Last Friday morning I completed a 10.75 mile run. This was my third such run in a week and, as it turns out, I did another, shorter run in Stockton the following morning, clocking in a total of some 35 miles for the week. I decided late last year, that I wanted one of my goals for my 50th birthday to be to run a marathon on or around my birthday. As luck would have it, the 2015 London Marathon is a few days after my 50th and I’m hoping to secure a space in it through the Alzheimer’s Society and do the run as part tribute to my mom who had the disease before she died and also as a celebration of making through 50 years in fairly good health. I feel fantastic.
As I ran that morning in the dark and cool of the Berkeley hills, I found myself more focused than normal. I was able to plug into a sense of my body and my gait and posture that in the end made the run feel fairly easy; even at the last big push through the 95 foot climb from Arch Street up to Euclid on Cedar (Berkeley folks will know it as one of the primary places where you would not like to do a hill start in a manual shift car.) The most wonderful thing about getting into what is commonly known as “the zone” is that, beyond your body, you connect with thoughts and things that you had maybe let go of for a while.
I kept coming back to two things: my Great Uncle Ray and the Select Committee Hearing on Boys and Men of Color in Stockton I had participated in the previous day. My Great Uncle Ray Lewis, was a Pullman Porter in Canada in the early and mid part of the last century. He was also a 33rd degree Mason. He was also Canada’s first black Olympic runner to win a medal (bronze 1932.) I had the great fortune to know him late in his life when he was full of stories of running alongside the Canadian and Pacific Railroad cars to train and all of the many challenges that he was faced with as an athlete: people who tried to hurt him, unfair judging,etc. I got to see his and his brothers and sister (my grandmother’s) room full of medals for athletics. To me he was and will always be one of my greatest heroes. But he was a man who was often faced with stark racism, keeping him out of jobs and other opportunities and he was forced to make tough choices about his life in order to keep some sense of sanity about him and food on the table. As he entered his 93rd and final year of life, he too began to show signs of dementia and would frequently repeat some of his bawdier stories, much to the chagrin of my Great Aunt Vivienne, a woman who loved him passionately until the day he died and until the day she passed some 7 years later.
Ray’s life was one where he was taught to constantly be on his guard. It was not an easy life. It was not a life of “get what you deserve” it was more a life of get what you can take and tolerate. I can only imagine what went on inside of him and his heart after standing on an Olympic podium and then having to work on the train that took him back to Canada.
My other fixation that morning as I ran was hearing young men talk about their lives growing up “in trouble” in Stockton at the select committee hearing. These are young men who have, for any number of reasons, fallen afoul of the law only to be incarcerated, even as young as 11 years old. They are taught from this age, that being in prison is an option. The game is to try to find any way possible to beat these odds. As I listened to these young men testify, I was struck not only by their words and stories, but by what must go on inside their hearts in terms of always being on guard; always being taught that there is some kind of trap waiting. I am incredibly moved by the work that is going on with these beautiful young men of color through Fathers and Families of San Joaquin County where they are actively engaging the youth to find ways to move their hearts and goals toward a better place. It is huge and inspiring.
My mind also drifted toward a very different kind of reminder of how even in my sanitized and safe world, there is a kind of backhanded otherization that can leave a man of color feeling vulnerable. The other day, I was joining a Skype conversation with a group of colleagues and as often happens with Skype, the audio was connected before the video. What I was greeted with was a very spirited and involved conversation…about my age. It was not really derogatory, but it still felt highly invasive. My age (49) and my physical looks, are something that I have often had to either justify or explain and the sum total is something that people who don’t know me, often boil down to the “black don’t crack” saying or some other assumption about my racial background. However, anyone who really knows me also knows that I work hard to stay healthy. It is not just because I have melanin in my skin or because I have “good genes.” I work tirelessly with my diet and exercise regimen (case in point, I did an hour and a half run at 5:00 a.m. on a weekday) and I have a serious dedication to managing stress, the real killer in our culture. Embodiment is part of my ministry and I live it as faith every day. There are plenty of people in my family who aged plenty, so its not just DNA. What’s more, my goal has never been to look young, but to simply stay vital. To have my effort reduced to my racial background is a slap in the face that I neither expect nor deserve and gratefully was not the case here to my knowledge. But still, to have my age and looks and body as a topic for general discussion without my presence felt a bit like a throwback to the slave auction block. As a black man, I’m not alone in having had the assessment of my physical self held up like a prize pig at a state fair. Whether it be porn or prison, black and brown men’s bodies disconnected from their beings and their souls and their presence, is a significant and disgusting part of the history of this country. Objectification is objectification no matter how you look at it.
