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I’m a black man in America, and my heart is a ticking bomb

That’s how I watch the news. I hear it with every police murder of a black man, with every micro-aggression by a white neighbor or co-worker.

Protesters hold placards in Chicago in May of 2020 as they join national outrage over the death of George Floyd.
Protesters holds placards Saturday, May 30 in Chicago as they join national outrage over the death of George Floyd,
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

I watched the news coverage of the protests, rage, looting and fires that erupted across the Loop Saturday night with a growing sense of dread.

I am a 61-year-old black man. My life, like those of so many black men, is a clash of PTSD, fear, anger, hope, love and, at least for me, guilt for not doing enough to leave behind a better world for the next generation.

And so, like a character in a novel by James Baldwin or Ralph Ellison, I can hear my heart beating as loud and fast as a ticking time bomb. With every police murder of a black man, with every micro-aggression by a white neighbor or co-worker, I hear it.

Tick, tick, tick.

Watching the coverage of police searching for looters among the smashed windows and stripped shelves inside the State Street Macy’s, my first thought went to my 18-year-old great-nephew. Many of the bodies on my screen, seen venting their anger and ducking and dodging the cops, reflected his lean, angular build. My nephew is at a restless age. He already knows people his age who no longer walk the earth. He already knows the odds are stacked against him for one reason — the color of his skin. He’s trying to become a man, helping his single mom raise his siblings. And so, he already hears it, too. The ticking.

Tick, tick, tick.

That night I grabbed my cellphone and called him. Miraculously, he answered. That usually doesn’t happen without a half-dozen texts. “I’m good, Unc,” he said, seeming to get a kick out of my worry. He had wanted to go join the protest, to peacefully demonstrate his hurt and rage, but couldn’t find friends to go with him.

“‘Thank God,” I thought to myself. He’s safe. At least for tonight.

I turned back to the television as a white news reporter stood in front of Macy’s interpreting the scene for his viewers. He spoke of his memories of Macy’s when it was Marshall Field’s, how he takes his kids to view the Christmas windows, just as his parents had done with him.

I have those memories, too, but the memory that popped into my mind was as an 11-year-old kid from the Far South Side with a bunch of dollar bills from my paper route stuffed in my pocket.

I had taken the bus downtown by myself with a dime in my shoe for an emergency phone call. I was proud, walking into Field’s by myself as I approached the counter where I planned to purchase a bar of that fancy Estee Lauder soap in the light blue box for my mom. But before I could get there, a white saleswoman glared across the counter at me and said, “You know what happens to little boys who steal, don’t you?”

That’s a memory I carry with me on the very few occasions I venture into the store I still call Marshall Field’s. And when I saw those cops searching the store on Saturday night and apprehending one kid who looked to be less than 20, I heard it again.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Those are just a couple of the ticks I hear on a daily basis. That’s how I watch the news. That’s what I think when a white woman politely lets me enter my building first, because she wants to make sure I have a key and belong there.

For me and others, this is complicated by being a black gay man in America. And it’s complicated even further for me because I’m married to a retired cop. He’s had his Marshall Field’s moments too, while off-duty, being followed around the store like a criminal in the making. I also feel for him when people doubt or question his outrage when he sees a rogue cop murdering a black man on television. It’s only right that when I take his heart, I take its ticking, too.

So, while I am terrified, heartbroken, and disgusted by the burning and destruction I witnessed Saturday night, I must say, I get it. I don’t have the answer for the rage. I don’t think the mayor has the answers either, though I’m sure a curfew won’t contain it. But I get the rage of the protesters because, still, as a 61-year-old black man, I get it. And I hear it.

Tick, tick, tick.

Curtis Lawrence is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.

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