The car was not Jay. It wasn’t him at all. The only reason he went with the Lexus was that Colin had offered to make a sizeable down payment as a birthday present, and Khari, his teenage son, who had nothing but scorn for all things white these days, had taken an interest in the car’s personal assistant. Although Khari sometimes blasted what he referred to as “the white man’s technology,” he was still a geek at heart, and had begun to reconcile himself to this fact by pointing out to Jay little known facts about the technological wonders of Ancient Kemet. Happy for the slightest relief from his son’s dour demeanor, Jay had been careful to make no references to the luxury sedan’s white exterior. Instead, he had followed Khari’s lead and asked the dealer as many questions as he could think of about the car’s personal assistant.
The assistant not only responded to driver-related voice commands but was part of a larger home management system that could be programmed to control lighting, security, climate, television, audio, and mobile communication while driving and at home. The default voice of the assistant was that of an adult white woman. Her name sounded as if it had been lifted from a femme fatale in a Russian soap opera.
It wasn’t the femme fatale that fascinated Khari, however. It was the company’s database of historical voices, arranged by period, culture, field, and name. The voices on the main menu included Elizabeth Taylor, JFK, FDR, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando among others. There were several “ethnic” sub-menus, among which was an African American menu featuring the voices of Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Jackie Robinson, and Billie Holiday. The randomness of the selection could be accounted for by the fact that the company’s requests to utilize voices were frequently denied by the families of the deceased. Even families who had previously been receptive to licensing the personality rights of their relatives were put off by the fact that the voices would not merely be used as historical recordings, but paired with the company’s new AI project, a project still in beta mode.
Late for an appointment with an interracial couple he had begun counseling several weeks earlier, Jay asked the personal assistant for his estimated time of arrival. Hearing, no response, he repeated the command.
Annoyed by the time he had wasted on the not yet reliable technology, Jay sped across town, hoping he could make up for the loss by taking a shortcut. The kente-cloth bow tie Khari had given him for his birthday felt tight around his neck, but he didn’t have time to take it off. He had been late for an appointment with this couple once before, and had been chewed out by the husband for not respecting their time. As the man’s black wife stared off into a corner, looking as though she were embarrassed by Jay’s lack of professionalism, Jay wondered whether the husband would have spoken to him in such an aggressive manner had he been a white therapist. After discussing the matter with a colleague, he decided that Richard, the husband, had spoken to him that way because he was late, not because he was black, and that anyone who had placed his trust in a mental health professional at such a critical juncture in his marriage would have responded the same way.
Fearing a repetition of that humiliating experience, Jay squeezed the new car between a truck and an oncoming city bus.
As he passed the truck, a voice said:
The voice was casually angry. Bitter and disciplinary, like a teacher who brought personal problems into the classroom. It was also a familiar voice, like that of a family member. Truth be told, it reminded him of his father’s voice when it went shrill during the one-sided arguments that took place between his parents during his childhood.
Jay stopped short at the crosswalk. A young white couple was crossing the street with a small dog. The man’s bushy beard contrasted starkly with his prep-school looks. He looked like he might have dropped out of Harvard to become a lumberjack. The woman wore an over-sized plaid shirt and a pair of skinny jeans. They looked at one another, laughing and chatting as they crossed the street, completely oblivious to the waiting traffic.
Jay could remember a time when the couple would have been taking their lives into their own hands coming into this neighborhood. Now, they acted as if they owned it, and they probably did, or at least some small share of it. In the not so distant past, the residents of this neighborhood had largely been low-income African Americans. Most of the black professionals, like Jay’s parents, had left long ago with what they believed to be a weakening of residential segregation until white-flight had gotten fully underway. With the loss of its middle-class residents, the neighborhood, had become distressed by the crack epidemic of the nineties, the destruction of businesses following the police killing of an unarmed black boy, by mass incarceration, and a host of other poverty-related ills. Now to the consternation of the black professionals who had left, young white couples were buying their old homes for prices they could never have imagined, driving up the rent and driving out the poor. And the once proud African American suburb, having suddenly become the affordable option, found itself rapidly transformed into just another hood.
The voice sounded again:
The white man. He’s an enemy to us all.
It had taken a moment. The creamy clarity of the car’s surround-sound speakers had filtered some of the crackle out of the Audubon Ballroom microphone, but there was no mistaking it now. It was the voice of Malcolm X.
He had assumed that Malcolm’s voice had intentionally been left out of the database because the company considered his politics too controversial for their customer base. Knowing Khari, he had probably downloaded some cracked software off the internet and managed to sync it with the car’s personal assistant. Seeking to inflame already fraught racial tensions, the Russians had been trafficking in such software for years.
