Once in 2001, while a national correspondent for the New York Times, I visited Niota, Illinois, a sleepy hamlet on the state’s western edge. I arrived to find local residents feverishly sandbagging against the cresting mighty Mississippi River.
I saw no blacks around town, except for me — and the young men wearing prison orange stacking sandbags under the watchful eye of armed white guards. They had been thrust into service as a modern-day chain gang in Niota’s hour of need.
After filing my story, the owner of a local tavern invited me to have a drink. At first, I graciously said, “no,” feeling as ill at ease as I had as a reporter-intern when covering a lumberjack festival in a California mountain town many years earlier.
Back then, after having assessed that I was likely the only black man for miles around — and after spying some white men in camouflage with rifles flung across their shoulders — I figured I should dutifully finish my reporting and quickly get out of Dodge.
I understood that my reporter’s I.D. could not protect me from the perceptions and hate triggered by my black face.
But this time, after some coaxing, I agreed to have a cold Coke in Niota.
As I walked into the bar, escorted through a back door, daylight still lingering, I could hear the sudden cessation of breath, feel their stabbing eyes.
Nonetheless, I reluctantly settled in and whipped out my laptop, made small conversation with the gentleman who had invited me. He remarked that a sign had been erected outside the bar, bidding passing motorists to please stop and help save their town.
I figured that would be a good detail to add to my story for the final edition. But I needed to see it myself. So I went outside long enough to copy the words then headed back in. I arrived just in time to see my host huddled with other men at the bar, none of whom saw me walk back in, until it was too late.
“That was the blackest monkey I ever saw,” one of them said, chuckling as they laughed themselves red.
Here it was I was trying to humanize them and their plight. And here I was to them, not human at all, just some monkey.
I scooped up my laptop and drove away, too proud to let any tears of mine fall in Niota. Angry enough to feel like machine-gunning them all, resigned to just keep driving, to just keep living, breathing.
I guess I’m still one of the lucky “monkeys” — black men whose encounters with racism and hate, whose lives are daily endangered across America by systemic stereotypes that render every black man as potentially armed and dangerous, subhuman, expendable by cop.
That labels us, “the enemy.” “America’s Most Dangerous” — even after the smoke from 20 shots fired by trigger-happy police at an “armed” black man has cleared and the only weapon to be found is a cellphone.
It is pervasive: The hate. The assault on black lives that keeps leaving unarmed black men shot dead by police while we observe white men who massacre students, elderly church mothers and other unsuspecting innocent victims — even after engaging in a shootout with police — taken alive. Even taken to Burger King because “he” was hungry after the massacre.
That’s because even in all of their evil, insanity and hate, they get the benefit of still being seen as human.
Because they are not black but white.
But I am not your monkey. Neither are my brothers — not in Sacramento, or Chicago, or Niota.
Not monkeys, menaces or maladies. Men.
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