How Honest Should I Be?
by Malcolm Hansen
I’m standing in the bathroom stuffing a grocery sack with beach towels. Having surrendered to my son’s pleas of going down to our neighborhood pool to cool off, I find myself thinking of the black man who had been kicked out of an apartment complex pool in Memphis for wearing socks. I wonder why he refused to take them off? And why the apartment manager felt the need to call the police on him? For all the confusion surrounding the need for either socks or cops at a pool, I also wonder why a petty dispute between two fellow Tennesseans escalated into something of national significance.
I hear my son flip-flopping down the hall, over the runner. He appears at my side in surfer-style swim trunks. I take the opportunity to tell him about the incident. When I finish, he says maybe it had nothing to do with the color of the black man’s skin. Maybe socks just weren’t allowed in the pool, and that it was the apartment manager’s job to enforce the rules. I refrain from pointing out that this is the conventional explanation of many white people. I want to see where he takes it. After a moment, it’s clear he’s taking it nowhere. He stretches his swim goggles over his head and considers the matter closed. My son doesn’t appear to grasp the larger historical context in which one racial group gets ID’d, then interrogated, then arrested, while another does not.
Although I know that nothing could be further from the truth, I feel like he’s picking the wrong side. I repeat that the whites in the pool wearing hats and shirts were left to swim in peace while a young innocent black man with socks was removed by the cops. I emphasize “young” and “innocent” and “cops,” hoping to sway his judgment.
My son considers this for a second. He assumes I’ve left something out and looks puzzled. While he accepts that there must have been a reason above and beyond the presence of socks in the pool, he has difficulty understanding that someone can be victimized for no other reason than the color of their skin; neither does he comprehend the potential gravity of the situation for the black man who was hauled off in the back seat of a patrol car. And why would he? He’s eight years old. Still, I feel like I’ve failed in educating him in something of life-and-death importance.
Thus, we’re back in the living room. I’m sitting on the edge of the couch, and my son is standing in front of me. He yanks off his goggles, humorless. He is about to get a history lesson, and knows it. I, too, dread having to dredge up a despicable history every time a person with whom he shares a common ancestry is mistreated in what appears to be a systemic way. I ask myself, how far back must I go?
In trying to explain America’s history of using the police as strongmen tasked with enforcing one racial group’s will over another’s, I turn to my father’s experience as a young activist one summer in 1961 when he’d gotten his jaw broken and a few ribs cracked while in police custody. I also remind my son about my recently released debut novel, They Come in All Colors, in which a young boy similar in appearance and age to him is refused admission to his neighborhood pool for mysterious reasons.
After giving my son a taste of my past, his past—our past—he wants to know why the man had socks on in the pool in the first place. I concede that I don’t know, but suggest that perhaps the man had something going on with his feet that he preferred people not see. My son wonders why the man didn’t wear those neoprene diving socks he’s seen some kids wear at the beach. When I tell him not everyone owns or can afford specialty footwear, he simply sighs and wonders why the man didn’t just stay out of the pool. I remind him that some places are even hotter than New York.
It’s so hard to know what details to focus on these days, and, given our long history of racial bias, that appears to be the central question in Memphis. I try to explain to my son that irrespective of how one feels about socks in a swimming pool, a man should be allowed to refuse to take them off without ending up in police custody. I reach for my laptop to pull up the video of Philando Castile, but hesitate. As I struggle with the question of how to balance his right to remain innocent with his right to a faithful rendering of the world, I realize that the question isn’t how far back must I go, but how honest should I be?
My son, seizing upon my hesitation, asks if I'm done. All he wants is to go for a swim. I decide to spare him the disturbing video clip and nod, yes. His face brightens and he bounces down the hallway for the door. I close my laptop with a sigh. I simply don’t have it in me to repackage the brutal killing of a man into a bite-size morsel of age-appropriate honesty. Grocery sack in hand, I slide on my flip-flops and follow after my son. If only this was the last time I’d have to make a decision like this.