CIVIS ROMANUS
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CIVIS ROMANUS

Don’t Think. Be.

The quagmire of race relations is that space where black and white feelings meet.

It’s incomprehensibly difficult to “teach” the black experience. Race engagement is, after all, a football field of Bouncing Bettys. If you don’t come at us at that perfect point, with that perfect pitch, expressing the perfect words, you’re gonna go “boom.” You might not die, but you’re pulling back a nub, guaranteed. Cruel shake, right? Meh. Build a bridge, you’ll be fine. If — if — living with racism doesn’t kill me, a danger-soaked discussion about it won’t kill you either. Dust off, keep it moving.

Still, I think peril is a superficial explanation for those who stop just short of the water’s edge of contemplation. I teach race stuff. Also, I am black. I don’t have the luxury of blurring my eyes, or picking around the fringe, when it comes to process here. And I believe the true foil of race engagement is that place people go when they forget to be. Be people, I mean.

My grandmother played the piano beautifully, just as my mother and her sisters do now. When I speak of that “place people go,” I often think of these women. Much like my grandmother, neither my mother nor my aunts rank themselves among the good pianists of their era. Given the magic my ears hear, I’ve always found that peculiar. Every time one would pull out the piano bench, that first page of sheet music was announced with “well, I’ll do my best but . . .” I’ve often wondered whether they invited their low ceilings by thinking about the mechanics of playing the piano while actually playing the piano. It was almost as if they were so conscious of what they are doing, they couldn’t slip into its stream and start being.

The “race stuff” I teach is an undergrad class on the intersect between race and law. Quite naturally, then, racism is baked into whatever we discuss on any given day. Our early discussions are riddled with that “thinking about” phenomenon, and I push hard to breed that out of our exchanges. No great kernel of wisdom this, but humanity is a fixed tenet of successful social intercourse. Since our entire semester rides the third rail, my students work hard to get that humanity thing right. “How can I show empathy?” “How should I communicate our shared frustration?” “How can I express my outrage at what’s going on?” “How can I convey, from the deepest places in me, that I understand you, that I grieve for you, that I love you?” These nubile young minds and inclusive hearts hunger to master the art of genuine humanity.

Instead of, you know, just being genuinely humane.

By the end of the semester, the teacher becomes the student and I shove that batch out and limber up for the new. That process only bears fruit by not just sliding back the curtain around the human stain, but removing it all together.

Sit with that while I tell you a story.

Our family lives in Japan at the moment, and our youngest son came to visit awhile back. As all good things do, his visit came to an end, and my husband and I wrapped him up and sent him on his way. To my utter shock, I couldn’t stop crying as I watched him board his plane.

I cried because it wasn’t until that very moment that I realized how relieved I had been to have him here.

You see, my son Nicky has a dark complexion and is almost 6 feet, 280 pounds easily. In 2008, my husband I and took Nick and his siblings door-to-door campaigning in the ramp up to Barack Obama’s first election. We thought it would be a great civics exercise to let the older boys do the “knock and talk.” I had Nicky, so we practiced and then I stood on the sidewalk and sent him to his first house. Nicky knocked, once, twice. A few moments later, a woman — who was white — opened the door. And screamed.

Not gasped. Screamed.

It shocked the bejeesus out of all of us. But Nicky — sweet, goofy Nicky, bless his soul — had no idea what just happened. His head whipped back and forth, trying to identify the threat. He had no idea it was him.

But I knew. Calmly, I stepped to my left, into the woman’s line of sight. When she saw me, she blushed. Deeply. I could almost hear a ‘click’ when the mute embarrassment of it all thumped her: her reflexive, visceral race flag popped out, raw and naked, snapping in the wind for all to see. I took a few steps closer, to prompt Nicky to carry on. He did. But she kept glancing, a bit dog-faced, at me. And I kept smiling, reassuringly, at her. My Card is at risk here, but I was always moved at how she didn’t act justified and defensive. She was quite obviously saddened by her reaction, as was I — not for me, for my little boy.

You see, through the glances and smiles, we both knew: before she could get her straight face on, her ‘blink’ said Big. Black. Menace. She never saw the child on her doorstep. In that blink, her gut screeched — danger, threat, harm. And just like that, her gut became his identity, until I made her see him. Or, at least, see me.

That’s the world he lives in, the world I was returning him to. Except today, they don’t scream. Today, they shoot. And everyone shakes his or her head. “Yes, it is a tragedy. But she feared for her life. You understand, right? Be reasonable about this.”

So watching him walk away, that old companion came flooding back, constant fear of that goddamn call. I was about to return my baby boy to that gentrified house of slaughter. I was floored when I realized how afraid I was for my son in our own motherland.

So, outside, I wept, but inside, I seethed. No mother on the face of the universe should be forced to live with this admission price of Americanism.

You felt that, didn’t you? Not thought it — felt it. Of course you did. It’s hard not to. You were living anger or fear or disappointment or laughter or outrage — not thinking “how can I express . . .”

We spend almost all our waking moments experiencing things. There is no litany or check list we drill down to accomplish that either. We don’t think. We be.

Whatever other obstacles we face in race-driven engagement, let this one go. In this regard, at least, we enter that engagement possessing everything we need. In fact, we do so with more experience there than any of the other tenets that bind us. How could we not? We engage in these things with a lifelong history of simply being.

Retire this one — of course you’ve got it. You’ve been doing it all your life, you see.

Catherine Pugh is an Attorney at Law and former Adjunct Professor at the Temple University, Japan. She developed and taught Race and the Law for its undergraduate program, and Evidence, Criminal Law, and Criminal and Civil Procedure for its law program. She has worked for the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section, and as a Public Defender for the State of Maryland.

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Because sometimes equality is a contact sport.

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Catherine Pugh, Esq.

Catherine Pugh, Esq.

Private Counsel. Former DOJ-CRT, Special Litigation Section, Public Defender; Adjunct Professor (law & undergrad). Developed Race & Law course.

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