This is an article written by Ivan Penn for the Baltimore Sun 15 years ago. He discusses his life growing up and the trials and tribulations he faced growing up. He wasn’t a criminal, but some of the people he encountered thought he was. Why? He was black and male. No explanations needed.
Anyway, Penn – with no apologies – breaks it down on why it’s tough to be a black man:
It’s hard being a black man in America. I don’t know any other way to say it. I wrestled over and over again trying to find the most literary and eloquent way, but, well, there it is.
And I make no apologies for how I said it. No one has apologized to me for making it hard to be a black man.
Three Baltimore City prosecutors never said they were sorry on the three occasions they assumed I was a defendant awaiting trial because I was sitting in a courtroom at Baltimore Circuit Court. But I guess I fit the description of the usual suspects – young, black and male. Oh, I almost forgot: I wasn’t wearing a tie those days.
“What case are you here for?” each of them asked me.
“I’m with the Baltimore Sun,” I responded.
The incidents happened while I was reporting on the courts during the last few months. It’s not that I’m bitter. By the third time, I didn’t even feel the initial sting that I felt when I first heard the question.
But it hurts. And the damage becomes more evident over time, like when a battered eye turns black the next day.
Of course, black eyes heal. But these kinds of pain for black men never seem to go away.
I’ve faced them since childhood – the painful stares that suggested that I didn’t belong in the place I was standing and walking, the suspicion that I might be a thief or the dumbing down of information to help me understand something that seemed rather elementary.
Sometimes I become numb to it all and accept it as a way of life in America. But this isn’t a story about me. It’s about a black man. I just know this story better than any other.
While the details may vary, I hear similar tales from other black men – whether rich or poor, old or young, innocent or guilty.
That’s part of the reason why there’s always a suspicion of conspiracies against black folks in the justice system, in the workplace and in the society at large.
It doesn’t matter whether an attack on a black political figure, religious leader or youth is legitimate or not. There is suspicion because many people have assumed someone was guilty just because the person is black and male.
That’s a lot of pressure, and it’s no wonder black folks are always told while growing up, “You’ll have to work twice as hard.”
Born in Southeast Washington, I had a taste of the inner city. My parents, D.C. public school teachers, moved to Silver Spring when I was 6. This wasn’t downtown Silver Spring. At that time, it was a part of Silver Spring where the major intersection at the nearby shopping center had stop signs, no traffic lights.
I moved from an elementary school that was virtually all black to one that was 95 percent white. From that point on, I was always different – except when it came to the bottom line on which all black men can relate.
I was never ostracized by white students, perhaps because those who knew me always looked at me as different from some of the other black boys. I spoke standard English (remember my parents were teachers). I dressed conservatively, often wearing my church clothes to school, which would later win me “best dressed” high school senior.
Sometimes I was referred to by my white friends as their “little black buddy.” Because I befriended the whites and spoke standard English, my black peers called me an Oreo – black on the outside, white on the inside. Others would tell me to look in the mirror.
Some people viewed a black person seeking an education as acting white. This was the mid-1970s.
Troubled by the accusation that I was acting white, I sought some support from my mother.
“Are you black?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“If you are black, you don’t have to act black,” she told me. “What is acting black anyway?”
It eased my mind for the moment, but it was frightening that I could be alienated by the one community of which I was naturally a part.
I was doing well in school, particularly in math. A guy named Brian Nicosia and I would finish our math tests so quickly that our teacher would grade them before other students finished theirs. Then she had us grade the other tests.
The teachers decided to move us into the advanced math class, where we continued to do well and more on the level where it was a challenge. I was the only black student in that class and in most of my classes.
After that year in fourth grade, I was never in a math class with Brian again. I was put back on the same level in fifth grade that I finished in fourth. I told the teacher, “I had this book last year.” That was the only thing I could explain at that time.
She replied, “Maybe you didn’t finish it.” And I stayed in her class.
I never really liked math much after that. I didn’t tell my parents what happened, until I was older and reflected on that memory.
By middle school, I felt even more like a misfit. I was in a school that was 95 percent white, while going to a church several times a week that was all black.
And nowhere did I hear much positive about black men. In school, it was expected that black children would get into trouble and not do well in class. In church, the question always was, “Where are our black men?” And at home on television, the police were handcuffing another black man.
Those images have left an onus on “successful” black men to give back to the church, their families and the community. The job wants you 24 hours a day, as does the church, the family and the community.
It’s hard being a black man.
I’ve always been known as the nice church guy who spoke standard English. But everyone, of course, doesn’t know me. To too many people, I’m just a black guy. And that makes normal challenges in life more difficult to overcome.
