Today’s guest columnist is Thom Gossom, Jr.
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(Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared on Facebook and is being published with permission of author)
I remember “the talk.”
The talk that black fathers gave and probably still give to their sons. It was time. I was probably getting closer to driver’s license age and that meant I could venture further from the nest on my own.
The talk was serious. No! It wasn’t the sex talk. We had that one too. It was like the sex itself. Quick and… well you know.
No, this talk was far more serious. It was the survival talk. How to survive an incident with the Birmingham police or a gang of angry white people. What has stayed with me all these years, was his concern. There was a threat out there and there was nothing he could do about it but pass down lessons I could call on when needed. “Keep your hands visible at all time. Do whatever they tell you. Don’t make any sudden moves. Call home as soon as you can.”
Fortunately, as a teen in the 1960’s, in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, I steered clear of the police and angry white people. We lived in a nice little neighborhood near the Birmingham Airport. It was the kind of neighborhood where we, my friends and I, could hang out at night under the street light and talk and laugh until it was time to go into our respective homes. It was a great place to grow up.
We lived in the county and every now and then a sheriff’s deputy would roll through the neighborhood. If we saw him first, we ran. Got out of eyesight. We would meet back up when he was gone. I told that to my wife many years later (she grew up differently) and she immediately asked, “why?” I responded, “Because it was the police.” We weren’t doing anything wrong. It was just best to avoid an encounter if you could. On a couple of occasions when the officer drove up on us before we could run without looking suspicious, he’d stop and ask us what we were doing. Or tell us to get our hands out of our pockets. We would always comply. He was never mean. But we never felt like he was there “to protect and serve us.” It felt more like he was there to keep us in line.
Those feelings have stayed with me far into adulthood. I’ve had some encounters. I’ve kept my hands visible. I’ve responded “yes sir” and “no sir” to young men in uniform half my age. On one occasion, I sat in the front seat of the friendly police officer’s car on the Opp, Alabama bypass and explained how my wife’s Prius Hybrid I was driving ran on both gas and a battery and where he could get one. I had an officer flip the little safety thing on his holster and put his hand on his gun, as we faced each other about 15 yards apart on Interstate I-85 coming out of Montgomery about 2:30 one morning. We were both scared. I could tell he was scared of me although I did nothing to raise his fear. His fear made me afraid of him. I raised my hands like in a western movie and explained what I was doing, where I worked and a bunch of other unnecessary information.
I had two police officers, in an unmarked car, stop me for speeding (I was) heading into Atlanta. They were not in uniform and in an unmarked sports car. From their look they could have been undercover. I was driving a new white Mercedes. It stood out. I explained that I was an actor and that I was late for an audition. That obviously didn’t go over too well because they proceeded to have me get out of the car, search my car, going through the glove compartment, and under the seats. They made me open the trunk. Searched the trunk. When I asked what were they looking for, they ignored me and continued the search. They never threatened me but it was scary. I said, “I don’t have any weapons or drugs.” Later I asked, “How do I know you won’t plant some drugs in my car?” They didn’t respond, didn’t find anything, and got back into their vehicle and sped off. I took a deep breath, wondered what had just happened and continued on my journey. I made the audition.
Later in life I gave “the talk” to my teen son before he went out one night. Because this was 30 years later than my talk with my Dad, and the world had moderated somewhat, it was of less significance to him. His teen world was a more diverse one than mine had been. He assured me that he would not be doing anything wrong or get into any trouble. I replied, “It’s not you I’m worried about son.”
A month ago when the news broke that Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man, was gunned down vigilante style by two white men in Georgia who felt they had that right, my now adult son, living in Georgia, with his own family, called and expressed his concern for the temperament of the country and his own safety. He felt the need to be better able to protect himself and his family. We had to have another “talk.”
Thom Gossom, Jr. is an actor, writer, speaker, and communications consultant. The first black athlete to graduate from Auburn University, he is featured in the HBO special, Breaking the Huddle, about the integration of Southern College Football. His memoir is WalkOn, My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University.
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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.