It had taken Jay a long time to get Malcolm’s voice out of his head, and now it was back. It was a voice that had enthralled him during his years of college militancy, a voice he tried to imitate and forge into a weapon to be used against racist professors and student sellouts, and now, by some ironic cultural twist, here it was returning to him again through the 835-watt speakers of a luxury sedan, courtesy of the Kremlin.
“That’s ridiculous!” Jay replied, not so much defending the young white couple as himself and the direction his life had taken since college as an openly gay black man married to a white man from the UK.
“Malcolm abandoned that kind of simplistic thinking when he left the Nation of Islam.”
There was silence as the personal assistant seemed to consider Jay’s point.
I know you don’t like what I’m saying, but I can back it up.
The white couple made it safely to the other side of the street. Jay nearly sideswiped the vehicle ahead of him as he passed in the left lane. There was no question that he was going to be late now.
“Call Richard,” Jay commanded.
“Call Richard,” Jay repeated.
You identify with your master
More than your master identifies with himself.
“Disable personal assistant!”
You’ll pay three times as much as the house is worth just to live near your master, and then brag about how the neighborhood is “transitioning” and there’s a craft brewery down the street where you can sit next to white folks on the toilet. Why you’re nothing but a House Negro!
That’s it, Jay thought. As soon as his session with Richard and Diane was over, this car was going back to the dealer. He didn’t have to put up with this crap.
The field Negro was beaten from morning to night, the voice continued.
He didn’t drive a Lexus; he drove a Smart Car! And he hated his master!
“I’d hate my master too,” Jay thought, “if he made me drive around in a Smart Car.”
I say he hated his master!
“Shut up!” Jay shouted, slamming his fist on the dash.
When the master’s car caught on fire, the field Negro didn’t try to put it out. He prayed for a wind, for a breeze. You’ve got field Negroes in America today. Kev Pharr is a field Negro.
Kev Pharr is a field Negro.
“How do you know Kev Pharr?” Jay demanded.
Kev Pharr was the silver-loc’d, dashiki-clad Chair of African American Studies at the university where Jay taught as an adjunct. He enjoyed a cult following among the students on campus who reveled in the simple solutions he offered to their quest for an uncomplicated racial identity. Occasionally, Jay would happen by the auditorium in which he held his standing-room only lectures and see a multicolored map of Africa splashed across the screen or hear him pounding his fist on the podium while accenting a fiery rhetorical point. Sometimes Jay would encounter him in the quad, surrounded by an entourage of fawning disciples, index finger pointed skyward like Socrates in Raphael’s School of Athens. Operating according to the childhood fantasy that if I don’t look at you, you can’t see me, Jay would avert his gaze and begin walking in the opposite direction until, invariably, a voice would ring out:
“Jay! What’s happenin, baby?”
And the next thing he knew, he’d find himself trapped in an Afrocentric bear hug that left him smelling like Kemetic Musk cologne days afterwards.
If you think I’m telling you wrong, the voice continued,
you bring me Martin Luther King!
Suddenly, Jay had an idea. He might not be able to disable the personal assistant, but he could at least change the voice.
“Change voice to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” he said triumphantly.
A consciously controlled tremolo ascended from the speakers, a plaintive voice that brought to mind the image of a man climbing a lonesome mountain road in a storm.
I have a dream
that one day
will rise up
and live out
the true meaning of its creed…
But before the first voice could finish its thought, a sharp and, by now, all-too-familiar voice cut back in:
This Negro’s not trying to change the station.
He’s trying to crawl back on the plantation!
the voice said to thunderous applause.
Already speeding, Jay pressed hard on the accelerator, as if by going faster, he could escape the sound of that maniacal voice.
Without warning, a slow-moving car cut in front of him without using its flashers. Jay slammed hard on the brakes. The driver ahead of him continued on, blissfully unaware of their mutual brush with death.
Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone;
but if someone changes lanes without signaling properly,
send him to the cemetery!
For once, the voice was right! Jay jammed his foot on the gas, hoping to catch up with the driver and give him a piece of his mind until he heard the whoop of a police car behind him accompanied by flashing blue lights. Jay pulled to the side of the road, and waited for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, a black police officer stepped out of the car, and Jay breathed a sigh of relief. He might have to deal with the arrogance of unchecked power, but at least it wouldn’t be fueled by race.
As the officer approached, Jay tried to lower the power window, but it refused to go any lower than an inch.
“I’m sorry officer. This is a new car, and I haven’t yet learned how to work the windows,” Jay said through the one-inch opening. “There must be some kind of safety lock.”
“Sir, do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Yes, officer. I was speeding. I’m a Therapist and I was on my way to an appointment with a client, but I know that’s no excuse.”
“Not only were you speeding,” the officer said. “Your car doesn’t have any plates.”
“Well, it’s a new car, officer. I was told that I could drive with temporary plates until I received the official plates in the mail.”
