In front of me, the mom handed the middle-aged black man next to her a dollar bill and I glimpsed a cigarette pass between them. The realization that he could get killed for this poured over me. My second thought was to say hello.
“Hi,” he replied, eyeing me.
“How’s it goin?” I responded.
“Oh, alright,” but in a voice that said he didn’t quite know what to make of me yet.
“At least it’s Friday!”
Which elicited the brighter response: “Yeah, and they say that the harder the struggle the greater the reward.”
“That’s what they say…you believe that?” I tried to ask in a super casual way that I’m sure wasn’t nearly as smooth as I’d hoped. Because let’s be real — you guys know I’m not that smooth.
But he seemed to relax a bit more and let me know that he did agree that struggle brings reward. But he added a wrinkle to the idea — you have to make the right choices. He told me that you’ve got to choose to deal with struggle well. And, taking things one step further, he pointed out that the Constitution contains a guarantee of the ability to make choices.
At which point I couldn’t NOT say something. I’ve spent years under the tutelage of amazing witnesses, survivors (shout out to key friends here!) and scholars (and key friends here!) of America’s intense injustice. America was (and is) built on the backs of people who didn’t have access to the same array of choices as those in power. I’ve watched a man like the man in front of me (alike in our socially-constructed system of racial hierarchy) be killed while struggling to make difficult economic decisions, a choice hemmed in by the lot he and his ancestors were dealt. I still have a lot to learn but all this meant that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that.
I tiptoed into a small rebuttal: “But not everyone gets the same chance to make good choices.” I felt uneasy as I waded into the territory of refuting this man’s belief in freedom.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he responded to my relief. “Some people get some choices and other people got different choices. You still choosing but it is a different set of options.”
“Doesn’t sound fair to me.”
“No it don’t. No it don’t.”
And then we both boarded the bus.