AM I LIVING FREE?

By William Brown

“If you can control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”  ― Carter Godwin Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro

There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone entitled “The Hitch-Hiker.” The main character embarks on what should normally be a pleasant cross-country road trip from New York City to Los Angeles, but it soon becomes rife with terror as the driver encounters a mysterious hitchhiker who appears at every corner along the highway. No matter where she goes or how far she drives, the hitchhiker always seems to be ahead of her. Moreover, she seems to be the only person who can see this looming specter. 

This menacing storyline rings eerily and metaphorically familiar to my experiences navigating my acculturation into America’s dominant culture and its belief in white biological and cultural superiority and in maintaining the status quo of racial inequality. I am tormented by the trauma I have endured at every corner. I can’t shake it, and I fear that the turns I’ve taken in life, choices I’ve made and destinations I’ve selected were not driven by a sense of direction or purpose, but instead were subconscious reactions to the abject terror and various acts of aggression I’ve suffered due to the skin I’m in. I am haunted by phantoms the world refuses to acknowledge. I question whether I’m living free, or simply enacting conditioned responses to anti-Blackness.

Identity & Theological Abuse

We weren’t the most religious family, but when we did attend Sunday School, my pressing questions regarding what I saw as contradictions between what was preached as God’s love and the lived experiences of Black people weren’t well received in the church. I was instructed to “walk by faith, not by sight,” and not to ask such questions. We didn’t broach the subject of racism in regular school, either. The books of theologians offered the only answers I could find.  Through reading, I learned of “The Curse of Ham.”  Referencing Genesis 9, 18-27 Biblical theologians taught that Ham was cursed.  Although I never saw a Black person in a Bible; Ham was Black, his descendants were Africans, and because of this curse, the chattel enslavement of Africans in America was deemed the will of God.  The subsequent human trafficking; death, murder, brutal torture, rape, child molestation, separating children from their families, theft, oppression, subjugation to white people, injustices, etc., were also the will of God – the same God Black people were supposed to worship (in the form of a white Jesus) in order to be saved.  Black people were also supposed to submit to their white masters as unto Christ (per Ephesians 6, 5-7). 

To those thinking how cruel it is to teach that God would sanction such crimes against humanity, this isn’t a far cry from the patriotic “history” taught in schools.  Students are taught romanticized European/white imperialism and nationalism, and that the resultant human trafficking, slavery, theft, rape, murder, torture, terrorism, child molestation, racism, oppression, and injustice, etc., was not only God’s “Manifest Destiny,” it was morally exceptional.

Projections & Prophecies of Inequity

I remember the Fourth Grade for two reasons: 1) it was the first time I was asked to fill out demographic forms, and 2) I was assessed and deemed a Gifted student, having scored a 148 on an IQ test. When filling out these forms, I was paralyzed with cognitive dissonance regarding whether to check the Black box or not. If I checked the Black box, I would be identifying with all the negative stereotypes of Black men I was bombarded with daily, and I did not want to identify myself with that.  I didn’t have any positive images to challenge the negative. I reluctantly selected Black. I had no choice. 

I didn’t know what Gifted meant, nor what an IQ of 148 was supposed to mean, but the teachers in my neighborhood schools didn’t treat me any differently. We were all basically told it would be a good thing “IF we graduated high school.” Talks of pursuing a college education never occurred.  The idea of college was one of mystique; beyond me, my ability, reserved only for white people and not for any one from my community. No one taught me to the contrary. I would behave according to that self-fulfilling prophecy for years after I graduated high school. Strangely, I was an inner-city kid who ended up attending high school in the mountains near Yosemite, where I was only 1 of 3 Black students in the entire school. I easily aced the classes that engaged me (which tended to be those other students deemed the most difficult), served as Class President for 3 years (which opened doors for a ton of other leadership activities), played football, swam on the swim team, and did whatever else that piqued my interest. 

During our Senior Awards Assembly, my name was never announced – not for a scholarship, nor college admissions. My Biology teacher was livid, and told me “William, there was no reason you shouldn’t have received the majority of the scholarships announced today, nor been accepted to the college of your choice.” This was the first time anyone told me this. My high school counselor never did. I didn’t apply to any colleges nor any for any scholarships. The mystique of college still haunted me. At least I graduated high school. That was good, right? Or had I become the fulfillment of a self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations of Black students?

Perpetually “Fitting the Description”

After graduation, I moved back to South Los Angeles where my mother and sisters lived. I grew up in Compton and Watts, places made infamous by gangster rap groups like NWA.  I’ve never had a gun pulled on me by a gangster or a criminal from “the hood,” but I’ve had guns pulled on me at least 10 times by police officers. It started at the age of 18. I imagine it would have started earlier when I received my drivers permit at 16, but I was still living in the mountains at that time, and officers weren’t common on mountain roads. No one had given me “the talk.” My mountain vernacular, along with my initial assumptions that what I was experiencing was standard procedure, likely spared me from many harsher forms of police brutality. I held my hands up and made no sudden moves because I was paralyzed with fear. Each incident was not a mere “routine” traffic stop. They were pretextual stops during which officers racially profiled me, hoping to find something, ANYTHING, they could use to justify my arrest. They sought proof of innate criminality, which they were sure my skin color would guarantee them. 

I broke down in tears one day as I relayed these experiences to a white former colleague and director of a burgeoning charter organization that had just expanded to 3 schools and was grappling with issues of race on their campuses. Struggling to comprehend my experiences, her only response was to ask, “were you dressed conservatively?” My being dressed casually wouldn’t justify my being stopped and detained at gunpoint without cause, but for those seeking to rationalize my mistreatment, on at least 5 of those occasions I was wearing a suit and tie and was still ordered down to my knees with my hands behind my head while they searched my car and violated my Fourth Amendment Rights.  The officers proudly and publicly displayed my humiliation and subjugation. If they couldn’t find evidence of my criminality, they made sure those passing by still saw me as a criminal.

