Two weeks ago, I was driving from Gainesville back to St. Petersburg, and I stopped for gas on State Road 200 in Ocala. After I got out of my truck and started pumping, a late model Honda Accord sedan with a Canadian license plate parked at the pump next to me. A white family — a man, a woman and three preteens — were in the Honda. The man got out, we spoke simultaneously and he started pumping.
As we pumped our gas, we heard the loud rap music blasting from the side street. We stared at each other. I knew what was happening. A pimped-out 1958 Chevy Impala pulled in behind the Canadians. The rap's bass frequency was so loud and powerful that it shook everything around us, including the concrete we stood on. The lyrics were profane and vulgar. A young black male, shirtless, sagging in camouflage cargo short pants and wearing ankle-high white socks and shower shoes, turned off the engine, left the CD blaring, got out of the Impala and began pumping gas. The spectacle that he was, he danced as he pumped.
The poor Canadian was clearly upset by the disruption. And that's exactly what it was: a calculated disruption, an intentional act of disorder.
Again the Canadian looked at me, this time beseechingly, as if pleading for relief. After all, we'd just spoken and had instantaneously broken down some of our racial difference and established temporary camaraderie.
I'm certain that he saw me, an old gray-headed black man driving an older vehicle, as an ally in an unexpected cultural event he didn't fully comprehend.
But I couldn't help him. I couldn't tell him that even as a black man, I'm wary of young black males who embody that inner city ghetto persona. I presume they are packing heat, and I don't want to start a confrontation over rap and a clownish costume.
I stopped pumping before filling the tank because I wanted to be as far away from this scene as quickly as possible. I was ashamed: I was African-American like the Impala driver. And I felt helpless. I had nothing reassuring and wise to say to the Canadians. I couldn't shield their young children from the thumping, profane lyrics.
Similar encounters occur thousands of times each day in the United States, potentially deadly encounters in which young black males intentionally outrage and distress other people, including fellow blacks.
Rejoining traffic on Interstate 75, I was mystified and angry that the Impala driver and many other young black males would intentionally destroy public tranquility during this age of hyper-race consciousness, when America's pulse rate is high and when new ethnic and cultural enmities are being cultivated like never before.
In addition to being stupid, the behavior of the Impala driver reinforces many negative stereotypes about young black males and invites powerful reactions.
When I was a teacher, I regularly told my black male students that all peaceful societies share a few core sentiments, rituals, traditions and convictions that prevent life from devolving into chaos and violence.
The ways people behave in public spaces are important forces that determine the degree of tranquility, and for there to be tranquility, citizens must be responsible for the roles they play in forging civility. There must be respect for others.
At that gas pump, the Canadian and I exchanged greetings and would have resumed our travels with that pleasant memory. But that possibility was hijacked by a self-absorbed goon who cared nothing about us.
Yes, he had the right to play his rap. But if he were a true citizen, he would have known that just because he has the freedom to play his rap loudly, he didn't have to exercise that freedom at that time, distressing foreign visitors and their young children in a public space.
Where was his common sense? And where was his awareness that as a young black male, he is widely feared by many people, that he isn't wanted in many places and that he is what many social scientists refer to as the "outsider" and the "other"? Why would he voluntarily provoke negative responses and potentially deadly conflict when he could do just the opposite?
Many young black males need to take a hard look at their responsibilities in fostering public tranquility. They need to realize that the only chance they have to be accepted as a group and as individuals is to start helping others in feeling comfortable in their presence.
The threatening public persona must disappear. Pride in it must disappear. All too often, we're our own worst enemy.