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20 Minutes in the Day of a Brown Man in America

Today was a good day…I guess. A cop followed me for 15 minutes as I drove from small town Illinois to next small town Illinois…staying 5 yards behind me consistently, while I, wary and weary, locked the cruise control to exactly the speed limit. First 30 miles per hour, then 40, then 45, then 55, then back to 30.

The last time I had been followed for that long for that distance—that time in medium town Illinois—I had locked the cruise to 5 miles per hour above below the speed limit, before being pulled over for purportedly driving too slow. Another time in the same medium town, being followed for a slightly shorter distance, I locked it at 5 mph above and got pulled over for purportedly driving too fast. Both times, other, non-brown drivers were driving faster/slower than my “extremes.”

Indeed, DWB (driving while black/brown for the unitiated) has been a real thing in my life, beginning over 30 years ago during my late teenage years in the US. It had been a consistent, roughly annual event, until about ten years ago–after moving to rural Illinois, when suddenly, surprisingly, the DWBs stopped occurring. (Although it could also be just because I drove less…) It seemed all good until my 1st DWB in my rural Illinois county brought all the helpless, annoyed, frustrated feelings back.

Frustration like recalling a surprising WWB (walking while black/brown) offense in Chicago, as I was walking to the subway before being accosted and thrown onto a police car hood by a police officer purportedly looking for someone who “fit my description.” That insult compounded by the insult of him patting me down and demanding to see what was in my hoodie jacket pocket…a book.

So I suppose today was a good day, since I never actually got pulled over…as the cop eventually turned down a side street. (But my fantasy of my choosing to following him at the same distance went unaddressed, as I continued instead on my travels homeward…)

So today was a good day. A day when I could continue to imagine that life in my rural cocoon means that I might get individual treatment instead of that of a member of a subjugated group. Although the fear I felt by being followed—and maybe about to be stopped again…for no reason…well, no good reason anyway—jumped my heart rate as usual.

(A few days earlier, I saw the movie Hidden Figures, going with white friends who, as white folks, I assume didn’t share my visceral reaction when the African-American characters in the early part of the movie (set in the early 60s) felt significant apprehension when their broken down car was approached by a policeman. So maybe today was a good day for me, not being the early 60s and all.)

Continuing homeward, I stopped to get some gas. My pump was adjacent to that of a middle-aged white lady in a mid-luxury SUV. She made sure to lock her car twice when she went into the store briefly to pay. So maybe it wasn’t as good a day as I’d like.

(Then I looked across the street at a Subway store where, a month prior, a different middle-aged white lady had paid for my sub for no bad reason. That was a good day.)

As I drove away from the gas station, sun shining, the satellite radio flipped through a Kenny Chesney “No Shoes Radio” station; the white country singer playing a nice reggae-tinged song with one of Bob Marley sons. I continued homeward, looking forward to a summer with kids of varied backgrounds coming together at camp and becoming friends. Maybe it was a good day after all.

Camp Kupugani is one of the 50 Most Amazing Summer Camps for Kids

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