I saw you walking toward me that morning, spotting you a half block away. Between us, dozens of teenagers clogged the narrow sidewalk, all boarding buses for a summer field trip, their parents hurriedly saying goodbye, giving hugs and rushing in various directions. You held your head down, eyes never leaving the pavement. In other spaces—only walking distance away— your presence would be commonplace, and seeing you among all those other students would be part of just another day. However, there you were, book bag slung over your tense, raised shoulders, a young Black man in a sea of white faces.
I was hurrying to my office, mentally prepping for my first meeting of the morning. I had my earbuds in, a signifier that “I’m busy; I’m in a hurry; I’m listening to something important.” I had no time to be bothered.
I was unaware you even saw me; your eyes never seemed to waver from the pavement. But as you came nearer, pushed closer by the crowding of the sidewalk, in the midst of all the chaos around us, you held out a torn piece of yellow paper to me without saying a word. As though we knew each other from way back when and this is how we communicated.
In that moment, I almost keep walking.
I almost make the choice to ignore you, music too loud to hear interruptions. But I stop, remove my earbuds, take the torn piece of paper and read it. Scribbled, barely legible in blue ink, is the name of a nearby intersection and a time: 9:00 a.m.
“Are you going to this address?”
“Are you meeting someone here? Is someone picking you up?”
“You are really close. Keep walking down this sidewalk for one more block, and the next street will be your intersection.”
“OK. Thank you.” I return the piece of paper, and your eyes return to the sidewalk as you start walking.
I, however, remain frozen in place. A debate rages in my head, and I argue with myself about the right thing to do in that moment: Do I walk with you to the intersection and wait with you for your ride? What if your ride fails to show up? How long do I wait? Can I afford to miss this meeting? What if I don’t walk with you and something happens? Would my offer to walk with you make you more uncomfortable? Less safe, somehow? Why am I waging this battle in my mind for you, a young stranger who passed me a torn piece of paper, seeking directions and nothing more?
The all-too-familiar combination of anger and sadness swells in my body.
My body tightens, my throat constricts and I am overwhelmed with emotion that I have to ask myself these questions. That on this ideal summer morning, grass still wet with dew, on a beautiful, immaculately groomed university campus, I have to ask whether you will be safe waiting at an intersection for your ride.
I’m not being paranoid or irrational; I know this for sure. Black children across the country are being targeted, harassed and murdered simply for existing, for daring to act their young ages:
For swimming at neighborhood pools.
For sleeping in dorm common areas.
For selling water on a public sidewalk.
For brushing a backpack against a white woman’s backside.
For listening to rap music.
So yes, I worry about you in this space, and I worry I’m not doing enough in this moment to ensure your safety. It doesn’t matter whether you knew who I was, whether you’re a student at this university or in a local school, whether you live in my neighborhood or “belong” to me in any sense of the Western-colonial word.
When you were lost and in a sea of white faces, passing 20 other adults with children around your age, you handed me a torn piece of paper.
I like to think that I symbolized something specific to you in that space—support, accessibility, kinship—whether I wanted to or not. My responsibility is not one of duty or authority but one of a critical active conscience.
I want you and all Black children to live fully and audaciously in the world and reach your full potential. For me, education is a major factor in making that happen, but it requires teachers and administrators to be brave and declare their classrooms and schools critical active conscience spaces—safe spaces by intention and design.
Critical active conscience is an inner voice that immediately filters the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior through the lens of social and historical structures of power and oppression—in this case, how anti-Blackness and racism permeates the interactions of Black children and others. Critical active conscience requires us to not only take note of how marginalized and vulnerable folks are being denied space, voice and freedoms, but also to act, engage and center those same people in appropriate remedies.
This means that it is up to teachers and administrators to demand the full stop of the assault on Black children:
Black children and their hair.
Black children and their dress.
Black children and their bodies.
Black children and their well-being.
Higher education institutions must follow suit and promote themselves as critical active conscience spaces, too, not to protect students and faculty from scholarly scrutiny, critical inquiries or intellectual struggle and confrontation, but from faux theories and academic ascendancy. They must become critical active conscience spaces where, yes, intellectual iron sharpens intellectual iron—but only after reckoning with the historical and current structural suffering inflicted on Black people and other people of color by white people.
It is not political correctness, but a political reckoning.
All educational institutions, from pre-kindergartens to graduate schools, must stop granting legitimacy to benighted opinions (and the people who propagate them) that insist on denying other humans their humanity and dignity. Equality is where we must begin, not where we may hope to end. Only in starting there will we truly engage in the intellectual work that will improve and progress the human experience.
Young man, I do not know who you are. And yet, I want you to walk securely on these immaculately maintained sidewalks, and I want to exist without worrying about your physical safety in doing so. I work tirelessly so we can both, someday, cast those burdens aside.
After we meet, you aren’t aware of my next steps. But I am aware of yours. I walk a few feet from where we were, stand on the stairs of a nearby building so I can see you walking. You make it to the intersection, and about five minutes later, a car pulls up, you jump in and the car drives away.
I take a deep breath, start walking and mentally prepare to be late for my meeting—bracing myself for the colleagues who will say how the work we do suffers when these meetings aren’t prioritized and members aren’t on time. I re-insert my earbuds, which signify I’m busy. I’m in a hurry. I’m listening to something important. I have no time to be bothered.