“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
- Martin Luther King
“That justice is a blind goddess is a thing to which we black are wise.
Her bandage hides two festering sores that once perhaps were eyes.” -Langston Hughes
One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner…and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
Why Can’t I Go To the Park, Daddy?
It was, ironically, basketball that had brought me to Santa Ana and to the distinction of being Santa Ana’s first Negro police officer. I had so wanted to be a policeman. I knew it would be hard, especially for a black man, but I didn’t know it would be this hard – or set me on an entirely unexpected course.
My wife of seven years couldn’t hold it any longer. “First, I followed you to Germany for the Army and basketball. Then you brought me all the way out to California. Why? To pursue YOUR dreams and do what YOU want for YOUR life. I understand things didn’t turn out as you planned. But you’ve made being a cop your latest priority. Now your job is your life and your family is second –AGAIN!”
Fists clenched, rage and hurt etched in her face, she spoke with control, not wanting Fernando to hear. “What next, Harlen? When will your superiors do something to protect you – and us?” I never know if you’ll get home safe. Or if you come home and find Fernando and me dead because of your job.” She collapsed on the living room sofa, sobbing.
Before I could respond, Fernando burst into the room.
“Why can’t I go to the park, Daddy?” Fernando was wearing his favorite tennis shoes, his basketball tucked under his arm, his hand resting on the door-knob. He was ready for what should have been a routine late afternoon basketball play between father and son at McFadden Park, a block away. Fernando would come home from school, have a snack, and pick up his ball for some playing tips. How to shoot, dribble, guard and complete finger-spins - moves that he could later show off to his first grade classmates.
I looked down into my son’s questioning face and thought of the dozens of complex reasons I could give him for not allowing him to go to the park that day, but I knew each of the reasons were too heavy, too scary for his beautiful, uncontaminated eight-year-old mind.
The past few weeks had gotten progressively worse at the park. I thought about men I had become friends with, played basketball with, but who now were fearful of associating with me. I thought about the threats on my wife and son - - the information the faceless voices on the telephone laughingly gave me about the family routines, the direction my son went to school, the route my wife took to drive to work.
There was no way I could tell my son I was threatened with death, that I now carried a 357 Derringer while on the basketball court, that the usual activities we had enjoyed as a family was slowly, but surely, becoming a thing of the past.
So, as fathers have done since time began, I laid a stern, parental face on him and said, “Because I said so” and pretended to continue reading the newspaper. Inwardly, I was embarrassed and upset that I couldn’t think of something more profound, something he could understand.
Marie, in the kitchen, heard this exchange. “Fernando, take your ball to the back yard and practice shooting at your hoop, while I talk with Daddy.”
In a minute I could hear Fernando outside. He wasn’t throwing the ball into the hoop I’d put up for him. He was throwing it against the house. With force. I dropped the newspaper on the coffee table. Should I go to Fernando, or to Marie?
I went to Marie, taking her in my arms. She smelled of the tangy oranges she had been cutting. It hurts to see those you love grieving – for you and for the family. There were times she was troubled to the point of being sick.
I knew what I had to say wouldn’t make her feel better, but I had to try. “Marie, I do take the threats seriously. You will never know or understand how sorry I am you’re in this situation. I’m taking steps to make sure you and Fernando WILL be safe.” I tilted her head up and looked in her eyes. “I need to make sure one of you doesn’t serve as a substitute for me. You know there’s no way I can explain to Fernando that he can’t go play in the park with other kids because his daddy is a black pig.”
Moving out of my hug, Marie raised her hand. “I don’t want to hear any more. I can’t continue to live in fear forever, Harlen. I won’t!” That was the second time she used my given name, rather than, Sunny, my childhood nickname. She meant business.
She stood up, making her way through the kitchen to the back yard where Fernando continued bouncing his basketball, against the back of the house – hard.
Following Marie, I watched our son from the doorway. It was a warm afternoon, the sun shining out of a clear blue sky. Tears of frustration coursed down his cheeks with each throw of the ball. Once again, because I could say no more than “Because I said so,” I felt like a heel taking the easy way out – as if any part of this was easy.
Nothing in the training to be a cop -a green cop, a black rookie - guided me in explaining the ugly, belittling effect of the hatred that targeted me.
It frustrated and grieved me that I couldn’t comfort my wife and my son. To survive, I knew I had to enjoy part of the weekend away from daily pressures of being the Santa Ana Police’s Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson was (controversial in his time as) the first black recruited in organized baseball and later in the white Major Leagues. His arriving in baseball on April 15, 1947 was a powerful moment in baseball history, and was a major breakthrough of the color line in sports. Robinson knew that his presence on the playing field would cause resentment. He anticipated that some pitchers would aim balls at his head and that other players would try to injure him on the base-paths. Ballplayers and fans alike would shout epithets of “nigger” at him when he came to bat. He also was aware that a few rabid racists might try to kill him – or at least scare him with death threats.
I escaped to the bathroom to wash up. I felt like exploding.
Jackie Robinson, despite all the pressures, played extremely well. He was a solid hitter, an outstanding base stealer, and he excelled defensively. And he handled the pressure well even though at times - he felt like exploding.
I wondered, could I continue to remain professional and perform my duties to protect society even as a variety of incidents terrorized and isolated me - and my family too?
The mirror reflected my usual image: a 6’2”, 220 pound, muscular man accustomed to working out in the gym. I examined the reflection in the mirror. I have what is known as “good hair”: soft, wavy and cut close to my head. My teeth are white, strong and boast a small space in my two front teeth. I wear a mustache and have been told I look like Richard Roundtree, the actor, known as the “first black action hero” for his portrayal of private detective, John Shaft.
While I usually felt good about what I saw in the mirror, I didn’t feel good that day. My appetite diminished, I began to lose weight. I had difficulty sleeping. I was fighting depression. But, by God, I refuse to let bigots define who I am. No-matter-what!
I removed my black-rimmed eyeglasses to rub my tired eyes, and turned my thoughts to my son Fernando and my first basketball.
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