Racism & Positionality: “Learning My Place”

Unbeknownst to me at the time, in many cases, the officers were also enforcing the borders of California’s Sundown Towns, all-white neighborhoods where, during the day, “Black people could move around, go shopping, or go to work, but come nightfall, they had to be gone or risk being arrested or beaten.” This became evident as during these stops, officers would often ask me, “what are you doing in this part of town?” One incident occurred in Westwood, California as I walked back to my car after watching a movie at The Bruin movie theater one night, near the campus of UCLA. Suddenly, I found myself briefly dazed and uncontrollably falling to my knees. I struggled to gather myself and began seeking the cause of my collapse.  

I discovered two police officers behind me, one brandishing a night stick as the other held a gun. It suddenly made sense: the officer with the baton had struck me in my lower back which triggered the buckling of my knees and sent me spiraling to the ground. They must have read the righteous anger in the expression on my face, a dangerous uppity emotion Black people didn’t have the luxury of expressing at times like this. “What are you going to do about it?” asked the officer brandishing the baton. The question sobered me. I averted my gaze, and quickly removed any evidence of pride and self-respect from my posture. Once the officers were assured that I was no threat and knew my place, they walked away. They held the power and wanted to make sure I knew it-not only the power to murder me, but the power to rewrite the narrative of my life for a public who would believe anything the officers reported because they, too, were convinced that the color of my skin represented a genetic predisposition to commit crime.  Subconsciously, I concluded I didn’t belong in a college town, those were reserved for white people, and white spaces weren’t safe for me.

Fitting the Description, Again

At the age of 26, I finally began my undergraduate studies. It took the unrelenting push of mentors to get me through the still mysterious collegiate applications process and to make sure the intimidation I felt didn’t deter me. Although much older, I decided to live on campus to get the full experience. I soon found myself in leadership positions, just like I had in high school. It didn’t take much time before I was profiled by on-campus security, as well as by the Sheriffs off campus. 

I was selected to represent the school at the National Student Leadership Forum, an annual event convened by Members of Congress and other prominent U.S. government leaders that invited “young people of diverse backgrounds and aspirations to put aside their differences and learn together how to better lead in their spheres of influence.” I hadn’t traveled much, and was thrilled to be flying to Washington D.C.  That excitement was dashed to pieces upon my arrival.  After yanking my suitcase off the airport baggage carousel, I headed for the exit to catch a shuttle to the hotel.  

Before I could reach the sliding doors, I was seized by Drug Enforcement Agents (DEA) who appeared seemingly out of nowhere brandishing AR-15 style rifles and began to question me in the airport lobby: “Who are you? Where are you coming from? Why are you here? How long will you be here? Where will you be going while you are here?” One agent recklessly rifled through my luggage during my interrogation. I proudly presented my invitation to the National Student Leadership Forum like it was a passport and began answering the questions. The agent never looked me in the eyes as I answered.  He never even looked at my invitation. I realized he wasn’t listening, and that the questions were a mere formality. His eyes were fixed on the other agent as he sought evidence of my criminality in my luggage.  Uncovering my guilt was the only aim.  There was no presumption of innocence. My pride turned to shame.

After the futile search, the agent said “sorry, just doing our job and making sure our city is safe from drug traffickers,” and walked off, leaving me to repack the clothes they left strewn on the floor of the airport – again, my dehumanization and shame displayed before the public.  Later that evening, students met at their designated host’s home for dinner and icebreakers. I broke down into tears.  I lived my life avoiding checking the “Black Box,” doing everything within my power to avoid actions that would be deemed stereotypical, only to discover Black stereotypes were a figment of the white imagination that I’d never be able to escape. I shudder to think of all the cultural pride I sacrificed at the altar of attempted assimilation over the years.

Am I Living Free?

Chronic exposures to racism have forced me to subconsciously associate trauma with merely existing in my Black skin. It’s a continual fight to free my sense of identity from associations with pain, dehumanization, and negative stereotypes because the attacks never cease.  

The trauma hasn’t always been as brazen as my negative encounters with law enforcement. My blood pressure rises in spaces where I must validate my dignity, rights, humanity, and value – which can occur in a staff meeting just as readily as it does on the side of the road during a traffic stop.  I carry the scars of years of microaggressions and being othered while navigating white spaces and the dominant white culture which permeates every facet of American society, and the global community it influences. It’s inescapable. 

I relive personal anguish with every report or video of yet another Black person suffering injustice. I feel unsafe and vulnerable whenever I approach the thresholds of marginalization and can see the other side, as if it’s not for me. Even the thought of traveling outside the designated Black areas in California that are segregated via redlining and gentrification make me uneasy – a fear with global implications. I’ve only traveled outside of the U.S. once, and that was just 2 years ago. Anxiety imprisoned me. I feared what would happen if I experienced racism abroad. At least in America I know what to expect and where to expect it.  

I’m not free.  The walls of marginalization are formidable, and the rules are constantly changing. Freedom is a continual pursuit in a society that absolutely has no problem seeing prison as my manifested destiny but can’t fathom my meriting anything better, yet alone deserving it by rights of citizenship or dignified humanity. Freedom and liberty still requires fighting and protest, and yet, I don’t know if I can experience freedom until it no longer has to be fought for, and I can just breathe. Until my children can just breathe. All Black children. All Black people. Until all the marginalized can exhale.


This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of Indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars.

Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s post from Dr. Erica Buchanan-Rivera and the #31DaysIBPOC website previous years’ contributions.

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