I Am a Man

Imagine sitting along the Potomac — on the afternoon of August 28, 1963 — near the Memorial Bridge, which pierces into the heart of the Arlington plantation. You could probably hear the orations and ovations taking place on the other side of the river, just around the front of the Lincoln Memorial.

An historic “March on Washington” was reaching its crescendo that hot and sunny day with the arrival of a 34 year-old preacher from Georgia; a man mature beyond his years who helped transform the face of this nation.

You wonder if the traffic on the GW Parkway, which snakes along the shoulder of our county, had slowed, as it does on the night of the Fourth of July. Did people line the banks on our side and listen to young Martin Luther King declare, “I have a dream today”?

When he spoke of “freedom” and “free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we’re free at last,” did we get it?

If you’re white, as am I, you may have puzzled, “What does he mean, ‘free at last’?” There is no slavery. People aren’t held against their will … at least they weren’t before the current Administration took office.

But I am not a black man. I did not live in a nation where it was considered ‘sport’ in some states to grab a black man from his home and drag him, with his wife and children watching, to the nearest big tree, where he was spit upon and summarily lynched by a hateful, bloodthirsty crowd.

Imagine; just try to imagine living in a world where you knew this could happen to you at any time and any place for any reason. What kind of life is that? Are you free to live “in pursuit of happiness”? Does your gut clench every night when you try to go to sleep and every morning when you raise into consciousness, wondering if this was the day the cowardly-hooded night-riders would burst into your life?

Move forward to today. In a training session at the office, the leader asks each person how they would describe themselves. “What is the one characteristic that defines you?” Each of us spoke of such things as belief, parent, spouse, or social class. But, when Joseph’s turn came, he simply said, “I am black. That is the one thing I am reminded of every day.”

Do we make that reality happen for the Joseph’s and the Mary’s and Lamar’s?

When you are seated in a restaurant, do you take a second look, when an African-American couple is shown to their booth? At the grocery store, do you find yourself looking into the shopping cart of an African-American mother, as she empties it on the belt? Do you wonder, “Is she going to use food stamps?”

And when you are walking along Columbia Pike or in Clarendon, do you feel uncomfortable if a loud bunch of young African-American youngsters or young adults approaches on the sidewalk?

Finally, when you are driving, if you’re white, you don’t live in fear that you might be stopped by the police, for whatever reason. You aren’t grabbed by the terror that a traffic stop might end with a night in jail, because you ‘look like’ someone who’s being sought for a crime.

Consider this: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, African Americans make up12.7 percent of the US population and 48.2 percent of adults in state and federal prisons and local jails. Human Rights Watch reports, “black men [in 2000] were eight times more likely to be in prison than white men.”

This is an outrage! Add in the facts of intimidation of black voters in Florida and the car chases that have led, here in the Washington area, to the police killing of innocent African-Americans, and we get a tiny inkling of what it means to be black in 2007.

So, who is “free” in these United States? Take a moment to mentally “walk in the shoes” of a person of color, and then step into a store, a diner, or on a sidewalk. Only when we can see each other as the person in front of us, and not the person of color in front of us, will we have reached the time when we all are “free at last.” Let us work, truly work, to make that “dream” happen. Let us end the nightmare of soul-eating prejudice that lurks inside.

Nick Penning,, is an Arlington, Va., freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.