You are sitting in the parking lot of a Rite Aid. Your hands are behind your back in handcuffs. Your heart is racing. Your palms are slick with sweat. You wonder how you, a professor and former reporter from an island in the Caribbean, have found yourself here in this police trooper in Lafayette, Louisiana.
You watch three uniformed officers search the items in your cart. You replay in your mind what you have done to suggest theft. You must have done something. Perhaps you have taken too long to select the blood sugar testing strips, the too-sweet box of cereal, the clear travel toiletry bag, the early Father’s day card?
You have forgotten your own rule. Do not linger. Get in. Get out. How could you not have known you were being surveilled more keenly than the others milling around in the store. They are watching you, you who had the audacity to slowly meander through aisles touching items, reading labels, putting them back, touching other items, twirling them around, putting them in the growing mound in your cart, you who had even stopped to use the restroom and return to your cart.
You had moved unhurried in your airy tropical jumpsuit, your hair a little wild, but styled in curls around your head. It is the summertime and you are not anxious to go back out into the May heat. You do not have to rush back to the university. Not today. Just two weeks before, you walked across a stage to applause in your velvet robe and octagon hat where the woman mispronounced your name as they gave you a plaque proclaiming you a Doctor of Philosophy. You had studied Creative Writing. Yet, here you are now, experiencing something stranger than anything you could have conjured.
You had allowed yourself to forget you do not have the luxury of such ease.
This was your greatest mistake.
You think how thankful you were that your credit card did work because despite your new status as an honest-to-God doctor, you still have the bank account of a broke grad student.
You think how carefree you must have looked as soon as you pushed your cart out of the store, only curiously looking to your right when the police officer approached you.
You heard the words only heard on television, perhaps most recently out of the mouth of Olivia Benson and Eliot Stabler telling a “perp” in Law and Order SVU reruns, “You have the right to remain silent…”
“You must have the wrong person,” you say, bemused.
You are ashamed of this thought – the fact that you actually believed this could not happen to someone like you. Someone like you? Because you are foreign? Because you are law-abiding? Because you speak the Queen’s English but with a decidedly Jamaican cadence? Because you are not wearing a hoodie, or socks and slippers? Because you do not smoke marijuana? Because you do not own a gun? Because you keep your nose clean, your hands clean, your ears clean? Where had you learned this – that this only happened to a subset of so-called undesirable black people?
Then, Dr. Henry Louis Gates comes to mind, his being arrested for entering his own house in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2009. You wonder if he had held this view of himself. Before.
As they led you inside, you told yourself that this would be cleared up in five minutes. Once they saw your receipt, they would apologize. They would send you on your way.
You had been standing at the entrance with the police when the manager came, a pale blond woman who did not look at you, who did not speak to you. You were standing a few feet from her, but you could barely hear everything she was saying. She did say something about the surveillance cameras.
You moved to show your receipt. The police gripped your arm.
“Ma’am, turn around,” she had said. “Keep calm.”
“But ask the cashier,” you said, careful to keep your voice even.
You remembered that time that you do not have the luxury of rage.
“Ask the cashier. He just checked all these items,” you said, quietly.
The cashier did not look over at you either. He methodically checked a woman’s items. The customer was enraptured with the spectacle, but the cashier kept his eyes averted, his sensor beeping with each scan.
Hadn’t he just smiled at you when he bagged your items?
You felt the officer reach for something. You glanced behind.
“Ma’am, turn around,” she said, louder this time.
You complied. You felt the handcuff cold around your wrists.
“You are not being arrested,” she said. “You are being detained as we investigate.”
She had led you outside. She pat you down. You looked at her, a black woman like you, but you know she is not kin. She is as much the law as the white male officer and the white female officer who join her.
“Have you ever been arrested?” she asked.
“No,” you answered.
“What’s your name?”
You told her. You wondered why you did not preface it with the newly minted “Dr...”
She instructed you to sit in the police trooper.
So, you are sitting there now, replaying this, thinking that in all your years as a journalist in your home country, you have never been inside of a police car, not even when you have stood inches away to interview tight-lipped law men.
Your stomach lurches.
You watch her unfurl your receipt as long as her forearm. You wonder why they need three police officers to inspect one paltry basket of goods.
