At 16 years old — before I took my driver's license test in Detroit — my father, Howard, asked me to sit down at the kitchen table in our home in a middle-class neighborhood on the city's East Side for "The Talk," which many Black fathers were having (and still have) with their sons and daughters across America.
It was a serious discussion; it was a dangerous time. A complete breakdown of trust between the police and Detroit's Black community had led to a civic rebellion at that point in the 1970s. I had already become a young, unsuspecting witness to the random harassment of Black boys like me, while elsewhere in the city, police were beating and killing young Black men in an unprecedented series of assaults.
My father had raised me to respect the police. He had Black friends who were police officers in Detroit, but he also knew there were some white law enforcers who were disrupters in our community. He told me that, because I was Black and male, I could be shot or killed just for climbing behind the wheel. It was sobering.
My first experience with being pulled over by police was in the early 1960s, when I was just a kid.
If I was pulled over, my father told me, I shouldn't make any sudden moves and I should keep my hands on the steering wheel; he said that I should have my driver's license and insurance card easily available and that I should answer questions respectfully.
As time passed, my worst fears as a teenager were realized: I saw the flashing lights of a police squad car in the rearview mirror, and I was pulled over. Two white police officers stood on either side of my mother's car with their hands on their hips, inches from their guns. Neighbors looked on; I felt like a criminal.
Luckily for me, they realized quickly that I wasn't the Black male they were looking for, and they drove off as fast as they had arrived — no explanation and no apologies, but also no ticket. I was a rattled victim of racial profiling, but I was lucky: I drove away unharmed.
It wasn't the first time, and it wouldn't be the last.
The names I don't remember from when I was a boy are the reason my father had "The Talk" with me.
My first experience with being pulled over by police was in the early 1960s, when I was just a kid; I had been sleeping in the back seat of our family car when we were stopped somewhere in North Carolina. I woke up to a white police officer with a Southern accent rudely accusing my father of a minor traffic violation.
He threatened to arrest my dad and jail him for the weekend but ultimately let him go with a stern warning. Still, the cop likely accomplished what he had intended to do: He intimidated the Black strangers who had driven through his Southern town and reminded us that, as Black people, we were neither welcome nor seen as equal anywhere below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Today, I call the area of that infamous line my home; people here now call it the "DMV," for the District (of Columbia), Maryland and Virginia. The District of Columbia is plurality Black; the metropolitan area is plurality Black, Indigenous and people of color. But venture too far from the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and it isn't hard to feel the weight of that history again.
Just last month, for instance, to take a weekend break in a more serene mountainous setting, I decided to take a drive through the Virginia countryside with my girlfriend, Alison.
As Black men, we can't escape our perilous reality — we could all easily be the next one.
At some point, though, our relaxing road trip turned stressful. "Michael, slow down," Alison said with a tightness in her voice — even though I wasn't going very fast. By way of explanation, she pointed out the window to a large rural road sign marking the town we were about to enter: "WINDSOR: 10 MILES."
Without thinking, and unbeknownst to us, we had followed the Shenandoah Trail to just 10 miles from Windsor, Virginia, where Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario — who is Black and Latino — had recently been unnecessarily, unceremoniously stopped and pepper-sprayed by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. Nazario — though this should go without saying — was polite, unarmed and wearing his military uniform.
"I'm serving this country, and this is how I'm treated?" Nazario said at one point. (The officer who used excessive force has been fired.)
"Make sure you're driving the speed limit," Alison said as I pumped the brakes. "Let's not take any chances."
Our Black women and our Black girls are also trying to find their ways in the world and can also be subjected to brutality by racially insensitive cops.
As Black men, we can't escape our perilous reality — we could all easily be the next Caron Nazario, the next George Floyd, the next Daunte Wright, the next Philando Castile, the next Rayshard Brooks, the next Walter Scott, the next Andrew Brown Jr. (killed in North Carolina, where my father had been stopped) — the next, the next, the next.
The names I don't remember from when I was a boy are the reason my father had "The Talk" with me; the ones I remember too well are why I had "The Talk" with my daughter, Ariane.
Often we focus on our Black men — as we should — but we shouldn't forget about our Black women and our Black girls who are also trying to find their ways in the world and can also be subjected to brutality by racially insensitive cops.
These days, I'm channeling my father (who passed away several years ago) when having the same talks with my 23-year-old daughter out of concern for her safety. Years after he was pulled over in North Carolina, he pleaded with me to be careful of intolerant police — but he also urged me to speak out against racial injustice.
Ariane is in college and also driving around the DMV; we talk about Black Lives Matter, about interacting with police and about her passion for sharing stories and writing poetry about her generation's civil rights movement. She reminds me of my mother, Roberta, who is herself a vocal community activist and helped shape my own views about race and policing.
But, every day, I worry about Ariane driving the streets alone. The names run through my mind: Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson and Ma'Khia Bryant and Aiyana Stanley-Jones (who was only 7-years old when she shot in my hometown of Detroit during a six-man SWAT team raid that entered the wrong apartment). The list goes on.
I remember seven years ago when, for the first time, Ariane adjusted my car's mirrors, gripped the steering wheel, looked both ways, pressed the gas pedal and slowly turned onto a busy street. Ariane was looking for oncoming traffic; I was looking for the police.
I still am.