As every mile and hill ticked by during my run, I thought about what these thoughts have in common and and where they intersect in me. I realized that each of these situations involve men of color who have grown up with a baseline anxiety about our place in this culture. We have never been so cock sure of ourselves that we would take for granted that there would always be another opportunity, or another threat. Instead, we look at every opportunity, whether it is presented by a good choice (running in the Olympics) or a bad choice (trying to make money selling drugs) or a natural choice (living a health centered life)…we look at each of these opportunities as if it is our last. I find myself often making decisions as if I will somehow be permanently written off or that I will never have the opportunity again. How many times was I told as a child that I would be the “last hired and first fired” or that I needed to be better than everyone just to get in the door? When we talk in black and brown circles about trauma and “hyper vigilance” so often the conversation falls back on physical violence, guns, abuse, etc. But there are so many other examples of ways in which men of color have learned to be “on guard” in addition to these other very real physical threats. Its not always as simple as absorbing the subconscious thought that you may be seen as a predator by strangers. Sometimes it is more subtle; a change in posture in an elevator or other closed space, a comment about your sexual anatomy, an assumption about your knowledge of guns, church and rap music or casual statements about your age and appearance.
There is strong evidence that points to hyper vigilance as being something that can be passed down. This would mean that I carry not only my own struggles, but my parents’ struggles through the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s and also their parents’ struggles through the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance and their parents’ struggles through Restoration and their parents’ struggles through slavery and so on. If this is the case, then my DNA should have me looking much, much older than I do now. This kind of science helps explain some of the continued struggle. But what is really needed is a way to change the equation entirely where young men of color are not in a position to pass on another layer of trauma through hyper vigilance. Men of color must rewrite and reclaim cultural narratives that have been invalidated by the mainstream. The way we manage time and life priorities have all been laid out for us according to the dominant culture…but do we really own it?
I mentioned that I did a shorter run in Stockton the day after my 10 miles. This was a Heart and Spirit Run with Fathers and Families. It was part run and part vigil. A small group of us ran to a series of locations around Stockton to where people had been killed, mostly due to gun violence. The first stop was just around the corner from our starting point and you could still see the bullet holes in the wall and on the ground. This set the tone for another kind of deep reflection in motion. On that run, every step I took, every stop we made, I found myself imagining what the moment of confrontation felt like. I run in the dark cool of the early morning of Berkeley mostly because it feels so incredibly safe, as if I am wrapped in a dark velvet blanket where the only sound is my heart and my breathing. What a contrast to imagine the night as a terror that might be ripped by the pop, pop, pop of gunfire aimed at me. I looked at the young men and women I was running with, who live in Stockton, and I could see both the memories and the real live knowledge of having been hurt physically and or mentally by these crimes. But I could also see a spark, something that kept them running on to the end of our journey, no matter if you need to stop and take a rest…keep going, make it to the end. They believe deeply in their hearts that this nightmare can end and that they have a right to be able to run freely in the street and feel safe. I believe it as well.
At the end of my 10 mile run, as I clipped down the final hill and up to the rise to where I had started, I knew that I had made good time. The sunlight indicated to me that it was no more than 6:40am which meant that I managed my distance in somewhere around 1.5 hours. I felt tremendous as I stopped. Not winded; heart beating only a little faster than normal. In that space of still feeling “the zone” and feeling entirely at one with my body, I had a brief moment of total freedom; sheer joy and exhilaration. I felt the blood of my Uncle Ray and the potential of my brothers and sisters in Stockton and the vitality that I have cultivated and protected for 49 years coursing through my veins. I know that men of color can end the history of hereditary hyper vigilance. We can set the goal of running the distance, find our stride and get in the zone. We shall not be measured by trauma alone.