I was born five years, three months, and two days after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in Providence, Rhode Island on July 10, 1973. My mother, who divorced my father when I was five, raised me in the predominately all-white neighborhood and schools of Warwick so not to worry about me getting hurt, kidnapped or killed. For eighteen years I lived there. I was one of only two Black kids in the neighborhood, as well as in my elementary, junior high and high school. My Blackness took a back seat, though I could always see it in the mirror. I desperately wanted to be like the well-off smart white kids who wore Ralph Lauren polo shirts, spent their summer vacations in Florida going to Disney World and had both a mother and a father at home. We were poor, went to Rocky Point Park for vacation and rented movies on summer weekends, but I was determined to become like them. I emulated everything they did. I guilted my mother into buying me Polo Ralph Lauren attire even though we couldn’t afford it. I became a runner in the sixth grade because all the other sixth-grade white boys were. In high school I put myself into college-prep classes, went to my junior and senior prom in white stretch limousines and graduated my junior and senior year with honors. My desire and need to fit into white society continued after high school. I graduated from college with a bachelor’s in accounting, a master’s in journalism, attended Harvard Summer School, attained internships at Merrill Lynch, Men’s Journal, and The Harvard Crimson, became a pricing analyst at what was the world’s largest mutual fund company, Skudder Kemper Investments, wrote for Muscle & Fitness and Natural Health magazines and published literary work in well-respected journals. I’m unapologetic and proud of my accomplishments.
Throughout all of those years I never stopped running. I ran five miles three days a week. Running is what gave me my strength and determination to persevere. Running took my mind off of knowing and understanding my Blackness or rather my lack of wanting to. I was a runner for thirty-five years. I’m forty-six. Sadly, my running days ended in 2019 when I was diagnosed with severe spinal stenosis. I had three pieces of my vertebrae removed five days before Christmas so I could walk again. My sadness flags, though, in the wake of the murder of runner Ahmaud Arbery, which awakened me to my true identity.
On February 23, 2020, twenty-five-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead by two white men, Gregory and Travis McMichael. He was running about two miles from his home through the predominantly white Satilla Shores neighborhood, the bordering town of Brunswick, Georgia where Ahmaud lived with his mother. Gregory told police they saw him running and believed he was a burglary suspect, so they armed themselves, got in a truck and followed him. They told police Ahmaud “began to violently attack” Travis and “the two men then started fighting over the shotgun.” Gregory said his son fired two shots. But William “Roddie” Bryan, who lives a few houses down from Travis, recorded a video of the murder that contradicts the father’s story.
The video, shot from a moving vehicle behind Ahmaud, shows a Black man jogging on the left side of a two-lane road in broad daylight. A white truck is parked in the road ahead of him; a man stands in the pickup bed and another is standing beside the open driver’s side door. The runner crosses the road to pass the pickup on the passenger side, and then crosses back in front of the truck. Shouting and a gunshot can be heard. The runner is grappling with a man in the street over what appears to be a shotgun or rifle. A second shot can be heard and the runner can be seen punching the man. A third shot is fired at point-blank range. Blood appears on Ahmaud’s t-shirt below his left ribcage. He stumbles, staggers and falls in the middle of the two-lane road face down. Ahmaud lay in the street dead. Three bullets hit him, two of which were in the chest, one in the hand.
The killing of Ahmaud has left us Black runners wondering if we should change our running habits because we cannot change the color of our skin.
The image of the Black man running goes back to the days of slavery. The visual is one I didn’t become aware of until high school. Slavery was a subject that my mother didn’t want in my head until I was old enough to fully understand. My mother believed the moral urgency that there once was—when Blacks were lynched, were sitting on the back of the bus and needed to slip into the us-against-the-white-world mentality—was no more. Michael Jackson was a big superstar Black singer on MTV, The Cosby Show was a highly rated Black television series and Spike Lee was dominating the film industry with his Academy Award-nominated blockbuster Black movies. My mother didn’t know I lived in a fuzzy dream and wanted to be like all the pretty white people I saw on TV, in magazines, music, movies and school. She didn’t know I wanted to change the color of my skin. She didn’t know that my Black identity suffered from a marred self-image, which affected my entire psychological being until 1984 when I joined the sixth-grade running program.