There was the time I walked into the clothing store at the Wheaton shopping mall in Montgomery County with a bag in my hand. I was in my early teens. A clerk kindly informed me that it was store policy to hold customers’ bags while they shop.
I had no problem with store policy – until some white customers walked in with their bags and were never asked to have them put away for safekeeping. That’s when I left. Such incidents happen too frequently.
The funny thing about history is that those with guilty consciences find relief in saying that that was in the past. Just as judges from the U.S. 4th Circuit did when they killed the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship – a scholarship for black students – at my alma mater, the University of Maryland, College Park.
The judges said no vestiges of past discrimination existed that warranted a federally funded scholarship for black people. They said they could see no problems to suggest that black people were uncomfortable at the University of Maryland.
Well, I was uncomfortable the night I left my 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. journalism class one Tuesday night in 1992.
I walked to the parking lot, where there were dozens of students, and just before I put the key in to open the car door, a campus police officer stopped about 15 feet away and shined his light on me.
Although fearing I might become another Rodney King, I decided to play along and hoped he would approach me. I had been the first black editor-in-chief of the campus daily, The Diamondback, in more than 80 years of the paper’s history. I knew the officer’s boss, the campus president and others.
So I waited to see what he was going to do before opening the door. Seconds later – it felt like forever – he drove off. I thought it was over, but he simply turned into another lane in the parking lot and continued to shine his light on me. I decided to stretch my arms and continue waiting.
Finally he pulled away, and I went home.
A few days later, I ran into a campus police captain I knew and told him the story. The captain, who was black, said that there had been several car thefts on campus, and that the suspects were black males. He said the officer had to make sure I wasn’t one of the suspects.
Besides, the captain said, nothing happened, although it could have if I had tried to run. The captain said that he knew me and that I wasn’t the kind of person who would run.
But on that night, the officer just saw me as a black man.
I know that many people endure weird kinds of incidents such as these, whether black or white. And I have questioned at times whether I was misreading what was going on or if in fact race was the issue.
My white college friend, Keith Paul, wore his hair long and said the police sometimes thought he was a drug dealer. Keith said he always was concerned that his appearance would be a hindrance on job interviews.
One day he cut his hair and put on a suit. I almost didn’t recognize him. He was able to transform his image with a haircut and a suit. Some people have a preconceived notion about me that won’t change no matter what I do. It doesn’t matter whether my hair is short or long or whether I wear jeans or a suit.
I remember wearing a suit when I went to talk with the man about buying a condominium in Columbia three years ago. He was cordial, but I can’t say the bank was kind.
I was 25 and looking to buy a three-bedroom condo. I know it’s standard for the bank to ask for certain documents before closing the deal, but I never imagined I would need my college transcript.
It was one of the items the bank placed on my list of required documents. I guess bank officials figured that if I had failed English, I wouldn’t be able to write out the mortgage check. Or if I failed math, I wouldn’t understand how much I had to pay. Or perhaps they assumed I was a drug dealer, like the police thought about Keith.
I guess I could have cut my hair even shorter. I was wearing a suit.
Well, I gave them what they asked for, and the loan went through.
At one of the most difficult times in my life, a former boss told me that he always had to give 110 percent at whatever he did and that I needed to focus to be successful. Trying to focus was challenging enough, but – remember black folks are told they have to work twice as hard – I as more daunted by the fact that I would have to give 220 percent rather than just 200.
One of the more painful things really is that in all of these incidents, and there are others, no one ever apologized. No one ever considered the mental and emotional burden that a black man carries.
There should be a time set aside at least once a year when black men can give a collective holler. It might not free us from this yoke, but it might make it a little easier to bear.
Some people who will read this will only consider this article as ‘complaining’ or ‘whining’. They will likely shove their “Your pain isn’t as bad as mine” narcissism to pimp sympathy for their own benefit. Some will find any and all excuses as to not call it what it is, a personal and real account of a black man in a racist society. We all know the types who will stoop to this kind of behavior.
This article was published 15 years ago, but like they say, some things never change. This issues mentioned in this dated article are the same issues faced today. America, even with its first black President, has yet to deal with its racial pathology.
There are many times that I – myself – want to holler. (In fact I want to holler right now!) There are many more times where I want to cry as opposed to laugh – more times being angry than happy. No one with a right mind will say that I somehow deserve it. Yet, there are many soulless individuals who will, in as few of words as possible, will say that I brought it upon myself – for simply being black.
It is the kind of world Ivan Penn, myself and countless other black men live in. And like Penn, I make no apologies for this post or any other like it.