The 6-4 Black Guy

11/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Susan Straight Novelist, Professor at UCRiverside, 'Take One Candle Light a Room'

No one in our family was surprised by what happened last week. Ashley Todd, a 20-year-old white Republican campaign worker, claimed she was attacked by a "6-4 African American man" who robbed her, groped her, and carved a backwards B into her cheek to "teach her a lesson." The B for Barack. Rather than an O. For Obama. What a multi-tasker this black guy was, doing all that in a public place.


I was married to the 6-4 black guy for fourteen years, and still see him every day. We met in junior high, dated through high school, have three daughters, and though we're divorced, we spent most of the last three weeks together because his father was hospitalized and then passed away. Our huge extended family has all been together, nearly two hundred strong, for this time, and there are so many 6-4 black guys in the hospital waiting room, in the house and the driveway of my father-in-law, that it must look like a right-wing nightmare.

During this time, we've had Sarah Palin and other Republicans refer repeatedly to a "real America," apparently a lovely mythical small town with of which we are clearly not citizens; we've seen "Obama Waffles," with an Aunt Jemima caricature of the Democratic Presidential candidate; then "Obama Bucks," on a newsletter created by the president of a Republican women's club in a city only twenty miles from us in southern California, an image of food stamps replete with a smiling Obama surrounded by fried chicken, watermelon, ribs and Kool-Aid. (As we discussed with our daughters and family, pretty funny to imagine Barack Obama, who was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia for part of his early life, grinning and hungry for the stereotypically-represented foods of the American South, connected straight to slavery.)

We heard shouts at Republican rallies of "Kill him!"

We were waiting. We have an amazing collective memory, our family of descendants of slaves in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and descendants of freed people in Oklahoma. We waited for the equivalent of Willie Horton -- remember him? The murderer-rapist-kidnapper whose face was everywhere in Bush Sr.'s ads during the 1988 presidential campaign, as the scary black man that Dukakis let out of prison on weekend passes?

We waited for the equivalent of The Welfare Queens -- remember them? The women Ronald Reagan talked about during his 1976 presidential campaign, the ones collecting so many benefits that they drove Cadillacs.

Wow -- with the $700 billion bailout, the AIG guys having pedicures on their retreat, and the reports of Governor Palin's new wardrobe and stylists, we didn't think the whole Welfare Queen idea would work this time. Yeah -- no.

And then, last week, we got what we'd been expecting. The rapist. The huge black guy. The boogie man.

Can I explain to you how hard it is to love the boogie man, to be married to the boogie man, when all we really see is everyone else trying to kill him? His name is Dwayne.


I've seen a shotgun barrel screwed into his ear, just under his Afro, when we were walking down a sidewalk in Westwood, near the UCLA campus. I was eighteen, he was nineteen, a junior college basketball star visiting me in Los Angeles, wanting to see the sights. Underneath the poster of Michael Jackson (back when he had a big natural, too!) for his newly-released album Off The Wall, four LAPD officers frisked Dwayne and our friend Lewis while I stood to the side, being screamed at about whose car we were driving. Why did the officer point the shotgun at Dwayne, inch closer and closer to his head, while he stood with his huge shoulders bowed and his hands on the brick wall? "A 6-4 black guy with a shotgun was seen near the UCLA campus earlier this evening," one of the policemen shouted at us. "Where's the gun?"

We'd been walking and laughing. He wore a black tank top and tight khaki pants (it was 1979) and a white cowboy hat. No place to hide a gun. But the gun was at his head for what felt like hours before they let us go, shouting that we needed to get off the street and go back to where we came from -- Riverside -- or they would shoot on sight.

In his father's driveway -- which is where we'd come from, and where we are still from - this week, I watched the boogie men. My brothers-in-law, nephews, first and second and third cousins. Close to a hundred men, holding beer and soda cans, leaning on cars, moving chairs, serving fried fish from a huge platter because someone had brought a hundred pounds of fresh catfish in honor of my father-in-law.