There were two sixth grade classes taught by two different teachers. Mine was taught by Mr. Corcoran, the other by Mr. Laliberte who with his tall, strong, lanky-framed body ran laps around the school building every day. I stood on the sidelines watching him and many of my classmates run with him. Because we all wanted to partake, Mr. Laliberte created a running program for us. Students who ran two hundred laps around the building got a t-shirt with the number 200 in the shape of a snake with a smiley face in the school’s color green. Each fifty laps extra earned a runner a green bar ironed onto the t-shirt’s shoulder.
I wasn’t very good at school. I struggled with reading and mathematics. Every Tuesday I humiliatingly was pulled out of class to go to Resources to overcome those learning disabilities. I was no good at sports. I always struck out for my baseball team that regretted getting stuck with me. But I never felt as good as I did when I was running. I loved it and I was good at it. I loved being good at it. It seemed to love me. Running taught me how to physically endure, to push past aches and pains and ingrained impulses to quit. The reward was a sense of accomplishment when I was finished. I couldn’t deny my running talent. Something compelled me to do it through pouring spring rain, scattered autumn leaves and falling winter snow. Something in me fired, sped up no matter how exhausted as I sometimes was. I got a runner’s high every time akin to hallucinogens, producing an altered state of consciousness.
Running lifted my soul, took my mind off of my Blackness and created a unity among us students. We bonded while running. We shared secrets when running in pairs. It didn’t matter how slow one ran as long as you didn’t quit. It wasn’t a race or a competition. After running we would stretch, relax and exchange opinions on sneakers, blisters, joint pain and how to stop our nipples from chafing. Then, buzzed from the endorphins, I’d run home, the fresh outdoor New England air in my lungs. Our connection went beyond running. I was invited to those wealthy white kid’s homes, envious when meeting both their parents. I sometimes found those invitations difficult to accept when all I wanted to do was run.
At some point I wasn’t running. I was being blown in the wind. Some thought I was obsessed. It was like I had a double life, and a second home: the school track and the paved road. I not only ran the two-hundred laps to get my t-shirt, I ran one hundred more, getting two green bars, one on each shoulder. That t-shirt and those days running are my most cherished childhood moments. I can still see it so clearly like the clear portion of the air above a pond blackened by fog that makes the ripples of interverting water filled with an abundance of light and reflection become a lower heaven: those red cardinal and yellow finch songsters sitting in the trees of the forest that lined the school grounds serenading us as we jogged. Questions about my Blackness were as far away as being a grown up. My brown skin didn’t matter, wasn’t spoken. I didn’t see myself as a Black boy when running. Running released me from the custody of my brown skin, from being a token, from knowing or understanding Blackness. I was running away from my Blackness.
It pains me to admit this, but I hated my brown skin. I hated my Blackness even though no one said anything racist. Because my mother could only afford to empty the cesspool once a year, I was only allowed to take a shower once a week. I washed up Monday through Saturday in the sink with a washcloth. I remember seeing residue on the white and off-white towels I used to dry my skin on after taking a long hot thirty-minute Sunday shower—a Blackish, brownish color, which made me think my brown skin was dirty. The mark was from me, from my clean skin that I had washed thoroughly. It disturbed me. I was ashamed, embarrassed and never said a word about it. I hid the towel underneath clothes in the hamper more convinced than ever that being white was the only way to be accepted in society.
My elementary and junior high schools didn’t teach Black history. I don’t know if those teachers avoided the subject because there was too much pain to explore or too much guilt, ignorance and denial, but it wasn’t until my sophomore history class that I learned about slavery. Mr. Hutchinson, Hutch, as he liked to be called, created an obstacle course in the school yard to replicate the Underground Railroad using orange traffic cones as trees, paintball guns as rifles and buckets of water poured in the grass as swamps. The white students acted as runaway slaves. I didn’t partake in the simulation. I wasn’t asked. I remember not seeing it as racially insensitive because I was a timid teenager who desperately wanted to fit it and had dreams of rejecting my brown skin. My mother, however, was infuriated, and decided it was time to educate me about my Blackness. She told me that the Underground Railroad wasn’t located underground nor was it a railroad. It was symbolically underground as the network’s clandestine activities were secret and illegal so they had to remain underground to help fugitive slaves stay out of sight. The term railroad was used because the railroad was an emerging system of transportation and its railroad code was used to communicate secret language. Homes where fugitive runaway slaves stayed and ate were called stations or depots, the owner of the house was the station master and the conductor was the person responsible for moving runaway slaves from station to station. Slaves running away would move from one station to the next at night crossing rivers, swamps, forest and mountains.
