1. In good company
At the left edge of a field of ombré blue flies a rough-legged hawk, talons extended, the dark brown tips of its tail and wings unfurled, mouth open mid-key. This is the cover of my book Smith Blue . I loved the image from the first moment I saw it. I love the hawk’s unapologetic hunger and vigor. That hunger, those talons, were nothing for which the hawk needed permission. For the cover of a book about surviving—thriving, even—in a time of global and domestic strife, Dudley Edmondson’s photo of a hawk in the midst of graceful predation is perfect. Dudley lives in Duluth. The summer my daughter turned four, my family spent a few days in northern Minnesota, aiming to take a break from the routine patterns of our lives. On our final day in the state, the three of us, plus our friend Sean Hill, drove to meet Dudley at a restaurant on the shore of Lake Superior.
As much as I liked Dudley’s art, it was clear that day that Ray, my husband, and Sean loved Dudley even more. The three men grew loud and large over our lunch together. They all sounded blacker to me in each other’s company than they usually tended to sound. Which means that they sounded comfortable and happy in their bodies, that they cracked jokes in a particular kind of way about particular kinds of things, that they laughed upon receiving these jokes as well as on delivering them, that they danced a little when they walked. This is not to say all black people are good and constant dancers. It is to say that these three men were happy and light, that there was—as I have often heard said about others, but I have not often been able to say about my husband or these two friends—a spring in their steps.
There is a joke I have heard more than once that there are only five black birders in the country. Two of them are Sean and Dudley. Another, Drew Lanham, is also my friend. Which is to say that I am, according to lore, personally acquainted with 60 percent of the nation’s black birders. This would be shocking if my life weren’t filled with statistics that put me in company with others who are also virtually alone.
The three men spent lunch comparing notes about living in America in black bodies that were regularly confused with the bodies of other black men. Funny at first, the stories of being mistaken for a birder half a foot taller with completely different hair. But they soon became less funny. What a menace, to live in bodies that might be anybody’s, that are so frequently assumed to be corrupt. To be followed through stores by security. To be stopped and frisked as they walked to their offices. To be both erased and singled out. Their storytelling was a performance of one-upmanship. This story was worse than that story, was worse than the story one of them had just told, and always—this was the crux of the celebration, that it had not yet come to this—there was another story, much worse, that at any given moment the survivors might be left behind to tell.
After lunch, Dudley took us to one of the bluffs surrounding Lake Superior. “It was there and gone before I even saw it,” he said, crouching in the spot where he’d captured our rough-legged hawk. He’d snapped the picture, but hadn’t taken aim. Dudley is a masterful photographer. I am not writing this to underplay his skills. That is one of the things that keep me up at night: worrying that I’ll make difficult work sound easy.
His camera, Dudley said, just happened to be pointing the right way at the right time.
2. The monument
“You wrote about a lynching that happened in your hometown,” Dudley told Sean as we left the poetry reading we’d all attended after our shared lunch. “I want to take you up the street to show you the memorial to a lynching that happened here.” We are all telling the same story. When writing about race, there can perhaps be precious little wholly fresh revelation. As with writing about motherhood. It has been the same story for as long as anyone can remember. As with writing about the corruption of the body. As with writing about the landscapes of our world.
We walked up a hill and looked toward the corner of First Street and Second Avenue. Ninety-four years and fourteen days earlier, the mutilated bodies of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie hung from a streetlight. For the sculptures erected there to memorialize the three, artist Carla Stetson used young local men as models.
This is where I am supposed to tell you the story behind the lynching of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie, though there really isn’t any reason for it. Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie were black bodies in the wrong place at the wrong time—which could be any place in this country, at any time.
Roustabout is one of the words used to describe Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie, which meant they worked for the John Robinson Circus as cooks and physical laborers. Consider outlandish : people—originally black people—who come from other places and bring with them “outlandish” ways of moving through the world. Consider hippie : in the Senegambian language known as Wolof, “hippi”—from which we get the terms hip, hippie, and hipster—means to open one’s eyes. And also to be sold downriver: a phrase that originally referred to the sale of enslaved human beings to more treacherous destinations along the Mississippi River basin. Words with derogatory shading—like roustabout — are often words that were associated with black bodies as they moved through America.
These particular roustabouts happened to be working in a circus that visited Duluth. On June 15, 1920, a mob of white men—some say more than a thousand, while others say as many as ten thousand—wanted them dead. The three men were being held in jail, supposedly for their protection. “The people who were outside were saying, ‘Just give us somebody,’ and that first somebody was a young man named Isaac McGhie,” says Michael Fedo, author of the book The Lynchings in Duluth .
Our little party spent a good deal of time walking around the monument. It fills a whole corner of the block and features quotations by people like James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Euripides. “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.” Oscar Wilde. “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” Albert Einstein. Siddhartha Gautama: “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one getting burned.” Over the top of the monument scrolls a quote from Edmund Burke: “An event has happened upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.” The quotations are familiar. If not in their particulars, at least in their ilk. Written against the damage we do to others and ourselves. The only new language on the monument is the description of the final hours of the lives of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie.
