Facing Facts

Written By: Peggy O'Leary

Over twenty-five years ago, I met and fell in love with the man who would become my husband and father to our two sons.  It wasn’t until then that I had any inkling of what it was like to be black in America.  Sure, like many, I considered myself savvy and unprejudiced.  In reality, I was naive and uninformed.

The stares from strangers as we walked down the street, hand in hand, surprised me.  The taxi drivers who pulled away when they noticed him standing behind me baffled me.  But, what disturbed me most were the thoughts flying around in my own head when I encountered a person of color.  I came to understand I had my own preconceived notions that needed to be dealt with.  I struggle with this to this day.  So, while I may understand a misguided thought going through your head, I will not tolerate any action which is rooted in that thought.

My two sons are now young black men.  It is through my relationships with my husband and them that I have come to experience the ignorance that is prevalent in our society.  The pain and fear I have felt are unlike anything my white friends who have white husbands and children will ever experience.  I have lost count of the number of times people have thought the children were not mine, usually assumed to be foster children. Once when my older son suffered from a seizure and I had to take him to the hospital, I spent valuable minutes convincing the triage nurse that these children were indeed mine and I had indeed given birth to them.  My husband and I had “the talk” with my sons as is the case with most black families, yet I worry about them each and every day. They were good kids, but very vested in their civil rights.  Many of my friends just don’t understand this.  We can pretend racism doesn’t exist and hope it goes away on its own, but that is not likely to happen.

In Quogue, we live in a home that has been in my husband’s family since the mid-1900s.  Until recently, it was used as a summer house for several generations of very happy people.  It is now our year round home.  During one of those summer mornings several years ago, a police car sped onto our property and demanded to know what my husband was doing.  He happened to be walking our long driveway to make him easier to see for the taxi that was on its way.  He felt it necessary to explain to the officer that he owned the house.  I can’t be sure, but I think it unlikely that police car would have stopped had I been the one walking down the drive that morning.

On another occasion, we watched as my then young teen aged son was followed onto our property by a police car.  He was walking with his headphones on and I am not sure if he was even aware of the police presence before we told him.  The officer explained to my husband that someone on our street had called and reported a suspicious person in the area.  Again, had he encountered a young white teenager walking down the street, my guess is he would have kept driving.  Instead, he felt the need to question my son and follow him home to be sure he actually lived where he said he did. After my son was once again stopped that summer for no apparent reason, my husband filed an official complaint of harassment with the police department.

I wish I could say it stopped there.  It hasn’t. The neighbors still call and the police still stop and chat.  The police now are much more open and understanding, but I want them to do more.  I want them to not stop.  I want them to realize this young man who is walking on the street is not suspicious merely because of his dark skin.  I want them to call the complainant back and say they drove past and did not see anything suspicious so that person now understands it is acceptable to walk while black in Quogue.

After yet another incident last summer, I appealed to The Quogue Association at their annual meeting.  I thought, perhaps, they might be of assistance in making Quogue a more welcoming place for a diverse population.  They were long on promises and short on action.  I am still waiting for that promised email.  I did not feel the need to renew our membership this year.

As horrific as it is that these events have happened over and over, it is made worse because my son who has been impacted most by this behavior, is no longer comfortable here in Quogue, a place that once was magic for our family, the place where nothing bad happened.  For those who think there is no harm done by these baseless stops, you are wrong.  If you are stopped over and over for no reason, your self-esteem suffers.  You avoid the place where this happens and when you are there, you no longer feel free to enjoy the walks you once loved.  There may not be physical marks, but your spirit is scarred.

The irony in all this is my husband’s family has been a part of the Quogue community for longer than many of our neighbors and certainly longer than any of the police officers have been alive.  If anyone has an unfettered right to walk on the streets of Quogue, it is my husband and his children.