On Running While Black, With More Hope Than Before

SEATTLE — The bloom of the Black Lives Matter signs. That is what my son and I saw as we jogged through our mostly white neighborhood. Everywhere we looked, we could see what felt like change.

The signs were on front lawns, attached to trees, displayed in windows, stapled to telephone poles.

There was also a flag that displayed a clenched fist, Black and bold. A fence with huge letters that spelled a single word: Ally. A nearby building was painted with the name George Floyd.

It was summer, hot and dry in our Seattle neighborhood, where I am among the few Black homeowners — and one of the few Black joggers — in a community of roughly 40,000 not far from downtown.

Though this is a place that leans left politically, visible displays of support for Black human rights have been scarce. But then Floyd died in Minneapolis after a white police officer pinned him to the ground, knee upon neck. As the country heaved in protest over racism that stretched back four centuries, something changed where we live — on the surface, at least.

Like Black joggers across the country, we saw the burst of supportive flags, placards and murals. They gave some comfort to a guy like me, unsure and anxious about our place in a community we enjoy. I could not stop wondering what it all meant.

“Never in a million years would I have thought we’d see this,” I told my son as we finished up a three-miler one day. “Never.”

He replied with the cleareyed directness of a 9-year-old. “But Dad, where were all those signs before? It’s crazy that it took someone dying to have this happen.”

From the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we had made a habit of running, masked-up, down the middle of residential streets in the late afternoons. It became our way to bond.

But then in May I saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black runner, as he was shot to death weeks earlier after being confronted by two white men in coastal Georgia.

I crumpled into a ball on my couch and cried.

A few days later, my son started our run by asking if we could take his favorite route. It winds through the immaculately manicured neighborhoods nearby. They felt even more segregated. Running there now felt like being in a fishbowl, way too out in the open, way too much as if we were objects being watched.

No, I told him.“Some other time, I promise.” I just couldn’t bear it.

He understood.

Make no mistake, running while Black on the streets of Seattle does not feel the same as it does in a place like St. Louis, where I jogged last year on a work trip and sensed immediately that the racial tension was thicker and more obvious. Nor is it like pounding the footpaths of Fayetteville, N.C., where Sonoyia Largent leads a growing chapter of a nationwide support group called Black Girls Run. When we talked last week, Largent spoke of feeling racism in her community growing so close to a boil that she has considered buying a gun small enough to keep in her training gear.

I don’t feel that worried, but we live in America, and my son and I are now part of a movement. The number of Black recreational joggers has surged during the pandemic, according to Largent and several other running organizers from across the country. One called it a boom. All spoke of a paradox. We get out there for health, a sense of freedom and joy, even as a tribute to Arbery — to claim our unbowed dignity in full view. But we do so warily.

For me, that caution comes from personal history. My parents helped integrate the part of the city where I live, starting in the 1950s. They raised four sons here. We had many friends. And plenty of neighbors eager to show their hate. During my grade school years in the 1970s, racial epithets were regularly directed my way. I always had to be ready to fight.

The city is different now. Far wealthier, far less provincial. Outward racism is less common.

But Seattle remains one of the whitest major cities in the country, and it is in a region long rife with white supremacists.

So as I run, I keep in mind the present and do not forget the past. I remain on guard, scanning each street, aware of every person on every corner and front porch. All it takes is one 911 call from someone who thinks I’m stalking the neighborhood, and suddenly I could be surrounded by police. Then what?

It is not just people I worry about. As many Black runners can attest, objects become potent symbols.

My antenna rises when I see a pickup truck that has a bumper sticker with the words N.R.A., Don’t Tread on Me or Trump 2020.

I spent enough time as a city reporter to understand that policing done right is an honorable profession, but I sprint as fast as possible by the house with the Blue Lives Matter flag, which I view as a retort to the quest for Black justice.

What about the suddenly ubiquitous Black Lives Matters signs? They cause mixed emotions. As I spoke with runners from across the country, it was clear I was not alone.

“We’ve got to give white people some credit,” said Maria B. Stanfield, a clinical psychologist and avid runner in the Detroit area. “I would not minimize it. They didn’t have to put up the signs.”

I agree. I’d rather see the outward support than nothing at all.

But how truly authentic are such displays? Flying a flag is excellent, but what does it mean for real change?

“If I’m injured and need help, and I show up at the front door of one of those houses with the signs, will they call the cops or give me assistance?” said Erik McDuffie, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois who hopes to compete in a marathon once the pandemic ends.

I can’t see myself ever running a marathon, but I can imagine that for my son. Eventually, I fulfilled the promise I made, and we returned to his favorite route.

We kept going back. In August, September and then October. Kept slogging up and down the long blocks that string across our community.

On a recent outing, we pushed through rain and gusty winds, well past sundown. I noticed how the show of support had changed me. I felt safer, as free as I’ve felt on any run.

I noticed something else. The words “George Floyd” on that nearby building had been painted over. The flags were worn. Some of the signs either were gone from front yards or looked as if they were about to blow off their moorings.

I had to wonder: When the weather is better next spring, will the bloom come again?

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