To the man who called me N-word


May 09, 2008|By Andre M. Davis

You remember? It was a week ago Wednesday, about 7:35 a.m., in Hampden. I was southbound on Falls Road. My car was the fourth vehicle in the left-hand lane, waiting for the light to change at 41st Street. I was a little late meeting my friend Doug at Cafe Hon for a quick breakfast. The light changed, and the large SUV immediately in front of me (and blocking my view of everything) slowly began to turn onto 41st Street. As I began to accelerate through the intersection, there you were, about 75 feet from the corner - not in the crosswalk - helping three little ones across the street.

You're Caucasian, a big guy, surely more than 240 pounds, and you were wearing a white T-shirt. I slowed as I approached you and the children, coming to a complete stop as you hurried the kids along. Our eyes met as I passed you. "Slow down, nigger!" you yelled.

I met my friend and we had a pleasant breakfast, catching up on news of family, professional challenges and our shared hopes for the world, as friends who have not seen each other for a while do at breakfast. He is Jewish. I told him of my encounter with you. It pained him greatly.

It happened in Hampden, but it could have happened anywhere. The irony for me is that just days earlier, during a professional meeting in Arizona, I met a man whose mother had grown up in Baltimore. He had spent some time in the city, and he had fond memories of his own time here, as did his mom. He questioned me about how the city is doing. I was effusive in expressing my view of the hopefulness one finds throughout the city and its neighborhoods, notwithstanding the grim portrayal of life in Baltimore depicted in The Wire. (He was an avid viewer.)

I had specifically mentioned Hampden as a neighborhood where, in my youth, an African-American would not venture. I told him that today, Hampden is an exemplar of the city's growth in diversity, tolerance and inclusiveness. I have family living there. I do Christmas shopping there. What I told him is true.

I could not recall the last time I had been publicly referred to by the ancient epithet, but there is one instance that sprang immediately to mind as your image receded in my rear-view mirror last Wednesday. It was 1965, in Massachusetts, where I was in boarding school. On that occasion, I was the pedestrian, just 16 years old and all alone, a long way from home. The voice came from a passing car, that time attaching the epithet to the command, "Go home!"

Thus, on Wednesday, you gave me a quite unexpected but not altogether unforeseeable flashback. In the shared journey of Americans to attain a society marked by mutual respect for the differences among us, one needn't travel far to be reminded how far we have to travel.

What was most dismaying about our encounter is this: those kids. They appeared to be about the ages of my wonderful grandchildren, maybe 6 and 4. Were they your children? Or were you doing a favor for a friend in hustling them off to school or day care? Remember, they learn from what you do and what you say. Please use the crosswalk - and watch your language when they are present.

Actually, we all learn from each other. This is a remarkable time in the history of our city, our region and our country. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to leave this world a better place than we found it. Sorry for the clich?, but it, too, is true. My hope is that you will embrace it.

About the author

Andre M. Davis is a U.S. district judge.

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