You think about your flight scheduled for the next day to San Francisco to attend the American Literature Conference. Will you make it? You think about the paper you still must complete on Edwidge Danticat’s Sophie in Breath, Eyes, Memory. You think how you had spent the past few months researching the stigma of the black female body. You would laugh at the irony if your heart would slow-down, if you could see the humor.
You do not have the luxury of humor, either.
What will happen to your body? you wonder.
You cannot recall any phone numbers for anyone you know living in Louisiana. You have come to this state on your own. You have spent years standing in front of undergraduates, mostly freshmen who detest the art of writing. You think of the time spent trying to woo them. You think of the condemnation on evaluation forms – “Makes everything about race,” one wrote, about your class on multiculturalism. You wonder how you could have spoken about culture without ever mentioning ethnicities and prejudice. You subsequently give up hope of reaching some.
You do remember the phone number of one of your sisters who lives one state away, the first to settle in America. You recite her number just to give yourself something else to think about. You would have to call her if they take you to jail.
Something cold runs down your back.
They could take you to jail.
You think about Sandra Bland who did not make it out of her jailcell alive after a mere traffic stop. You think about all the black men and women who are swallowed whole by these police cars every day. Swallowed and discarded.
The officers tick off all the items on your receipt. They open your handbags. One bag is full of student work, gathered that day to put together your teaching portfolio for upcoming job applications. The other bag has articles, Danitcat novels, and now you realize as the white male officer pulls it out – a large bag of chocolate covered cookies.
Your chest tightens.
The blond manager appears in frame. The policeman hands the cookies to her. The manager leaves the frame. You close your eyes in dread. You can almost picture the same brand on the shelves of the store. You pray they do not sell this brand.
You have spent six years at this university. You have not taken so much as a can of soup from the shelves of the food bank. Why had you chosen that day to take the cookies from the shelf. Perhaps if this food resource did not exist in the same spot as all the archived student work, you would not have made this error. It had been an impulse. You hadn’t eaten much that day. You knew you would have to take the bus all the way down Johnston street to use your one working credit card at this Rite Aid, a card you cannot use anywhere else.
You begin to detest these chocolate-covered cookies.
You think about how once when you shopped at TJMaxx, you had walked out of that store with a mango drink in the bottom of the cart you had forgotten at check-out. That day, you had returned to the cashier and showed her the error. She seemed unworried but had simply rung it up.
You had done the right thing without thinking too much about it.
These people do not know you. You know this does not matter.
Now, finally the manager reappears with the cookies. You realize you have been holding your breath. It comes out of you in a slow exhale. The relief is tentative, though. Too much has happened so quickly for you to truly believe the nightmare is ending.
The white male officer opens the door, leans in and says, “What happened was a customer called management saying you slipped something in your bag, and she called us. We’re almost done.”
You sit there for a few more stiff moments, for the first time allowing the tears to spring to your eyes, but careful not to let them spill.
It feels like an eternity before the white male officer finally opens the door again and instructs you to get out. He removes the handcuffs.
You look at the black female officer. Beads of sweat have accumulated on her brow. Was it the humid Louisiana weather or was it embarrassment? you wonder.
“Am I free to go?” you ask, your voice low and foreign and pent up with unshed tears of anger and frustration.
“Yes,” she says simply.
The manager is no longer in sight. The white female officer wordlessly hands you your bags.
You walk away without looking back at them.
You do not ask their names.
You do not know their badge numbers.
You do not go inside the store to return the items.
You do not start a Facebook Live.
You do not take a picture of the police cars.
You do not ask the manager’s name.
You will wish you did any of these things.
You still feel unsafe.
You feel your body is working independent of your will. Your feet carry you to the edge of the main road. No one has acknowledged the error of their actions. No one has apologized to have taken the word of a customer. Is what you feel relief? Is it because this customer’s complaint did not lead to your death as in the case of John Crawford III killed in a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio?
You do not know how to feel.
You just know all the players in this spectacle will go home to their families unchanged. They will sit across from their spouses or significant officers and their children and pets, and perhaps they will not even mention the incident as a significant part of their day.
You, however, are shaken to your core, you who have stood before university classes and talked about the literature of the oppressed. You have told creative writers to write their adversities as fiction. Earlier that month, you watched clips of Bob Marley’s granddaughter explaining to six police officers that she and her three black friends had in fact rented the Air B & B and were not guilty of theft as described by the ever-present “concerned” white neighbor.
