“There are people interviewing at the door,” my 13-year-old son warned me. My mission had been simple, get in and out of the Arlington Stop & Shop with the chocolate ice cream and bananas and those paper towels I’d forgotten the day before as quickly as possible. People asking for donations or doing surveys there goes with the territory, so I didn’t think much of it.
A tall, blondish, young man (high school? college underclassman?) in a black T-shirt holding up two small plastic containers stopped me. Another youth had a mike, a third, a video camera. As a journalist, I usually avoid people with cameras. After all, the powers that be don’t want to hear about my unsanctioned opining about the cost of milk, heating oil, or what have you. But they looked harmless enough, students doing some sort of consumer affairs project most likely. Wouldn’t I want somebody to help my kid out with a project? So I stopped.
“Do you like vanilla or chocolate pudding?” the one with the containers asked.
“Chocolate,” I answered.
“Do you think that chocolate has the foreign policy experience to lead this country?” he said?
If this had been a Batman episode, circa 1967, the graphic “POW” would been splayed across the television screen. Maybe the kid thought the scenario he and his friends had produced was certainly YouTube worthy, if not Saturday Night Live caliber. I did not. Usually my guard against this sort of behavior is always up. Way up. It’s a reflex most African-Americans develop, particularly those of us living in predominately white suburbs, where the presence of just enough people to treat you like an extraterrestrial is guaranteed.
But for some reason, I’d switched off the hazard lights. Maybe it was the rushing, the presence of my son, or the mental haze of a Sunday afternoon. All I knew was that I didn’t have a comeback to stop the rapidly descending floor of my stomach. Knowing that I was being taped, I chuckled in a world weary, middle-aged kind of way.
Honestly, it’s sometimes hard to shake off that Jackie-Robinson-dignity-above all-else home training. “That’s not a good question,” I said and walked away. I can’t remember the last time the stars aligned to get me in and out of a supermarket so fast. Five, ten minutes max, my son said later. In that timespan, the wannabe superstars had fled. Back home, after hearing “Mom is pissed!” from the 13-year-old, my husband, who is white, weighed in that his response would have been, how shall I say, more confrontational.
I decided to call to the supermarket manager. Just wanted to alert you to some election season funny business, I started off. He apologized profusely. It wasn’t his fault. Of course not, I said. Kids doing projects usually let us know what they’re up to, he said. How was he to know? Indeed. The manager agreed to keep a look out and thanked me for calling, adding “You’re the best.”
There is a critical presidential election coming up with two candidates who offer contrasting visions of life in our global village. Their positions on Spain, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Russia I cannot see from my front porch should be rigorously sliced and diced everywhere, not just on blogs, but on every home page, front page, podcast, radio and television news program from coast to coast.
But they’re not so much. Instead, at this pivotal moment in historical time, public discourse in Superpower North America is inexplicably stuck on pigs and pitbulls and lipstick and hockey. We laugh and shake our heads. Except when we don’t. Content to luxuriate in the adoration of partisan crowds, the candidates duck and weave away from an impotent national media like Muhammad Ali in his prime.
If the kids in the Stop & Shop parking lot had asked me about the foreign policy capabilities of the African-American senator from Illinois, half way into his first six-year term, that’s an off-line conversation we might have had. Newsflash: The post-racial nirvana you’ve heard so much about is so 24th century. See Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise for further details.
Like our candidates, many Americans still speak in code. Yet for most of these encounters, no translation is necessary. Especially if you are a black woman being asked by a white man about the foreign policy qualifications possessed by a container of chocolate pudding.