Black Excellence

Death and Taxes, or Suspected Theft and Blackness? My Only Certainties in Life.

“Did I scare you?” I nearly shouted at the timid white woman clutching her purse. I might have been able to understand someone with my dark skin, or any other skin shade in fact, rattling her if it were midnight. But it was noon. And we were on Mercer, near Washington Square Park, on a sidewalk bloated with NYU students. It was almost as if she’d determined I needed to commit a felony, in broad daylight, with a sea of witnesses, against her, of all people. Some people are so conceited.

I have often felt like I swiped something. From the time I was a kid, I had the impression I was a suspect. I even stood in a lineup once for a case of aggravated robbery. Luckily, I got paid ten bucks and walked out the station as innocent as I had when I entered.

My family comes from the South Side of Chicago, and so we know what theft and violence look like. Your next door neighbor could be the victim of burglary, and the neighbor next to him could be the burglar, but you wouldn’t know that just looking at them. We know what guilty can be, and that innocent isn’t based on skin complexions or facial beauty—I’ve been robbed by every color, complexion, by people of every level of attractiveness. We know that these labels are arbitrary when you have something taken, when you’ve had something ripped out of your life and the thought that you control your being is put into serious question. Why hasn’t most of America learned that?

RELATED: It’s Feeling A Lot Like Gentrification. Again. 

The sad part is, I was never a thief. My brother, he was the bandit. We were poor, but sometimes we had Gameboys and comic books, toys, and candies. He became a preacher some time later, so maybe all that stealing did a little good.

I may be 31, but I feel like it’s a good time to be a kid. I’ve got a Storm Trooper backpack, straight out of Star Wars, a small collection of action figures, and a t-shirt collection that’ll prove my Marvel adoration is real. These are little reminders to me that there was a time I couldn’t hoard such things, because, obviously, you could get the life beaten out of you for a backpack in The Hood. I would have been crumpled up like so much trash, made fun of, then my attackers would have boldly dawned the items they stole, their new merchandise somehow cool just because I no longer owned it. I want to scream sometimes because these white people don’t understand my background, yet they already see themselves on the ground, their backpacks and lunch money gone, because the big black man stuck them up during recess.

 Last year, as the summer heat raged on, I often found myself struggling with a very real attention-to-detail. I had noticed that white people would react differently toward me once I pulled a book out of my bag or put my glasses on. Patrons on the train, who’d been standing next to me, clutching whatever items they had for dear life the past 13 stops, almost immediately slid into the empty seat next to me when I pulled out a book. Did carrying a book mean there was no chance I’d rob them? Does The Hood know about this?

Recently, on my ride back to my apartment in Harlem, a very odd series of events really emphasized the spirit of post-racial New York.

I stepped onto a half-empty “A” train at 59th street. The Hispanic dude next to me was man-spreading so hard I had to bark at him: “Can you stop, bro?” I said. He angrily obliged.

In one of the rare events where I can hear the announcement onboard one of those old-school subway trains from 40 years ago, the lady warned: “Ladies and gentlemen, if you see something, say something. Don’t be a victim—do not carry your wallets or valuables in your back pocket, always keep purses and pocketbooks in your sight. And have a great day.” I slapped my head, and people took notice of this. Maybe they thought I was a loon, but I only wanted others to be exasperated with me.

At 125th, I accidentally bumped into a tall white guy. He’d been holding his baby’s stroller in one hand, and was sharing half his attention with his wife and their child. He smiled. He spoke a soft “sorry,” and I did the same. We both noticed he’d dropped a credit card. I knelt down and reached for it because I’m a good person.

I instantly regretted that decision. The look of terror on that tall, golden-haired hipster’s face, his frowning blue eyes, his flushed red skin, these things made me question whether or not he deserved to live in Harlem. You must have some nerve when your single generation of white millennials mass evicts several generations of blacks. Looking at that man, and with a brief glimpse of his even more nervous wife, informed me that white America had sent their B-team into the ghetto. How about an army of Schwarzeneggers or an entourage of Van Damms? I can bet they wouldn’t worry about getting robbed. This family was pudding, and I thought If I were a thief, I’d probably be like ‘well, I wasn’t planning on stealing today…but this guy’s a pussy, so maybe I should.’

I allowed him to pick up his card, I turned abruptly, and hurried home. I’m not a thief, but there’s a real problem when I have to prove this by showing my love for books, or Springsteen, or Birkenstocks. In a world like ours, I want to believe change is on the horizon, but I’m still worried I’ll get shot for wearing a hoodie, and “fitting the profile” of a jewelry swiper.

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.