You know there are stories like this now almost every week of a black person existing in a public space, policed by the fear or suspicion or mischief of white people with power to disrupt your lives with just a phone call or a word of dissent.
Your story cannot go viral. There are no recordings. You hear the 911 tape long after, the woman’s voice describing you matter-of-factly – black, female, shoplifter. This white woman will not bear an alliterative nickname reminiscent of her actions – not like Barbecue Becky, Permit Patty, or Cornerstone Caroline. For her, the moment will dissolve into inconsequence.
You stand by the side of the road waiting for the city bus, talking to one of your sisters, the one whose number you know by heart. You sob into the phone.
“I’m glad I don’t have to call you from jail,” you say, your voice breaking.
Her anger is immediate and complete. How dare they do this to you? It is not the end.
You think about why you have come to America. You think how you got your Masters in the frigid North, then your doctorate in the humid South.
You think about the disillusionment of feeling invisible in both places always amid a sea of white faces.
You do make it to San Francisco the next day. You gather your shredded being. You suppress the negative feelings and present your conference paper coherently.
You tell a fellow panel member, a former grad school colleague and friend, about the ordeal.
“We are invisible yet hyper-visible,” she says to you over noodles at a ramen shop. “They see our black skin, but they do not see us.”
Your perspective had been different on arriving in the states from Jamaica, a black majority country. Yes, at five years old in the eighties on a visit to Michigan, a fellow kindergartener had spat in your face and called you “black” with such venom you understood for the first time that somehow your skin color was “wrong.” This has stayed with you. Yet, you remained blind to bald hatred when you returned to live here in 2009.
You convince yourself of a series of lies:
If one keeps her head down and her nose to the grindstone, she will remain safe.
The black Americans just complain too much.
They are just too hypersensitive.
How wrong you were.
“We just live in their world where everything is geared to them, to their comfort, to their fears,” another black American colleague says to you.
You do learn quickly that in the same way many Americans conceive of the Caribbean islands as a homogenous monolith – much to the annoyance of the Lesser Antilles islanders seen squarely as extensions of Jamaica – some white Americans see your skin color first, this biological difference to which they had imposed negative meaning, and when unable to put you squarely in a box often, they have no qualms in asking: “Well, what exactly are you, then?”
In San Francisco, surprised by the chilly May weather, you walk across from the conference center to purchase a jacket and stop at the door of the GAP. You are about to enter yet another predominantly white space to procure something to stave off the cold air.
Is the chill really that bad? you wonder.
You make a plan:
Ensure they see your hands at all times.
Ensure you do not go behind columns or racks where the clerks cannot see you.
Do not take down more than one jacket at a time.
Go up to the clerks to ask them about the items.
Hold it up so they can see you do not have any weapons or any secret pockets.
Ask them if you have to leave your bags with them.
Try on the jacket in full view of them.
Just get out unscathed.
Your detainment outside that Rite Aid at the edge of Johnston Street in Lafayette, Louisiana will live in your mind for a long time. You will see the blond manager unwilling to look you in the eye.
You play out different scenarios. The one you can tolerate the most is this:
She comes up to you and asks to see your purchases. She will find you compliant albeit annoyed at the inquisition. She will find nothing amiss. You go on your way.
Yet, you are aware that in order for her to do that, it would require her willingness to see you not as a threat to be defused, but a person given the opportunity to discredit any claims of wrongdoing.
She would have to see you as a person like her.
You never do learn who the customer was that made these first claims of your guilt. You also know the manager may have acted alone.
Still, what matters is you will never reclaim the previous buoyancy of shopping before that day when you spent that eternal hour as a shoplifting suspect. That day is tainted with the suspicion of others, your whole being distilled to mere stereotype.
You will never know how close you came to losing your liberty, of losing all hope about a future here in the land of the free, the home of the brave, where damning videos continue to pop up with black people subject to the whims of white people, those hands cocked on their cellphones, their cries to 911 desperate and disturbing and dangerous.
Will anyone listen to your cries?
Will there be a new day?
Wandeka Gayle is a Jamaican writer, visual artist, Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Spelman College, and the author of Motherland and Other Stories (Peepal Tree Press 2020). She has received writing fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction, Callaloo, the Hurston/Wright Foundation, and the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. She has a Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her writing has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Transition, Interviewing the Caribbean, and other journals and magazines. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.