A Terrible Thing Has Happened …


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.


10 Replies to “A Terrible Thing Has Happened …”

  1. I was violently mugged in April by two young teen men with brown faces in hoodies, two miles from my house. Last Friday, a teen man with a brown face stole my military ID, mobile phone, credit cards and drivers license from my bag as I swam w/my children in the pool. He then proceeded to pump $120 into his car and one other at the local gas station before I noticed and had time to report it (police have surveillance video.) Never before have I felt the fear I have now, but I have it. And, it’s not my fault that I have it. It was young men with brown faces mugging me and stealing my property, two violations of my person and property (in the last 60 days) that put that fear in my heart. It’s not going to go away…it cannot. Truth sucks.

  2. Has the person above ever had any good interaction with a young man with a brown face? I guess if you don’t spend enough time getting to know people different from you (especially ones that are stereotyped in this way), you tend to judge your encounters by the limited amount of interactions you have with them or by, even worse, television. My brother is a young man with a brown face who constantly wears hoodies and big jeans.He is also the smartest, kindest and most selfless person I know. It’s unfortunate that some people will not take the chance of getting to know him because of his outward appearance. Great post!

    1. No time to spend elaborating other than to say I’m not stereotyping, I’m relaying a story of what happened to me…facts in other words. Have I spent time with young men with brown faces? Umm…yes, just a little bit. Here are my books so you can see what I’m about. I’m a Latina born to Mexican parents so we’re brown, white, really dark brown and my neighborhood reflects the ethnic and racial diversity that enriches my life. None of that changes the facts that those who mugged me and stole from me were who they were. That’s all. http://www.amazon.com/Graciela-Tiscare%C3%B1o-Sato/e/B005167OFM

      Happy 4th of July!

  3. Love this, It really hit home with me. I have to stop and think twice and sometime more than that when I see Brown faces coming toward me now. Our Black (Brown) men are not all the same but we must be honest with ourselves that if they are coming toward us with a certain kind of dress and look, we probably will be afraid! I loves this article and I am so glad that you posted it!! it was FOOD FOR THOUGHT!!

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