It was sometime in the late eighties. I don’t remember why I was walking down Amsterdam Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but I was within a block or two of where I lived at the time.
What I do remember, vividly even now, is approaching the corner of Amsterdam and 92nd just as a group of three or four Black kids, all pre-teens, were rounding that same corner and bounding toward me. They were horsing around, as kids that age do, and one of them — the shortest, maybe ten years old — wasn’t watching where he was going. He was moving fast, looking in the wrong direction, and had no idea that I was there, closing in on him.
Before I could do anything to avoid it, his head slammed into my left hand, just where I wear my watch. It had to hurt. It didn’t do any real damage to either of us, but it spun him around so that he could actually see me for the first time. It also spun me around so I was facing him.
My first thought was that he might be hurt, and I blurted out “Are you okay?” He nodded right away, in a relieved and strangely grateful way. He saw that it was an accident, saw that, yeah, I was an old White guy but I had not hit him intentionally. No harm, no foul.
But it was in the split second before that nod, before he understood what had just happened, that a look came over his face — a reflexive cringe — that I carry with me to this day.
It was the cringe of a small person who is no stranger to getting hit without warning. Who gets hit too often, and expects to get hit again. There was weary resignation in his eyes, as if to say “Damn, what did I do now?”
I thought of this last Thursday as I watched Al Sharpton deliver the eulogy at the funeral of George Floyd.
We New Yorkers have known Reverend Al for decades. Around the same time that kid was slamming into me, Al was out there, getting in our faces, demanding and commanding the public eye.
Now seen mostly as a sober and deliberate MSNBC pundit, we remember Al fifty pounds heavier and larger than life. To New Yorkers, he was the quintessential civil rights firebrand, a flamboyant but reliable presence at protests, rallies, demonstrations, anywhere there were Black lives not mattering.
Always polarizing, sometimes buffoonish, never boring, Al was a showman, and cameras always managed to find him.
Thursday’s eulogy was a throwback to that time. Strident and mesmerizing, he drew on all the call-and-response preacher chops he has honed over his lifetime.
His best set piece — which has since received much attention — was a litany of the many things Black people could have done, could have created, could have accomplished, if only White people would “Get your knee off our necks.”
And there it was. With one deft turn of phrase, Al conjured, from George Floyd’s abominable death, the perfect metaphor for 400 years of oppression:
Get your knee off our necks.
Seen through that lens, I now have a better understanding of the look on that kid’s face. It was the look of someone with a knee on his neck.
To White people — those who are well-meaning and carry a modicum of social conscience — racism is an abstraction. It’s something we learn about in school. Something we see as an unfortunate legacy, a holdover from a darker time in our history.
But we don’t really notice it. We’re sort of embarrassed by it, especially when we consider how we benefit from it, as our forebears have for generations, which is not something we’re comfortable with. So we’d rather think about the progress, which is slow, but hey, these things take time, right? Setbacks are to be expected, right? Besides, we voted for Obama, right? Twice.
To Black people, there is nothing abstract about it. It’s an everyday background hum, not so much of hostility — though there’s plenty of that — but of condescension, patronizing tones, and covert exclusions. It’s going through life with the knowledge that nothing about you — no effort, character trait, social contribution, talent, or expertise — will ever matter more than your color.
That kid on the West Side would be in his forties now, and I wonder how he turned out. I wonder if he got a decent education. I wonder if he avoided the destructive, often deadly hazards that far too many in his demographic faced. And face to this day.
I wonder if he still lives in the City, and if he stayed safe from the virus. I even wonder if he was marching last Thursday, and if he wore a mask. If he saw the video of Reverend Al’s eulogy. If he took something good from the moment.
What I don’t wonder about is that knee on his neck. I know it’s still there.