Photo: Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media
There comes a time in a Black woman’s life when she gets the dreaded call from a Black man that she cares about.
“I’ve just been pulled over,” says her husband, boyfriend, father, son, favorite cousin or friend.
I got the call a few weeks ago. My partner, a Black man, was driving home one night from Meriden. His GPS had taken him through a neighboring town, known by some as a place where white police officers have harassed Black drivers — especially men and after the sun goes down.
In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, Black people often referenced a traveler’s guide, called The Negro Motorist Green Book, also known as The Green Book. This publication told Black road-trippers and drivers where it was safe to travel and which businesses were friendly to us.
Today, I wish there was a feature like that on our GPS. I wonder if Dr. Gladys West, a Black woman, had considered this when she created the GPS technology that Americans use today. Right now, we’re pretty much just using word of mouth to share places where we’ve had racist experiences.
My partner was traveling south to get home and planned to take Interstate 91, but Google Maps had taken him on back roads.
“I’m on Main Street. There’s a convenience store,” he said. “I’m telling you this in case …”
He didn’t have to finish the sentence. I knew what he was saying. He was telling me his location in case the police officers assaulted him, killed him or if he mysteriously went missing. My partner was telling me his location in case the police officers decided to kneel on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, like the Minneapolis police officer did to George Floyd, or put him in a choke hold like they did to Eric Garner in Staten Island, or if the officers shot him like they did Philando Castile, or the countless number of other Black men killed in “routine” traffic stops.
My partner sounded concerned. I was terrified. He was alone on the road. There were no bystanders to record his interaction with the officers. I thought about my dad’s experience in the same town.
In the late ’70s and ’80s, my grandparents lived there. My dad, a Black man, often visited my mother at their house when they were dating. One night while he was driving to her house, police pulled him over and beat him during the “routine” traffic stop. “It was the worst butt whoopin’ I ever got in my life,” my dad says.
While my partner talked to me on the phone, I thought about all of the deadly interactions that Black people have had with the police, present day and historically. I felt myself getting warm and sweaty. I couldn’t keep my clammy hands from trembling. I took deep, slow breaths quietly so he wouldn’t hear how afraid I was for him. I quickly tried to devise a plan if something did happen to him. Who would I call? Should I pack my kids up and drive out to where he was? Would it make matters worse? Would we all end up dead?
Thankfully, my partner was able to drive home with just an illegible ticket — no bruises, no scars or bullet wounds. I was so relieved that he was able to walk away with just post-traumatic stress. It’s crazy to think about how traumatic interactions are with the police, even when they let you out of their sight unharmed.
When my partner got home, I listened to the frustration in his voice about how he had to apologize to another man who disrespected him. But he had to because his life depended on it. He didn’t have the luxury of discussing his point of view with the officer because he didn’t want to escalate the situation. He just wanted to return home to his family.
I tried to imagine what my mom may have said to my dad after the officers assaulted him to try to comfort him. I tried to imagine what my grandmothers may have told my grandfathers, and my great-grandmothers to my great-grandfathers to comfort their husbands who may have had bad interactions with police officers. I tried to think about what my ancestors told their liberated husbands after they encountered slave catchers. I still don’t know what the right words are. It’s not like there are comforting Hallmark cards for this kind of thing.
I did my best to comfort him, but I was just so happy that my partner was home safely. Nothing else mattered in that moment. In hindsight, I realize that I shouldn’t just be satisfied that he survived a traffic stop. We shouldn’t be happy to survive routine things. We should be able to expect more from the people who have been employed to keep everyone safe.
Stacy Graham-Hunt is a national-award winning columnist and author, who writes about race and identity. She is passionate about Black people telling their own stories. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on social media @stacyreports.