Then she had my father tell me about his brother, Stuart Price. Nineteen-year-old Stewie was an all-star trackman and a double gold medalist in the Rhode Island Amateur Athletic Union, AAU championships. The chief commissioner of the AAU said, in a write-up in The Providence Journal, my uncle was “One of the best trackmen the state ever saw, and had great potential to be Olympian.” Stewie was undefeated in the 50-yard dash and high hurdles in the current indoor track season. He had been the New England interscholastic high hurdles champion in outdoor track for two years, first winning the title as a sophomore. He was a coholder of the world schoolboy record for the 45-yard high hurdles over 42-inch barriers. Schoolboys generally race over 39-inch hurdles. He won the New England championship for a second time when he led Central’s five-man team to the New England schoolboy title with his hurdles triumph and second place in the long jump. He was a favorite to win for a third time, but he was killed in a car accident three months before his high school graduation from Central. Two days before the accident he won two Rhode Island AAU championships at Moses Brown School’s Waughtel-Howe Field House, tying the meet record for the 45-yard high hurdles and winning the long jump. He was sought after by many colleges and universities, accepting a full scholarship at the University of New Mexico. My father told me Stewie struggled with his Blackness and running took his mind off of it, but that wasn’t a conversation my father wanted to have with me just yet.
Like many Black folk, I had been fed the white version of Black history. It’s hard for Black people who tell non-traditional stories about Black history to get published and have their material used in public schools. Most elementary and secondary school students will never be exposed to Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which was turned into a Golden Globe and Emmy-award winning eight consecutive night television miniseries that my mother recorded on VCR and made me watch. It had the largest viewership by any type of television series in American history. Though its authenticity has been speculative, it gave me reason to appreciate and not hate my Black ancestry.
After high school, and as my twenties passed and middle age reared over the horizon, running became its own inherent raison d’être. I wasn’t achieving any particular material goal. Running was more intangible than weight loss or fitness. The reason I ran mile after mile after decades of torn muscles, hairline fractures, ending with pieces of my spine removed was to escape feeling unwanted by white caste society, feeling like an oppressed Black man in a hostile white system of organized discrimination, segregation and exclusion. I questioned who would love such an ugly creature. Yet I loved Black culture and engulfed myself in it. I listened to rap music. I listened to gospel music. I listened to soul, R&B and reggae music. I wore hip hop clothes. I spoke Black stereotypical dialect. I waxed poetic about how “Black don’t crack” and “Black is beautiful.” I lauded that Black women were the most beautiful women in the world, and all the best runners in the world were Black.
I don’t know if it’s inherited from centuries of my ancestors running or something more innate. Is the reason the best runners in the world are Black because of centuries of forced physical labor, or because of centuries of running to freedom, or because running is a freedom of the mind that rids it of the reminder that white America equates a Black man running with having engaged in some kind of criminal activity? When I ran, the layers of my identity that I had gathered in my life, that white America had put on me, the labels, names, cruel names, all of it fell away, leaving me with the raw soul of my being. By running harder, faster, deeper, further away from those almost irreparable scars on my developing young mind that burdened me with unrelenting stress, anger, and melancholy drove me to lose all sense of my lost identity and low self-esteem. All the hurt, frustration, and fatigue disappeared, and what appeared was a spiritual enlightenment, a meditation through movement, a connection beyond this physical world, beyond this earthly realm. By tiring, wearing down my body, my ego, running allowed my consciousness to appear and feel a sense of unity with the universe. Kind of like the unity I experienced with my sixth-grade running classmates. I pushed past my body’s everyday limits. All I heard were my feet pounding the pavement, my breath pressing against the air. And in its reductivism, my mind cleared, my spirit lifted to a higher plane, a euphoria, a universal connection, an inner peace that everything was all right in the world. The thought of white people calling the police, accusing me of running from a crime that someone else had committed was eviscerated. Two skills I learned from my slave ancestors: One was physical prowess; the other was a mental ability to withstand pain. The pain Black folk endured during slavery and the Civil Rights Movement taught me that pain was an opportunity for perseverance, and thus was an opportunity for grace. Rather than being a burden on the human experience, pain has the potential to elevate it. The lesson from slave life helped me recognize pain for exactly what it was and to keep running. Sometimes while I was running my mind would haphazardly drift off to the image of my enjoyment, my healthy habit getting me killed. It stuck to the walls of my cranial like a wad of gum on my Brooks running sneakers. But each footfall liberated my mind, freed my soul, the reason why I ran for so long.
