Guest Essay: ‘Up Went My Hands’

A guest essay by Charles Edward Payne
The Essayist
Photo by Patrick Stutz
Charles Edward Payne

By Charles Edward Payne

“Come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” –Poet, educator and writer Lucille Clifton

Celebrate. How old were you when you were first racially profiled by a cop? I was 16. I was a high school junior, captain of my varsity basketball team, when an officer decided to unfairly pull me over in front of my house. I don’t say “unfairly” lightly, because if you’ve ridden in a car with me, you know I am the slowest driver ever. But before I could even attempt to pull out my license and registration for the officer, my mother ran out of the house like a souped-up Dodge Charger.

Out came the gun and up went my hands. The moment was tense, then I remember my mom objecting to my outfit, I had on the tank top that I normally wore underneath my high school basketball jersey, and my mom was irate. She made me and the officer aware of his power. She told us that the officer could shoot me in the head in front of our house and no one would say a thing because of what I was wearing. And the officer agreed with her, told me to stop dressing like a thug and let me off with a warning.

My mother made me wear polos whenever I left the house from then on, as if dressing preppy like Fat Albert could disguise my big Black body from the police. Surprisingly, I found myself with a master’s degree and teaching at an expensive private school a decade later when a rent-a-cop security officer pulled his weapon on me in a print shop parking lot. His car’s spotlight shined so bright on my face. I dropped my box of orientation packets and my active shooter training took over.

I raised my hands. I identified myself by pointing to the staff ID on my work polo, calling out calmly, “I am Blank Blank, I work for Blank School, I am a Blanking Teacher, there is no Blanking danger in this area, my hands are up. You may approach. There is no need to sweep and secure the space.” The security officer lowered his weapon and screamed back, “This is private property! You do not belong here!” He approached with the bright spotlight still burning my eyes, called me a transient and then spit on the ground. I told him, “No, I am a customer walking to their car.” He smirked and then spit again. He did not apologize to me for pointing a gun at me. Me! A customer. He never cut off his light. So at 9 o’clock that night, I swear to you a piece of my humanity left my soul. I looked inside the store window to see a Black worker wiping away a single tear running down from his eye, only to realize I was staring at a reflection of myself in the window wearing my mother’s disguise of a school polo, khakis and orthopedic walking shoes.

Many people of my race and gender — Black people, mostly cisgendered men — have experienced such a trauma. This is not uncommon. The fact most Black men will join this dubious club of the unfairly stopped, sometimes violently so, makes everyone less safe, not more so. As expected, I, a Black, cisgendered male, a Madison transplant, feel isolated, alone and endangered here as well. My colleagues don’t talk about Black people being shot by police; they just brush them off their shoulders like they don’t matter. I feel invisible to them, as if I don’t matter. Every day I walk past more Black Lives Matter stickers on cars in the parking lot than I see Black people in my place of employment. So, unsurprisingly, a few years ago, in the fall of 2019, I found myself unfairly pulled over yet again, this time in front of a Madison public school. I don’t say “unfairly” lightly, because my colleague was in the car, and she cried out, “What? You’re the slowest driver I have ever met.” But before I could scream, “Why me?!” a high school student pulled out his iPhone and started recording.

As I have practiced since I was a small child, I placed my hands outside the window. Then another student and their parents began recording. I identified myself to the officer, saw the people recording as I handed over my professional ID. The officer gave me the quickest warning I had ever received for driving suspiciously and then hightailed it out of there like the Dukes of Hazzard. And for a moment, in Madison of all places, I felt like I mattered, like I belonged somewhere! Sweeping away the tears running down my cheeks, I thanked each student and parent, then parked my car and went about doing my job in that high school.

Charles Edward Payne, M. Ed is a guest essayist to Madison Magazine.

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