Lloyd Sheldon Johnson

I live in one of the so-called progressive liberal bastions of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: The People’s Republic of Cambridge. I’m located a short walk from the Charles River and about ten minutes from Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square, where you can get a train, bus, taxi or bicycle to get you to any part of the greater Boston area. I am at the apex of a triangle that situates me between MIT and Harvard. Needless to say, I am lodged inside an interesting intersection where I witness demographic changes, urban gentrification, and aggressive construction and renovation projects in the midst of a growing number of homeless and displaced citizens who populate Central Square during the day and well into the night. The COVID19 pandemic and the public murders of Black people being filmed and circulated around the globe has brought a new kind of energy to this city and to our country. People meet. People march. People post. People rant. But do people really change?

When I walk my new mixed-breed Foxhound rescue dog, Akua, through the streets of this area, historically defined as the Coast and now defined as the Cambridgeport section of Cambridge, I see all the things I missed before, all the things I never saw because I was buckled into a car seat and drove everywhere, missing the manicured colorful gardens that adorn the fronts of the stunning homes proudly boasting myriad architectural styles that speak to the historicity of the area and its uniquely Cantabridgian charm. Akua and I have been together a little over three months. Walking the streets with her and getting to know the neighborhood makes me feel like a new resident and not someone who has been here well over ten years. I even know the sequence of street names when in the past I only knew the names of the busy main streets and the ones where you were forced to stop for traffic lights or stop signs.

The City recently made one of our main streets, Magazine, into a walkable street to be shared for social distancing and to allow for open space to bike, walk your dog or speak with neighbors and friends at a comfortable, communicable distance. Many are upset with this change since it limits automobile traffic and reduces speed limits to 10 mph. I’ve noticed the difference this has made over the past few weeks. More people are out and about. The mood on the street seems more relaxed, less hurried than before. Children ride their bikes and scooters on the street and the cacophony of dogs yelping and babies in strollers screaming for attention seem like a song from crowded urban streets and not from this pristinely manicured residential pathway. And, surely, not having cars and busses rushing down a street that is too narrow, with parking on both sides, to accommodate both, the mood has shifted. The area seems more suburban than urban, more relaxed and laid back than the crowded and frenetic neighborhoods up the street and across Massachusetts Avenue, more settled with a vibe that feels like someone took some characters from an Jane Austen novel and planted some of them in the homes that surround the park. I notice the changes in the area. What I have come to notice more, however, are the signs and posters I see everywhere.

“Black Lives Matter” slogans are scribbled on homemade signs that are taped to the fence of the Escuela Amigos school on Upton Street. The slogan is written in chalk on sidewalks. The signs are placed in the windows of many of the large homes on Erie Street. The color of the lettering varies: black, rainbows infused through the script, black and white, purple and even red with letters of varying heights. A few of the signs even have the image of George Floyd above the message. Some of the signs are placed on lawns alongside other signage that promote voter registration, immigrant rights, the removal of border walls, Bernie Sanders, social justice, LGBTQ rights, and animal rights. Everyone and every cause appear in the mix: a social justice kaleidoscope. Absent are any references to the current resident of the White House, thank God, and issues connected to his actions and policies except for one drawing of him in a first-floor window with an “X” etched across his face.

While in the front of my house pulling weeds and watering the new plants I got at Home Depot, I was struck by the fact that I am not noticed. I speak to people when they pass; most don’t respond. I even noticed that a lot of those who glance in my direction, no ear pods to distract their attention, still do not respond to me or the polite greetings I offer. “Good morning.” “Have a great day,” I sometimes say. Seldom is a polite greeting extended to me first. Something is wrong here, I’ve deeply pondered over the past weeks. Black and brown people speak to me, some often speaking first if my head is bowed over a plant. White people tend to ignore me. As they are approaching me from a distance, their minds seem to click into “race mode,” and then “invisibility mode,” and then “avoidance mode.” I am seen, yet not seen. Sort of shocking to me since I am nearly six feet four inches tall and weigh around two hundred and twenty pounds. And my glistening bald pate can be seen at a distance, especially when the sun shines. My unusual eyeglasses are not to be missed since the oversized large frame is red. I’m hardly invisible.

To not be politely acknowledged is both a conscious and unconscious erasure, on their part, of my presence and existence. If you think these “educated” white people ignore me, the behavior of most Asians is even more puzzling! Not only am I invisible, I am also some kind of intimidating pariah, a threat of some sort or something to be feared. They will make a semi-circular loop around where I am and follow that arc, thus creating an entire area of invisibility that they seem to place me in. Don’t think for a second that I have some gnawing thirst that can only be quenched if white people speak to me. Hardly, I am simply aware. I have lived my life with wide eyes and an open heart. Looking, seeing, and feeling have given fuel to my intuition and sensitized me to meet others and find and connect with their humanity. I see the “Black Lives Matter” posters and banners, and I quietly acknowledge them, feeling the pain and sadness of the 400 years of oppression, and most times feeling that I have some white allies in this battle.

I nod at the posters. I closed my eyes for a few seconds as I looked over the sidewalk message, stenciled into the pavement: “Rest in Power, George Floyd.” I saw the same stenciled message on the side of a building not too far from where I saw the first one. I think about each poster I see. I wonder who lives in the rooms of the homes where the posters are prominently displayed in the windows or on the front lawns. I talk to the signs. “Brother Floyd, your face is painted on a canvas in my mind.” I shake my head and moan as I pass a sign acknowledging the brutal murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Nearly tearful, I rock my head from side to side. Then I wonder why most of the people, even at the large Dana Park on Magazine Street, don’t see me or speak to me. Though our noses and mouths are masked, our eyes are not. I notice the small groups of whites, with a sprinkling of Asians, who gather on blankets spread over the neatly groomed lawn, their cheeses and pâtés shared on paper plates with berries and sliced pears and apples. I notice that most prefer red wine and that, too, is on the blanket and shared, evidenced by the plastic cups most hold and sip from. I can’t recall ever seeing a Black person in the mix. As I slowly walk Akua, or she walks me, which is usually the case, I take in the three or four groups gathered on the sprawling lawn at this nice neighborhood park. Not one person has ever looked up at me to offer a greeting. Near my house I pass a series of rectangular-shaped small posters pasted on a solid white wall on what is soon to be a new restaurant, emblazoned with one eye-catching inscription: “Your White Privilege,” beneath which someone has scribbled “is living here.” I thought about the message and said, aloud, “yeah, right!” I have concluded, after walking my neighborhood a lot, that something is really, really wrong!

Akua and I go for our walks at least three or four times a day. At one point I thought about actually counting the signs and tributes postered around a particular four block area. But why, I asked myself. I was searching to find answers to the many questions that filled my mind. As Akua sought squirrels and rabbits, I sought answers to what is wrong and why. Racism continues to ruin the spirit of our country, and it seems to be worsening. I pass a large “Black Lives Matter” sign printed on heavy canvas to survive any effects of bad weather. The sign is tangerine, black, cerulean, goldenrod, and bright red. There are black arms extended upwards with raised fists. I give a very careful look at the sign, grommets and all, and I smile.

The signs speak to me: The people don’t.

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