They are all tall - 6-6 and 330 pounds, 6-2 and 350, 6-5 and on and on. Custodians, parole agents, correctional officers, union foreman for cement layers, construction workers, and drivers for an auto auction. Huge men who have been threatened, arrested on mistaken identities (many times), shot at, called names, and been nervous for decades because they were DWB.

Driving While Black.

The rest of America is still scared of them? After the revelations of the past week? Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge pleaded not guilty to federal charges of lying about years of torture during his time in the department, a time during which black men were beaten, hung out of windows, and treated in a fashion similar to men held at Guantanamo right now.

Yale law professor Ian Ayres released a report stating that "We found persistent and statistically significant racial disparities in policing that raise grave concerns that African Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles are, as we put it in the report, "over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched and over-arrested."

"You can't all ride together," my ex-husband and his brothers are always telling their nephews and sons. "Take two cars, so it's only two of you in each car. Otherwise, look at you. Four in a car. That's a gang, not cousins. You're gonna get stopped. And you know what could happen then."

So America is still scared to death of that mythical 6-4 black guy? The one who bumped into the white woman in the elevator in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921? His name was Dick Rowland. He was shorter than that, but still black. He was accused of rape, and the attempt by a white mob to lynch him was the pretext for the Tulsa Riot, when nearly all of prosperous black Tulsa's business and residential districts were burned to the ground and hundreds of black men shot, burned, and their corpses photographed for postcards which were entitled "Dead Nigers in Tulsa, 1921."

My father-in-law's family was from Tulsa. Some of them fled to Los Angeles after being shot during the riot, and others rebuilt their houses and stayed, defiant and successful, brick by brick.


Those black men. That night, in the driveway, our cousin T was wearing a quick-made t-shirt from the swap meet - she'd taken the best head shot of my father-in-law and his smiling face was emblazoned on a black shirt, with RIP and his name below. She stood next to another cousin who wore a new black Obama t-shirt which read, above his smiling visage, First African-American President.

"Look, they have the same ears!" Dwayne said.

The men in the driveway and the street beyond ranged from 55 to 25 to 15 months old. We, the women in the driveway, are afraid for them daily and nightly. It has been this way forever. We are not welfare queens - we are teachers, home health care aides, custodians, parole agents, correctional officers, and social workers. Yes. Pretty funny, to the "real Americans" who somehow don't notice us when Governor Palin proclaims: "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us. Those who are protecting us in uniform. Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom."

And I guess Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., who mentioned last Saturday that "Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God" hasn't paid much attention to us, either.

But last week, Dwayne and I took our youngest daughter for a bike ride, and during a stop, he said to me, "I got really scared last week."

"What happened?" I said.

He shook his head. "All the older white guys at work listen to Rush Limbaugh, so I thought I'd better check it out. I listened to him last night."

That was all he said. He shook his head again.

There is no Willie Horton here. There is no mythical boogie man. Just our family. And America has conditioned my own daughters and their cousins, all teenagers or young women, to be afraid for their men as well. My middle daughter is a high school senior with about forty colleges sending her recruitment letters because of her high grades and test scores. Her boyfriend is a football and basketball player already recruited by Stanford and other schools. He's 6-5, weighs 200 pounds, and has braids, and gets hassled by police and school administrators and whoever else. She already knows.

Last week's news, that the Ashley Todd story was made up, that she has no idea how she got a backwards B carved on her face, was not a surprise to us. Convenient big black guys are always around -- Charles Stuart, Susan Smith, and on. But the results of their myths, which are diffuse versions of Tulsa, live on as well.

Today's news, about the ATF foiling a plot to assassinate Barack Obama, is not a surprise to us. By November 4th, we may have elected a 6 foot tall black man as president. The women in the driveway, and all over this country, will be watching with caution, some fear, but resilience and strength and hope, because we have always had those as our only weapons. Powerful weapons.