STOPPED by a police officer for driving too slowly through an economically privileged area of Columbus. I rolled down my window and waited for the officer to approach my silver Alero. Per the officer’s request, I provided my driver’s license and vehicle registration, which he held unread in his hand while he questioned me. “Are you the owner of this vehicle?” he asked. “Did you steal this car? If you stole this car, you better tell me now because I can find out!”
After a moment of stunned silence, I realized that I was completely invisible to him. He saw a criminal, cruising the streets for trouble, when in actuality I was a young student with a bad sense of direction, driving a few miles under the speed limit in an effort to find the restaurant where my friend was having her going away party.
I was at a loss for how to respond to his questions, which seemed irrational to me. I finally spoke after a moment of stunned silence, “Sir, I really do not know what information to give you other than what you’ve asked for.” Having learned not to take my hands off of the steering wheel, I nodded towards his hand, “You have my registration there. If you’ll look, you’ll see the car is mine.” I think that something about the confusion, bewilderment and fear in my voice must have softened the officer because he finally looked down at my information and his demeanor quickly changed. By the end of our encounter, he was giving me directions and encouraging me to have a good evening.
For the rest of the night, amidst the laughter and conversation of friends at the restaurant, I replayed my interaction with the policeman over and over again, trying to recall if I’d done everything my father had taught me when I was teenager first learning to drive. When pulled over by the police: be respectful; keep your hands on the wheel; if your hands must leave the wheel, notify the officer(s) before you move them; don’t speak unless spoken to; always keep your car registration up to date and in the car; and never drive without a valid driver’s license.
My father, like so many parents of black children, had hoped that teaching me to be polite, respectable and law-obeying might one day save my life. But he didn’t tell me what to do if and when these tactics failed. He didn’t offer any words of wisdom about how to combat invisibility. He didn’t tell me what I should do when an officer looked at me and saw someone else, someone contentious, criminal and non-compliant. Nearly ten years have passed since that incident, and I don’t feel any closer to solving this riddle than when I was that scared kid.
My partner is pregnant with our first child. I’ll be a parent soon, and in the wake of recent incidents of fatal violence against black youth, I’ve become obsessed with how I will supplement my father’s instruction with lessons that I’m still learning myself. How does one resist erasure? In those moments when the line between visibility and invisibility is the same as the line between freedom and imprisonment, or God forbid, life and death, what should I tell our child to do in order to be seen as a person whose life is of value and worth preserving?
Naively, I thought I’d have much more time to find the answers to these questions, but American history is littered with young black bodies, and time has not changed this. Tamir Rice was only twelve years old when he was killed by police while playing with a toy gun on a playground. He was shot within five seconds of the arrival of police officers—no words of wisdom could have saved him.
So, I don’t know what I’ll say to our child. Perhaps I’ll do for them as my father did for me – raise them to be the best people they can be and then pray that they are spared.