Hurtling down a country road at midnight, approximately three feet from the bumper of a Virginia Highway Patrol car, didn't strike me as much in the way of a honeymoon. Of course, by then, the honeymoon had long been over. I'd already spent six weeks in Washington, D.C., by myself, fending off the creepy insinuations of a regular patron at the only diner within my budget and walking distance of my five-buck-a-night hotel room. It was January and a thick crust of white muffled everything but the crunching of my footsteps.
Those were gloomy days in more ways than one. I was supposed to earn enough money to stake us when my husband finished out the semester, but I had lost my job. Phone calls between my groom and me were sparse, given our correspondingly sparse funds.
In 1963 Virginia was bleating along with the rest of the Confederacy about the Federal government messing with states' rights, which was code for keeping the "niggruhs" in their place. While I am white, my then husband was one of those who was supposed to know his place but didn't. He had driven up to Washington, D.C. from North Carolina together with his sixteen year old brother. They carted my meager belongings to the car and we headed right back down the highway, some time around eight that night.
Unfortunately, my husband didn't observe the advice Bob Dylan eventually set to music: "Watch your parking meters." DWB (driving while black) would've been sufficient to get us stopped. SWB (speeding while black) was a cinch. Walter was instructed to get out of the car. This business of "get out of the car" terrified me. I had been stopped once and the cop had seemed satisfied to issue a ticket while my fanny remained planted in the driver's seat.
In Virginia interracial marriage was at that time a felony. I knew that because we'd had to go up to D.C. to get married, the only place south of New Jersey where we could do it legally. So I twisted around, keeping an eye on the back of the car where Walter and the cop were talking. My brother-in-law whispered fiercely, "Look out," just as I grew aware of a light shining through my passenger window. I turned as a second cop rapped on the glass with his flashlight.
"Let me see your driver's license," he said when I rolled down the window.
"Your license. Hand it over."
"What for? I wasn't driving."
It didn't seem possible that his eyes, hunkered down in foxholes of fat, could narrow, but they did. "Hand it over."
My license had been issued by the State of North Carolina. In that era, North Carolina, as did the rest of the South, prominently displayed race on each driver's license. He directed his flashlight onto the license, gave me a disgusted look, and walked to the back of the car. I watched him show it to the other cop. It was a cool night but my hairline began to ooze sweat.
Without a word to me, they put Walter, handcuffed, into the back of the patrol car. I scooted across the seat and jammed our car into gear as they zipped past. Within a few minutes, the patrol car turned down a dark country road that coiled left and right. My driving performance, in retrospect, reminds me a bit of the mother who lifts the car off her child. My vision was keener, my reflexes rubber-hammer quick. I stayed on that car's tail, certain that if I lost it, my husband would be lynched.
What did I think I could do to stop them from doing whatever they were intent on doing? I didn't think. I wasn't thinking at all. When someone you love may die if you don't do something fast, cognition is the first thing to go. The body, as in the case of the super-human mother, focuses all its molecules, sparing nothing for extraneous activity. If my brother-in-law spoke from the backseat, I didn't hear him, didn't answer him. But I suspect, like me, he saw only the need not to lose sight of those cops.
Trailing them might've taken ten minutes or half an hour. I really don't know and I don't think if you had asked me then I could've told you. But I can recall the relief that flooded me as we dipped down at last into a clearing, a parking lot, a building, a sign: Virginia State Highway Patrol.
A few years later, driving a junk car, Walter and I were again stopped by the highway patrol, this time in San Francisco. One taillight was busted. The cop came to the car with a shotgun pointed at Walter's head. I thought of how one reasonable Virginia cop—as my husband told me later—had refused to participate in a lynching. I thought too of a man named Ernest Detweiler, who a few weeks before our encounter with the California Highway Patrol had been speeding his wife to the hospital. She was in labor. The cop pulled them over and shot Ernest in the face. He died as his wife clutched her heaving belly beside him.
The cop reported that the trigger accidentally discharged as Detweiler's car lurched forward. Whatever Mrs. Detweiler said, no one chose to record.
It still punches me in the gut to know that Walter could've been legally executed for a broken taillight.
Recently, when I complained about the caricatures that pass for human beings in the novel and the movie, "The Help," an acquaintance suggested I was hypersensitive on the subject of race. I've often thought that if more white people experienced some of what I've seen, we'd all be hypersensitive and the statistical discrepancies between people of color and whites in this country would shrink. Here's an example of what I'm talking about:
. . . a has found . . . that median wealth declined by 66 percent among Hispanic households between 2005 and 2009. For black households during the same time period, median wealth fell by 53 percent, while white households experienced a decline of only 16 percent.