I’m sure that just about anyone who is black has had the experience of being followed around a department store while shopping, and/or being ignored when trying to find something or trying to get a price.  This has happened not only to males, but to females, too. Of course, nowadays, it doesn’t seem to happen as often as it did when I was a child.

I was a child during the nineteen fifties (back when we were “colored”), and sometimes my mother would take me with her when going out to shop or pay bills.  We were always watched when going into stores, and I remember the time we went out to pay utility bills one day (yeah, in those days we walked to do this because she had to pay in cash or money orders, and by the time she’d gotten to somewhere that sold money orders, she figured she might as well go the few extra blocks to the water department and power building.  Saved on those two or three cent stamps).  On the way back from taking care of those, we stopped at a dress shop where she had some clothes on lay-a-way, to make a payment. The year was about nineteen fifty-three and I was around six years old.

She made her payment at the service desk, grabbed my hand to leave the store, and we headed for the door. On the way, something caught her eye on a rack, and she paused for moment to look, then we continued on our way.  Or we tried to.

We’d gotten a few steps when we were accosted by a big, burly white man who, very roughly, asked my mother what had she put into her purse.  I’m sure that she was surprised by this but my mother, who was a very meek person, answered in her soft voice that she’d put nothing in her purse and she clasped my hand, tightly.

Well, this man didn’t believe her and refused to let us pass, demanding that she open her purse so he could check. He insisted he’d seen her take something off the rack and was extremely loud with his accusation.  By now, a female salesperson had walked up and was listening. This white lady, who’d seen my mother come into the shop for years, watched her go to the service desk numerous times to pay on her lay-a-ways, and knew my mother’s name, grabbed my mother’s purse and opened it up, of course finding nothing that shouldn’t have been there.

Since there was nothing in her purse that belonged to the store, the man insisted the woman take my mother to the dressing room and have her remove her clothing since “she must have stuck it under her dress”.  My mother went with the woman, but she was humiliated.  She was an honest, hardworking, church-going woman who taught her children not to steal, cheat, or lie, and tears began to roll down her cheeks. This frightened me as I’d never seen my mother cry, so I began to sniffle, and I tried to follow her but was not allowed.  She told me to wait and be quiet.  The man pulled me back and held me by gathering the material in the back of my dress and holding on to me that way (I guess he couldn’t hold my hand because the black might have come off and soiled his hand).

Of course, as my mother disappeared into the room with the woman, being the (dis)obedient child I was, I squirmed like crazy to get away from the man and began to bawl at the top of my lungs, which caused the man to curse and call me some very bad names (I didn’t know what his words meant at the time, but he was loud enough for my mother to hear, and though she told me later when I asked what they meant that they didn’t mean anything, years later when I was much older, I still remembered the words and knew what they meant).  Fortunately for me and my mother, all this noise attracted the attention of the foot cop who was passing by the shop at the time and he came in to see who was killing a kid.

There were no black policemen in my (southern) city at that time and, unless you were committing a crime (or construed as committing one), and you were black and a kid, you were generally ignored.  This cop, however, upon learning that I was screaming because I’d been separated from my mother who had been taken to another room to be searched, immediately demanded that the man turn me loose, and insisted my mother be brought back and released.  By then, the search was over anyway – with nothing having been found, of course. At least the cop was an honest and fair one.  As I recall, he had harsh words for the man (I never knew who he was; could have been some kind of security guard, I suppose, or maybe he owned the shop.  Don’t know) and the saleslady.  Needless to say, my mother never went into that shop again. I learned later that she sent my aunt in to get her things out of lay-a-way.  Back then, law-suit never entered most blacks’ heads so that was the end of it.

You might say that for the times and the place, what happened was not unusual since that was still in the days of Jim Crow.  Except, of course, at the time I did not understand. Took some time before I did and even then I never actually understood  until I was grown, and I never accepted it.  Over the years, I’ve been followed in stores, watched but ignored when it came to finding what I needed, and asked constantly if I “need help” with something, even after I’ve smiled and said “no” numerous times.  Now, I can’t say all of it is because I’m black, and truthfully, such incidents have become much less in recent years (or less obvious), but still, they happen.  Even to an old(er) black woman.

When I was raising my children during the seventies and eighties, it was still quite common to be tailed in a store when all you were doing was trying to find the aisle where they kept the socks so you could replace the tatty ones your kids’ toes ate.  Very annoying, but even then you just seethed and kept going.  Once, during the nineties, I went to buy a car and was ignored so badly, I left and went somewhere else.  Guess I didn’t look as if I could afford one to those particular people, though why the heck else would I be standing in a dealer’s showroom looking at sticker prices?  Must admit that particular one hasn’t happened again.

Still, during the nineties,  I did have to leave a computer store when I went shopping for my first desk-top, due to a lack of interest in my questions – and, apparently, my money.  I had finally gotten the reluctant attention of one of the numerous salesmen on the floor when a (white) guy walked up and the salesman immediately dropped me like a hot rock to go wait on him.   Bought one somewhere else where they didn’t seem to mind my color, answered all my questions and didn’t leave me to go wait on someone else.   They seemed to like me and ever after that, would always help me with questions or buying computer accessories when I went back.  Or, it could have been the fifteen hundred dollars I left with them in exchange for the computer.   But they were nice and helpful.  At any rate, haven’t had that kind of problem since, either.

When he was a teenager, my son got a job and bought a car.  Nothing fancy, a Ford Escort, but he got stopped by cops with great regularity and asked to assume the position while they searched him and his car and any male passengers he had with him when all he’d been doing was driving down the street at the correct speed.  The explanation was that there was some thugs going around committing crimes who had a preference for that type of car, so every black male seen driving one was pulled over. There was no explanation of why he got pulled over when driving my car which was not a Ford Escort.

Since I wore my hair very short at that time (as I’ve recently gone back to doing), I was even pulled over a few time while driving his car, though once I was seen to be an older black female, they never asked me to lie down in the street with my arms and legs spread or searched the car.  And, my daughter, who’d bought a Mustang, got pulled over, too, for no obvious reason that we were ever able to see.

I warned my son – and his cousins who rode with him from time to time – to always be cooperative so as not to get shot.  Warned my daughters, too, just in case.  In fact, I gave them all kinds of what might be taken to be odd warnings, to try to keep them safe, such as certain clothing not to wear, cultivating a neutral but pleasant expression, not getting into an elevator alone with a white person especially a female (that one was mostly for my son), and various other such items.   Sad that I had to do that but I didn’t want them in jail for no reason – or dead.  After all, I couldn’t tell them not to be black.

It’s a pity that even now, you have to be careful if walking, driving, shopping, or doing just about anything, while black.  But I am not surprised.

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