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40 2 MEMORY AND RACIAL HUMILIATION IN POPULAR LITERATURE Southern prejudice is much like a treacherous serpent, it lies in wait and springs often without warning just when you least expect it while you are going quietly about your business enjoying life and at peace with the world. —Ralph Matthews, “My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience” Did you ever ride on a Jim Crow train? Did you ever go to see your mother on a Jim Crow train? Did you ever go to college on a Jim Crow train— Fisk, Tuskegee, Talladega? Did you ever start your furlough on a Jim Crow train? Soldier boy, training to fight for freedom, on a Jim Crow train. Did you ever take your vacation on a Jim Crow train? War-worker from Detroit going home for a visit on a Jim Crow train. Did you ever feel it in your soul, that Jim Crow train? . . . Where is freedom going on a Jim Crow train? —Langston Hughes, “Here to Yonder” I had just climbed the staircase to the second floor of the store, the name of which has long since faded, but I do recall it was where urban fashion met college prep met affordability. I was ostensibly looking at designer blue jeans. To be completely honest, however, I was just killing time. The store was around the corner from where my morning seminar had been held, I had just finished lunch, smartphones didn’t exist (meaning I mindlessly browsed clothes instead of the internet), and, most importantly, it was NewEngland -winter cold outside. My purpose for being in that store, then, had nothing to do with the blue jeans but was all about staying warm for another twenty minutes before my next class started. I think my determination to Memory and Racial Humiliation / 41 look like a real shopper and not a mere heat seeker left me slow to realize that I was being followed. When I became aware of his presence, I first thought the salesperson was being solicitous, and I was about to answer “Oh, no thank you, I’m just browsing” to some version of the obvious forthcoming question: “May I help you find something?” or “Are you looking for something in particular?” The only problem was that the salesperson never asked me anything. I must have looked a bit baffled when I stared at him, anticipating a pleasantry when none was offered, wondering what he wanted. When I moved further into the second floor, somewhere between the jeans that now seemed unreasonably expensive and the definitely overpriced backpacks, it was painfully obvious that this salesperson was going to shadow me throughout the store. Upset at his presumption that I was going to shoplift, or that I looked like someone who would shoplift, I left the store quickly and empty-handed, determined never to return. I felt I had secured some sort of unspoken victory over the salesperson’s suspicion, since my satchel only had books, paper, and pens inside. It took me a while to understand that the salesperson probably felt a similar sense of victory: namely, I left his store with only my own possessions and none of his. Admittedly, the inconvenience of the salesperson’s suspicion was just that: an inconvenience. Since he never accused me of attempting to steal anything and since he never actually said that I was unwelcome in the store, all I had to go on was an instinct that said my presence caused him alarm. This was New Haven in the early 1990s, when property damage and violent crime were rampant. Further, the media did not hesitate to tell any of us that black men steal things. Black men with large and capacious trench coats—I was certainly wearing the calf-length duster that somehow carried me through Connecticut winters—had to present a heightened risk to store owners trying to protect their inventory. Later that day I was still indignant when I related these events to one of my friends. Now, I find the memory of my indignation embarrassing mainly because I know that a good measure of my anger was rooted in the fact that the salesperson suspected me of being a criminal. (Technically I had shoplifted before. I was six years old, and the three or four small patches I found in the bins near the fabric store cash register looked so cool I had to have them. By the time I got home, I was crying about my...


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