Will, handsome, early 30s, charming but sometimes a little shy, a recent grad student at the southern public university where I teach. Oh, and not incidental to this essay, African American. Will, with his dreadlocks and nice smile, has more than once been featured in promotional photos on the school’s website that are meant to boost our image and to, pardon the expression, whitewash the fact that the school is not fully integrated.
But Will’s relationship with the university is a little more complicated than that. Twice now, university policemen have pulled him over and questioned him. A few years ago, back when he was an undergrad, Will was driving to school when an officer stopped him, asked him what he was doing on campus, and checked his license and student ID. This first encounter, in Will’s mind, was more forgivable than the second, because the officer at least explained that police were looking for someone who might have matched Will’s description in connection with an incident. When his ID checked out, the cop lamely tried to talk sports with Will—it was basketball season after all. And that was pretty much it. Other than telling a couple of close friends, he kept quiet about it. Will is a writer, mostly of speculative fiction, but it wasn’t until the second incident that he went back and wrote about the first. “Never did I cry race or make anything of it,” he wrote, “because maybe, just maybe, they were simply doing their job and looking out for us.”
That second incident, when Will was in grad school, was different. He was walking on the bike path near the basketball stadium, a backpack full of books over his shoulder. And though you could describe what he was wearing as a hoodie, it was a blue hoodie with the hood down and the school mascot’s name emblazoned in teal across the front. This was the middle of the day in a wide-open part of campus, and without a second thought, Will walked right past the campus cop car that was pulled over on the side of the road. He wasn’t even all that worried when the cop slowly drove by. But then the cop pulled up on the sidewalk in front of him, got out of the car, and walked back toward Will.
The cop asked for identification, then studied Will’s student ID for a while.
“What were you doing back there?” the cop asked. “Why were you looking so suspicious?”
“I was walking,” Will said.
“Are you a student here?” the cop asked.
This was when Will started to get upset. Who would go to the trouble of faking a student ID? Of dressing up as a student and using a backpack and school sweatshirt as a disguise?
“What does my student ID say?” Will asked.
“There’s no need to get smart,” the cop said.
The cop spoke into the radio on his chest. At this point, it occurred to Will that he should simply run. He’d done nothing wrong, of course, but the impulse was there, was real. The cop turned back to him.
“What did I do wrong?” Will asked.
“Stay right there and be quiet,” the cop said.
“I have to go,” Will said.
“What’s your major?” the cop asked.
Will was truly upset now, but rather than stay quiet, he let his whole story spill out in increasingly agitated tones. He explained that he was a graduate student in creative writing and so didn’t have a major, but a concentration, and that his concentration was fiction. He explained that he worked as a tutor in the writing center and that he had also been an undergrad here.
“There’s no need to get riled up,” the cop said.
Then he reached down and put his hand on his holster. Will is not certain whether it was a sidearm or a taser that the cop’s hand rested on. But Will was certain of the aggressively defensive stance: one leg forward, another back as the cop braced himself, hand on weapon.
He told Will to back up. Then he spoke into his radio as someone back at the station checked on Will’s ID.
When the cop finally finished talking, he handed Will his ID.
“Get out of here,” he said.