You’ve seen it. Two black men pass each other on the street. They nod. Subtle, sometimes imperceptible, but there is acknowledgement.
“Do you know him?”
“No . . . (yes)
. . . no.”
I learned this from my father and my grandfather and my other grandfather and my uncles and my great uncle and from every other black man in my early life. Once, as a teenager, I didn’t do it. I was verbally accosted from behind, “Don’t you ever forget . . . I’m all you’ve got!” I’ve never forgotten since.
These days it gets harder. I walk through places where armies of broken black men inhabit the corners and wander aimless and beaten. When I cross their paths, I look for that acknowledgement, the one that says, “We are valid. We are real, we have a place, we have a family . . . you are all I’ve got.” When it doesn’t come—obscured by drugs and desperation, or more often from just trying to live as part of this grand experiment called America, pressed down, shot at, torn apart, stolen from, talked about and not to, criminalized and caricatured—part of me dies inside.
The young brother passes without it. It is generational too. Fewer and fewer young people making this contact. I wonder if they really feel safe? So safe that they don’t need this kind of community. Not just with skin color, but feeling no need to recognize each other for any reason. Maybe they are afraid because they see me as the unknown. My God, we don’t recognize each other! Maybe we aren’t teaching them that the struggle isn’t over, that time hasn’t healed a wound that opens, over and over again. That this simple acknowledgement . . . nod . . . was once all we had, and still, like it or not, may be all we’ve got.