I pointed my camera catty-corner across the street to the site where McGhie, Jackson, and Clayton were killed. (I keep using their names because I don’t want to let myself be part of the men’s erasure.) Duluth has maintained its brick streets in this section of town, but in places, as in the intersection of First Street and Second Avenue, there are tarred spots to patch potholes. My photo also reveals a crack in the sidewalk leading toward Second Avenue. The harsh climate in Duluth takes its toll.
In the image, the streetlight on that particular corner was attached to an arm from which hung a number of signs. The first sign read first st . The second was gray with a white p in a blue circle. Public Parking, it read. A white arrow indicated which direction to proceed. The final sign, closest to the traffic light—which was red in my photo—was black-and-white. It read one way . An arrow pointed in the direction of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial. Sometimes it is easy to draw meaning from the arbitrary order of things.
Ray’s arms are long, and so it was he who captured a photograph of all of us in front of the monument. My four-year-old daughter, three of my favorite black men, Nancy, and me.
3. Routine traffic stop
That night in Duluth, dinner turned into a lingering dessert. The restaurant closed around us. Callie fell asleep with her head in my lap.
Our family had to fly back to Colorado early the next day. We finally said goodbye to Dudley. In the front seat of the car, Sean and Ray kept up their conversation. The two-lane highway was dark. Callie and I tried to doze in the backseat’s blackness. Ray passed two sedans. Lights and a siren filled our car.
When the Minnesota State Patrol officer approached the passenger-side window, he found two black men prepared for the worst. Sean’s hands were open and positioned on the dashboard. Ray’s arms were in the air, the wallet in his hand already open to his ID. Long before he met me, Ray attended police academy in California. There are over a thousand code violations you can come up with, he told me. If you want to pull someone over, he told me, you can always come up with a reason. He told me this three years ago, when we were driving in our new town in Colorado and, for no apparent reason, he was pulled over. I asked, What were you doing wrong? This, he reminded me, is an irrelevant question.
“Uh, sir,” said the officer, clearly startled by the two black men in their positions of surrender, “you can put your hands down.”
Ray did so, but very slowly, handing his ID to the officer as part of the arc. The cop, after trying to strike a balance between reassuring him and scolding him for speeding, walked to the squad car and ran the license numbers to see if there were warrants in Ray’s name. Mosquitoes swarmed through the open window as the officer handed Ray his citation. I slowly covered my daughter’s exposed skin with a light sweater, trying not to alarm anyone with a sudden slap.
I’d been in Minnesota the year before to teach at the same writers’ conference that had brought my family to the state that summer. The day I flew in the first time, self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old black kid walking home from buying snacks. Our routine traffic stop happened just a week after Texas police shot and killed thirty-eight-year-old Jason Harrison, a black man. And one month earlier, Eric Garner, a black forty-three-year-old father of six, had been choked to death by New York Police Department officers. It was six weeks before Ferguson police shot Michael Brown, and five months before Cleveland police shot and killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice while he played in a community recreation center. I made it clear to Callie that she should not open her mouth to ask what was going on.
Nine months before we were pulled over, unarmed twenty-four-year-old Jonathan Ferrell endured and died from ten gunshot wounds when he approached police officers while seeking help after a car accident. Moses Wilson, one of the jurors who sought a murder conviction for the police officer who shot Ferrell, said after the trial, “It became not what he did, or what they did to him, but more, what he didn’t do, what he should have known what to do, so that the police would not either beat him silly or shoot him.” These are some of the reasons that Sean’s hands remained on the dashboard when we were pulled over.
Sandra Bland had not yet been killed after a routine traffic stop in Waller County, Texas, but in June 2012, the unarmed twenty-three-year-old Shantel Davis had been shot by police just after shouting, “I don’t want to be killed, don’t kill me!” In a month, Renisha McBride would be shot in the head when she knocked on a door seeking help after a car accident in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. I wish I could say that the night my family sat on the side of the road in Minnesota I couldn’t have imagined that two years later, just thirty minutes from the airport we would use to fly out of the state the next day, four-year-old Dee’Anna Reynolds would find herself trying to console her mother from the backseat of a car whose driver, Philando Castile, had just been shot and killed by a panicked police officer. But I worry about such horrors all the time. These incidents, those that happened before and those that would happen later—like the monument we’d visited earlier that afternoon—were not irrelevant to our behavior that evening.
The four of us had no voices as we pulled back onto the highway and drove north through the pitch-black night.
After a few miles, Ray laughed, breaking our silence. “One thing we can say for sure,” he said into the darkness, remembering the officer’s shocked expression when we rolled down the window and he took us all in. “That was not a case of driving while black.”
These are the jokes you make when you are always, at some level, afraid for your life.
“Traveling While Black” is a modified version of an essay that appears in Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History , published June 2017 by W.W. Norton & Company.