The week Michael Brown was shot, there was a young black man riding his bike in my neighborhood. I happened to look out the window from my desk just as he tumbled over his handlebars, landing face-down on the sidewalk. He lay there a moment, regaining his wits, and I scooted around in my chair, debating whether or not to go outside. I didn’t want to embarrass him, but when it took him several minutes to get up, I went to the front porch to make sure he was alright.
As he finally got to his feet and brushed the gravel off his hands, I asked if he was okay and if he wanted to come inside to clean up his scrapes. When he noticed my presence, his careful attempts at movement became quick and stiff.
“No, thank you, ma’am.”
I nodded and tried to smile. There was more than embarrassment in his voice and manner. He looked claustrophobic, almost afraid. I could tell he was choosing his words carefully, trying to be extra polite to the pregnant white lady in the mostly-white, upper-middle-class neighborhood.
He picked up—yes, picked up—his bicycle and walked away as quickly as he could.
His “ma’am” rang in my ears all day.
For months now, I’ve been trying to figure out why that word stung so deeply. The thing is, this young man and I are probably neighbors. He can’t have come that far just on his bike, and he certainly couldn’t have carried it that far after his accident. But no one else in my neighborhood—no matter their age or gender—would ever use “ma’am” to address me. No neighbor would ever feel the need to be that polite with me. Not on a normal basis, and certainly not when they were in pain.
Today, as the Ferguson wound is reopened for America (or perhaps never closed), I want to say a few things to my young black neighbor, whose name I wish I knew, and to the other people of color who are my neighbors and friends in this town and across the world.
Dear Black Neighbor: You do not need to be polite to me when you are hurting.
You do not need to think about my feelings or comfort level, because when you’re hurt, it’s about you. Some white people will want to make it about them. They’ll expect you to be extra polite, extra well-behaved before they’re willing to hear about your pain. But that is not how neighbors should be. That is not how I want to be. I want you to focus on yourself, because you’re the one with blood on the sidewalk, and that makes you the priority. Do what you need to do to feel better. If I can help, great. If I’m getting in the way, tell me, and I’ll move. No “ma’am” necessary.
Dear Black Neighbor: You are welcome in my home.
I realize now that my offer to come inside didn’t seem like a viable option to you, but I really wish that weren’t true. I meant what I said. You are welcome in my home. You are welcome to rest there, to clean the cuts on your hands. You are welcome when you need a cup of sugar, too. You are welcome for all the small things, and for when you really need help. Neighbors look out for one another. They are not afraid of being in each others’ space. I am not afraid of you, and I pray that no history or media or experiences will make you afraid of me.
Dear Black Neighbor: When you are hurt, I am responsible to help you.
I’m sorry that I ever hesitated to come outside, because it was obvious from the moment you fell that you weren’t okay. I’m sorry, too, if coming outside made it worse. But in a neighborhood, when someone falls on the sidewalk, it should make the rest of us come out of our homes. Even if there’s not much we can do. Even if it’s a little embarrassing. I hope the fact that we care—that we did not choose apathy, we did not stay on our couches—makes up for the awkwardness of these interactions. I hope that one day it will be enough to create healing and real friendship.
I want to be a faithful and good neighbor, in the small moments of daily life and in the crises that rock our nation.
Your life matters. Your pain matters. And I’m here on the front porch, barefoot and pregnant, offering to help any way I can.
Photo: Alex Barth, Creative Commons