I saw them coming in the distance – three unfamiliar teenage boys, dressed in dirty blue jeans, dark T-shirts and each with a baby face the color of Alabama clay. They trotted with purpose up my street and as they neared, my heart began to beat a frantic staccato.
I spotted them while standing outside my dusty, tan Chevy Tahoe that was parked in front of my gray, one-story home. I was trying to unstrap my four- and five-year-olds from their troublesome car seats. It was a school night, the sun was setting and the air was sweet. We had plans of spelling words, a fish stick dinner and warm baths.
As I spied the men, my fingers fidgeted. The kids thought my fumbling was a game and squirmed and laughed as I tried to hurry them.
I didn’t want to be skeptical of the men, afraid even. They could be heading to a ballgame, getting some exercise or trekking to the store for a bag of skittles and iced tea. I wanted to stop my heart from pounding, to hit an off button like on an alarm clock, but I couldn’t.
I didn’t know the men, but I could not shake the feeling that there was something familiar about them. They were young men with brown faces.
Young men with brown faces had recently robbed my parents’ neighbors in their front yard. Young men with brown faces had, a couple of streets over from that, stolen from and beaten to death an 80-something-year-old man on oxygen. And, late one night, young men with brown faces had a shootout outside my living room window.
I tried not to panic when my son insisted that he scan the floor of our car for his lost Hot Wheels toy. My mind plotted out an escape, but my feet were frozen, attached to the pavement.
One of the young men walked onto the sidewalk where I was standing. The other two marched down the center of the street toward the passenger side of my car, where my son was still looking for that darned car.
I pulled my children from our vehicle and instructed them to run upstairs onto the porch and to ring the doorbell where my husband was inside.
I stayed behind because I couldn’t move. Although alarms were ringing inside of me, I didn’t want to run from the young men. I didn’t want to feed the notion that they were coming to do me harm.
Just as my children reached the top, the young man on the sidewalk came toward me. I could feel the heat of his presence and smell remnants of a cheap musky Black & Mild cigar. I did a clumsy plié onto my lawn and then, he, he … walked right past.
Still in step, the teen met with the others walking in the middle of the street and they continued their trek. I’m not sure if they sensed the movie that was played out in my mind. To them, their stroll was probably some uneventful trot. I was embarrassed, though, and wanted to yell out an apology.
A terrible thing has happened. After being inundated with mean-faced mug shots and overloaded with crime horror stories on TV and news websites, I have become afraid of certain young men with brown faces. For that, sometimes I hate myself.
I am the least likely person to be afraid. I have a brown face, as do my children, my husband and my parents. I am not privileged or sheltered. I attended all-black schools, had a brief stint living in housing projects, worshipped Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Barbara Jordan and can quote all the classic Hip Hop songs in my sleep.
I love my brown skin and adore my race. I know that the world abounds with a marvelous, chocolate rainbow of African-American men of honor and integrity, who love their children and fight for their communities.
A young man with a brown face, and who wore jeans that hung low on his waist, volunteered to read books to my daughter’s kindergarten class. A young man with a brown face, and who didn’t know my name, spoke words of kindness and comfort when my son had a seizure on the side of the road. A young man with a brown face, and who was dressed in his Sunday’s best, stood in the rain to check underneath the hood of my car that sat sputtering and stalled.
Still, sometimes my mind betrays me when seems it’s hard to tell who is who.
I never want to feel my heart pound in fear again when a young man with a brown face approaches. I don’t want to be in agreement with those bigots around town who comment on the local news website and say they aren’t surprised that the perpetrators of many of the city’s crimes are black. One remarked that it’s good that they kill each other: “One down, a million more to go,” he wrote.
When I think about that day outside my home, hurrying to get away from those young men with brown faces, I am ashamed. What if I had been armed? What if I had the power of the law to shoot to kill when the movie inside my head cast those teens as deadly criminals and me the helpless victim? Quite possibly, there might have been another set of young men with brown faces whose lives were ended too soon.
“Young Men with Brown Faces” is an excerpt from a collection of essays, I am writing about life as a black woman living, loving and raising little ones in the South.