The name “Ku Klux Klan” apparently derived from the Greek word “Kyklos,” from which comes the English word “circle.” Klan was added for the sake of alliteration. Founded after the Civil War, the KKK spearheaded resistance to Reconstruction. A branch was based in Indiana in the early 1900’s, when it was at its height and had millions of members, including grand wizards, grand dragons, grand titans, and grand Cyclops’s.

I’m in Indianapolis, Indiana, to do some research for a play I’ve been commissioned to write. It will be called Of Promises and Hope in Freetown Village: Scenes from Black Life in 1870 Indianapolis.

I’m walking across a street in the middle of the day in the busy downtown, walking with the Black woman who has commissioned me for her African American museum organization. As we reach the sidewalk and are about to enter a municipal building, I hear a shout from behind me. I think it’s “stop” or “hey,” but I’m not sure. All I know is that it was loud enough to catch my attention and cause me to turn around. I see a smartly dressed white police officer walking across the street toward me. Since I clearly don’t know him, I turn away and continue walking with my companion. Suddenly, the voice says something else—“hey, you,” perhaps—in a louder tone that stops me again. I turn around. The police officer is walking straight toward me, glaring all the way. My heart begins to pound. What the hell have I done?

I wait stiffly for him to explain himself, all the while trying to be cool and nonchalant, the kind of pose a man naturally takes in such a situation when there’s a woman at his side. The police officer tells me that I had jaywalked across the street.

I’m caught so off guard I nearly laugh in his face—an impulse that, fortunately, I quickly swallow. I had no idea I had just jaywalked. I’d simply walked across the street with my companion, who was a native of the city. Or did I take the lead? Was I the instigator? I don’t know. Besides, I’m from New York, where pedestrians routinely consider red lights merely suggestions. But I say nothing to the police officer.

He knits his brow as though he were really angry with me now. But why?  I haven’t said anything, haven’t mouthed off. Or is it the fact that I’ve said nothing, rather than apologize profusely and right away, that’s ticked him off?

In an instant, the officer’s eyes open wider and blow hot steam in my face. He’s now officially nothing but a goddam cop. Why is he so pissed off? Is he the Indianapolis police department’s lone anti-jaywalking freak? Has he not had his coffee and donuts yet today? Did he have a fight with his wife last night, or did his partner get wasted recently? Ludicrous speculation but no more so than his attitude towards me.

Soon I find out what the deal is: he tells me that he’d been calling me, and I hadn’t stopped right away, had just walked on, ignoring him. On top of that, when I had finally stopped and turned around I had looked right through him, as if I didn’t know, or didn’t care, that he was talking to me.

But I didn’t know that he’d been calling me. How could he have been? Cops yell at someone who’s done something wrong, and that wasn’t me as far as I was concerned.

But he isn’t buying it. How could I have not known that he’d been calling me? He’d been looking right at me.

Sure, but from my point of view he had simply been looking across the street, not specifically at me. After all, there were lots of other people on the street—men, women, children, Black, white, Asian . . . whatever.

My explanation, however, only makes him angrier. I’m sure he’s thinking now that I’m being defiant, slick, a wiseass nigger in the face of his triple sign of authority: white . . . male . . . cop.

My heart pounds more strongly. How the hell am I going to get out of this? Clearly, the two of us have entirely different points of view, views of the world, memories. Or perhaps we do share a memory: some collective, almost Jungian dance of defiance and death between Black man and white man.

Suddenly, the cop’s gun, even though it’s still holstered, becomes the loudest, angriest, most visible thing about him. And although my companion is behind me and we are standing in broad daylight outside of a goddam municipal building, I have these visions of being thrown in jail and mercilessly beaten, only ostensibly the result of my having broken the city’s jaywalking law.

Consequently, I do something that under most righteously in the right circumstances I would never do for anyone: I apologize.

The cop nods and smiles at me, very faintly, almost imperceptibly, a caricature of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. He “lets me go” with a warning, but his eyes tell me that he doesn’t accept my apology, doesn’t even believe it, and that if we were alone I might be one jacked up nigger by the time he got through with me. Or am I being paranoid? After all, it’s not 1870, right?

When the cop turns away from me with a satisfied smirk, secure in the knowledge that he had reclaimed his authority over me and his triple-threat position, my impulse is to say something more, to not let him get away with such unmitigated arrogance. But I don’t. I simply stand seething.

Finally, my companion speaks up, noting that I’d handled the situation well. And then she adds with a knowing chuckle that if her husband had been in my position, he would probably have been handcuffed by now. She’s delivered that assessment as though it were the punch line to some elaborate joke.

I’m speechless.

And as we walk toward the municipal building, my ego trembles even more. Was she happy for me or disappointed in me? Was I hero or scoundrel? Iron man or wimp?

I take a position slightly behind her now, this time consciously letting her take the lead. In my lingering hurt and confusion I become a truly dangerous Black man—one who’d like to strike out violently against . . . who knows what, or whom.

Kermit Frazier

Kermit’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such publications as Black World, Callaloo, The Chicago Review, Green Mountains Review, The Missouri Review, American Theatre, and The New York Times Book Review. Consequence published his nonfiction piece “Ignobled in Indianapolis” in July 2020. In addition, his more than twenty plays have been produced in New York and around the country, and his television-writing work includes being a head writer for the popular children’s mystery series Ghostwriter. His work as a playwright was recently spotlighted in a New York Times feature article. Frazier is an Air Force Veteran.

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