By Maya Madden
The summer of 2020 was a turning point in many people’s lives. Recent protests had begun with the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, a young unarmed Black man. In addition, other Black Americans including Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice and Breonna Taylor were all shot by police. When George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota was witnessed through video footage by millions of people in our country and around the world in June 2020, people of all colors took to the streets to protest police killings. My husband and I joined the protesters near the courthouse in Richland Center. In Spring Green, we joined folks in the park to discuss systemic racism. Protests led to a period of self-examination for many in light of historic and present-day inequality and injustice. But it was an online class called “Witnessing Whiteness” that led me to question my own deep-seated prejudices and opinions and dig deeply into my own consciousness.
That summer, in spite of the pandemic, the famous Lift Bridge near Superior, Wisconsin, remained a tourist destination and one my husband and I wanted to see. Because of the crowds, the nearest parking was six blocks away. As my husband eased our little Prius into a tight parallel spot by jockeying forward and backward, I glanced out the window and my eye caught sight of a young Black man in a parking lot across the street. Tall and slim, he sported long dreads and was wearing a red and black leather sports-type jacket. In his hand, he carried a piece of paper or a flyer of some type.
As my husband got his hat and jacket from the back seat, I watched the scene unfolding. Tourists were exiting their cars in the lot, and this young man was approaching and engaging one of them. I wondered if he was selling something or perhaps working for restaurants along the street attempting to get customers for them. When we locked the car, I noticed our shopping bags full of things we had just purchased sitting on the back seat. I was uneasy about them openly sitting there, probably an entrenched feeling about possible theft left over from my days of living in various cities. I was also suspicious of the young Black man across the street. He looked over at us. I thought perhaps he was going to come over and try to sell me something. He was carrying a paper. At that point a large, long RV went by blocking my view. I noted my feeling of unease and dismissed it as evidence of my own internal racism.
About an hour later, we returned to the car. I saw the same young man now on my side of the street, standing right by our car. I tried to ignore him, but he held out a laminated flyer that had seen better days. As he did so, another young Black guy approached. He was shorter, stockier of build and his clothes were more subdued. He also had a battered plasticized sheet describing some kind of basketball fundraiser and the amount you could give to support the team. I really didn’t read much of it or listen to his spiel. I thought it was a hustle for sure. I looked at his face and noticed that although the first man was wearing a mask, this second man did not have one. I had begun carrying a bunch of disposable masks in the glove compartment and also had a package of clean cloth ones I had gotten at the food pantry.
I said to him, “You need a mask.” Hurriedly, he pulled out a disposable mask that had a broken ear loop on it. “Wait,” I said. On impulse, I opened the door of the car, reached into the glove compartment, and got the package of cloth masks. I pulled one out of the package and gave it to him.
“Thanks,” he said. “Can I have a hug?”
In the time of COVID and social distancing, my reaction was a huge hesitation. At this point, I didn’t even have my own mask on. I stood looking at him for a shocked second and our eyes met. I reached into my purse and put my mask on, he put on his mask, and we hugged. As we hugged, I said, “God bless you, brother,” which is completely out of character for me.
“Can I have a mask, too?” said the first young man with the dreads. I gave him one and told him that I couldn’t contribute to his deal today.
“OK,” he said.
I got in the car and we drove away. I don’t know if they were just hustling tourists for money for themselves or if their cause was real. I thought about the risk of contracting coronavirus from the first young man whom I had hugged. I thought about my own deep-seated suspicion of Black people, even though I will tell you that I am not a racist. I have demonstrated for Black Lives Matter and read books on systemic racism and taken a class to better understand the whole subject. When I am totally honest with myself, I know that suspicion and fear is still deep inside of my psyche. I can conjure up that boy’s face in my mind. It is good. I want never to forget it.
I’ve got so much to learn.
Maya Madden is a jewelry artist, watercolor artist and writer living and creating in a 110-year-old brick schoolhouse near Lone Rock. Maya finds inspiration from the River Valley, where she participates in a (nameless so far) writers group in Spring Green, and from the happenstance of life. She believes in this quote from Maya Angelou: “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” Maya’s jewelry website is www.norulesjewelry.com.