As a representative of Black America I feel that I occupy a particular river in the American story. That was the thing that drove me to write this essay. After I read countless articles about what happened to Ahmaud Arbery I had all these thoughts roiling around. I was trying to figure it out. I had thought this and I had thought that. I had become more sophisticated intellectually—better-read and better-educated, but I was still sort of lost. I went on and read the writings of Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Right Wright, Frantz Fanon, and many other Black authors. In chapter five of Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask entitled, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” he wrote, “The Black man is viewed in the third person, and he isn’t seen as a three-dimensional human being. The Black man internalizes the perspectives of white society and its negative thoughts about Blackness affect his psyche.” Then I came across an article on Medium.com entitled, “White Towel, Black Skin” by Michael Wade Smith. He addressed the unspoken issue I have had since I was a child when drying off with a white towel after taking a shower. Smith stated that brown skin’s growth shows on the towel; as I wash it, I remove a layer, and another layer is already growing in its place. White skin doesn’t reveal growth on the towel every time after a shower. His theory not only made sense, it made me feel ashamed.
It’s a mortifying and hard truth for a Black man to admit once hating his Blackness. Today, my identity gels around my lineage as a descendant of African slaves. It’s who I am. I like being part of the Black community. I love my Blackness. I no longer have a desire to change the color of my skin. Occasionally, when I do experience racism, and I go back into that self-hating line of thinking, I pull out a quote from James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew that I keep with me:
“You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity… Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.”
For all of the progress Black folk have made we still struggle with self-hating anger and racial embarrassment. We’re still the portrait of dysfunction behind the maddening collective belief that all Black mothers raise their children with deadbeat fathers. We’re told that the vast majority of Black men are thieves and rapist and murderers eclipsing the fact that ninety nine percent of the murderers are white men. We’re despised and disowned as a malevolent anomaly. Black folk know this line of thinking; we’ve known it for nearly half a millennium. If we made a list of the deaths of every Black man and woman, it would be for living and no other reason. Black culture is a stranger to white America. And instead of learning about it, we’ve been under the boot-heel of a corrupt and brutal justice system and police force. But too many Black people died and fought and suffered through too much to be removed from the American context. Our identity is ours to maintain, and our place as citizens is ours to claim.
It’s been more than six months since I had my surgery and more than eight since I ran.
Some days I’m okay with it. Some nights I’m sad about it. Those are the nights when I have this dream that I’m running again. I know I’ll never be able to, but my mind seems unwilling to let it go. In the dream I’m running away from a storming crowd of white men with dogs and shotguns and rifles, some holding knives, some carrying rope for a lynching. Though lately, it’s not been me who I see in the dream. It’s Ahmaud Arbery I see running away from his would-be white murderers. He stops, turns around, raises his right fist, and gives this prophecy: Fuck you, assholes. Time’s running out on your racist bullshit!
Allen M. Price is a writer from Rhode Island. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College. His fiction and nonfiction work appears or is forthcoming in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Entropy, Juked, Bayou, River Teeth, The Fourth River (chosen by guest editor Ira Sukrungruang), Jellyfish Review, Sou’wester, Cosmonauts Avenue, Gertrude Press, The Adirondack Review, Tulane Review, Columbia Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Pangyrus, among others. An excerpt of his screenplay ‘Dark Ocean Night’ appears in The Louisville Review. His chapbook ‘The Unintended Consequences of Haitian Reparation’ appears in Hawai’i Review.