About 30 years ago, I walked across the campus at the University of California, Berkeley (aka Cal), where I worked. It was evening and dark, probably the fall. I heard a whirring sound. A young man shaped like a question mark sat in a wheelchair. He blew into a device that made the wheelchair go. He looked sure of where he was going.
Nevertheless, the young man looked so vulnerable, alone in the darkness, that I feared for him. My mind whirled through all the bad things that could happen to him, alone in the darkness, with no one to help. I wondered if I could help him, if he needed or wanted it.
And then I laughed to myself. Although I was young then, I was just a little more formidable in the darkness than the young man making his way in the wheelchair was. Oh, I could throw a punch, but I hadn’t had a fight since I was 15. I lost badly and retired, defeated. I could run, too, but like my fellow traveler in the wheelchair, if someone wanted to hurt me, he could, especially on a deserted back pathway on a college campus.
It was just that I had trained myself to forget I was as vulnerable as thinking about the young man in the wheelchair ultimately reminded me I was.
After all, I was a young black man from Philly. I’d grown up traveling in darkness, wary yet unafraid. Like the young man in the wheelchair, I went where I needed to go. And like the young man in the wheelchair appeared to, I made my way without the expectation of anyone helping or protecting me.
For a time in my teens, I traveled with an ice pick in one pocket and a copy of the 27th Psalm, which my grandmother had copied in red ink, in another: “The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?” After a few days, I ditched the ice pick kept the psalm and took my chances.
Last week, three disparate (but, to my mind, related) events put me back on that deserted path at Cal, pondering darkness and vulnerability. Stephen Hawking died at 76. During his life, the physicist went wherever his brilliant mind took him. He helped us better understand the mysteries of the cosmos while illuminating their majesty and wonder. While enduring Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, for decades, he used a wheelchair to put himself on a more equal footing with others. He championed a society that didn’t allow its spirits to become disabled.
In the same week, young Americans across the country, spurred by last month’s mass shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida, swept out of their schools and into the streets to protest gun violence, their spirits unbroken. In the nation’s capital, one protester railed, “The adults have failed us.” I believe the elders’ unwillingness to act more forcefully to quell gun violence is emblematic of a much larger failing: the elders not protecting the futures of our children, the nation’s most precious and vulnerable people.
And just around the corner from my New Jersey home, a black teenage boy passed me on the street. He was going in the direction from whence I had come. He was coming from a direction I knew well. We looked at each other as black males, boys to men, too often do: quickly assessing the level of threat. For a moment, we held each other’s eyes. We both have brown eyes.
He started to smile, faintly and imploringly, as if he wanted me to acknowledge that he was just a kid carrying a backpack.
I smiled, a black man with a gray beard. The young man smiled a little wider. Then he ducked his head the way deer sometimes do.
And we continued on our way before darkness fell.