Being a Black man is a wonderful thing. I love my skin, I love my features, I love our culture, our food and our women.
Being a Black man in America is not as wonderful. It brings its challenges and an additional burden – a weight – that you must carry in your daily activities and interactions. I call it my “backpack of bricks” and it is there from the minute I wake up, until the minute I go to sleep at night. The backpack has many iterations, but the burden is always there.
I wake up early so I can go out for my morning run. At 48 years of age, gone are the days where my weight maintains without effort. It’s 30 degrees outside, so I throw on my sweat pants and hoodie and head out. But the hood on my hoodie stays down – despite the cold nipping at my ears. Our largely White community already seems alarmed to see a Black man running through the neighborhood. I’ve learned from experience that carrying a flashlight, loudly saying “good morning” to announce my presence, and keeping my hood down allows the White joggers and walkers I encounter to contain (not eliminate, but contain) their anxiety and alarm. Even so, I have had people cross the street when I approach, or gasp when I pass them from behind. The bag of bricks makes my run harder.
I order my Uber to take me to work. I dress in a suit every day, but I’ve learned to leave my Uber profile anonymous by not adding a picture. When I first started with Uber I had a picture in my profile, and was surprised by the number of “driver cancellations” I experienced. Since deleting my picture, the cancellations have decreased. In the back seat of the car, the bag of bricks sits on my lap.
My workday starts. I am the head of the Seattle office of my Company – responsible for over 150 employees and revenue in excess of $100M. I’ve held this position for five years, yet when we host meetings with prospective clients and vendors, I too often find the lead on the other side of the table automatically addressing my Office Manager, a White male. He can’t make any decisions, only I can. Perhaps they can’t see me behind my big bag.
I head out to lunch with a good client who is also a friend. We head to our favorite spot in the Financial District that offers the perfect combination of excellent food and well-made Old Fashioneds (with Rye, of course). On this day, like almost every other, we are the only two Black people in a restaurant of 150 or more. We note it with a roll of the eyes as we greet each other with a dap and a hug, but pay only modest attention. After all, for 20 years we have both been in industries where we are the only Black person in our Office, in most meetings, and at almost every business dinner and corporate retreat. The cocktails ease the tension in my shoulders from carrying my bag of bricks.
I grab my oldest son to take him to grab a waterproof watch for an upcoming school trip to Nicaragua. We’ve paid full freight for his trip, just as we have paid the full tuition of $35,000 a year at his school for the past four years. I’m still in my suit from work as we walk around Macy’s, but I know to keep mostly to the main aisles and to keep my hands in plain sight. My son excitedly grabs things to show me, and I admonish him to not pick things up, to keep his hands out of his sweatshirt and to stay in open areas. He looks confused, but I need him to learn how to strengthen his shoulders. He needs to be prepared as his bag is getting heavier with each year of age and inch of height.
I attend my younger son’s basketball game. I choose to sit by myself (as I usually do) but another Dad comes up to talk about the game. We’re playing a team from Seattle’s Central District that is predominately Black. He talks to me about how our boys are not as “aggressive”, “hungry” or “physical” as the other team. He also talks to me about how his son said another kid on the team, who is white, “must have some black in him” because he plays so well. I’m tired from the day and don’t feel like picking up additional bricks, so I let these comments go.
My wife and I sit up discussing an email we received from my son’s Geometry teacher. Despite having always been gifted at math, and the fact that the semester is only three weeks old, he is suggesting a move to a less advanced class, proposing tutoring, and advising us on the importance of a good diet, sufficient sleep, and an organized and designated study area. My wife and I have four degrees and seven years of post-graduate studies between us. Perhaps the teacher sees only an uneducated day laborer because I carry a bag on my back all day.
We send a responsive email telling him that we plan to keep our son in the advanced class, are committed to providing him with all of the support he needs, and reminding him of the importance of education to our family. I purposely call him “Dave” instead of “Mr. Burton” and intentionally send the email from my work account that includes my Regional President title in the signature block.
I take off my bag of bricks, set it next to the bed while letting out a sigh, take a sip of my bourbon cocktail, and turn off my lamp. Gotta get a good night’s sleep before picking up my load again in the morning.