“Those aren’t temporary plates,” the officer said, making direct eye contact with Jay for the first time. “Where your license plate is supposed to be, there is a rectangular piece of cardboard that says, ‘Free Traveler.’”
Goddammit! Jay, thought. It was Khari again with all of that Sovereign Citizen bullshit. Just the other day they had an argument over some crazy notion he had gotten into his head that Jay didn’t have to pay taxes anymore and that he should cut up his driver’s license and social security card. Khari’s line of reasoning seemed barely intelligible, and Jay wouldn’t have listened half as long as he had had it not been his own son.
“Officer, I think there’s been a mistake.”
“And what’s this?” The officer interrupted, pointing to the rear driver’s side window.
“Oh, that’s just the MSRP sticker from the dealer.”
“The MSRP sticker?” the officer repeated with inexplicable sarcasm.
“So, why does it say, ‘Any government official who compromises the pursuit of happiness and right to travel will be held criminally responsible and fined, as this is a natural right or freedom.’”
“What!? Officer, I don’t even…”
“Sir, I need to see your driver’s license and registration.”
Jay began rooting around for his wallet, remembering a recent incident in which a man was killed because the officer who pulled him over said he looked like he was reaching for a gun. Jay riffled quickly through the colorful array of cards clogging his wallet. His license was nowhere to be found. He prayed six ways till Sunday that Khari hadn’t destroyed it.
Looking at the officer with a sheepish grin, he said, “I know this looks bad, but I can’t find my license.”
The officer looked away in what appeared to be extreme exasperation.
“Sir, without a license, I have no way of verifying your identity.”
Jay said nothing. Suddenly, as if speaking up for him, the voice proclaimed:
I’m the man you think you are!
Beads of sweat formed instantly beneath Jay’s shirt.
“What did you say?”
“Officer, that wasn’t me. That’s was the car’s personal assistant. It’s been malfunctioning all day.”
“Sir, step out of the vehicle and place your hands in the air where I can see them.”
You know what white people call a black man with a badge?
Jay’s mind screamed “No!” before his mouth could say a word.
The word dropped like a sledgehammer and reverberated around the interior of the vehicle with added bass from the surround-sound speakers.
“Get out of the car!” The officer screamed.
Jay exited the vehicle feeling as though it might be the last moment of his life.
The officer rushed him, slamming his head against the car so hard his ears rung. As the officer cuffed his wrists behind his back, Jay asked why he was being arrested, but his lips were bruised from the impact of his face hitting the car and his words came out like an incoherent jumble.
As the officer escorted him to the police vehicle, Jay saw a white kid in a t-shirt and jeans, recording the incident on his cell phone. The kid’s hands were trembling and he wore a blank stare.
The officer gently lowered Jay’s head beneath the roof of the vehicle, creating an eerie silence as he closed the door. A moment later, he entered the vehicle himself.
Instinctively leaning back, Jay realized his only choices were arching his shoulders awkwardly against the vinyl seat or leaning forward as if to share an intimate secret with the man who had just slammed his head into the roof of his car.
The kid with the cell phone took a couple of steps closer to the vehicle. His hands were no longer trembling and the empty stare was now replaced with what seemed like a quiet determination to serve as a witness to this latest outrage. As the car pulled off, Jay thought he heard a muffled voice shout, “Black Lives Matter!”
The officer drove in silence, occasionally glaring at Jay in the rearview mirror and shaking his head. Then, seemingly unable to contain himself any longer, he exploded:
“You think I like doing this shit!? Out here in these streets. You think I’d be doing this shit if I didn’t have a family to feed?”
Jay marveled at the officer’s ability to code-switch. He could hardly believe it was the same person.
“Black Lives Matter! Shit, you can’t walk ten feet in this neighborhood without tripping over a Black Lives Matter sign. But where the black people? We not the ones putting up those signs.”
While that was true of this neighborhood, Jay thought, it probably wasn’t true across the country. Besides, no one could deny that the movement, on the whole, was largely a black youth movement that had been devastatingly effective.
“Seem like they got a rule. Every nigga who disappear gotta be replaced with a Black Lives Matter sign. And why you think they putting those signs up? You think it’s cause they love us? Cause we matter to them? Ain’t got nothing to do with us. They just sending smoke signals to each other: ‘We the kind of white people who pretend to love black people just like you. Let’s have brunch.’ Shit, if we mattered, I wouldn’t be getting bullshit calls from the dispatcher every five minutes about a ‘suspicious’ black man turn out to be a neighbor who’s lived on the block for forty years, or about a group of black teens loitering on the corner cause they turned the fucked up playground where they used to smoke weed into a dog park! How you gon put a Black Lives Matter sign on a house seized from an elder who couldn’t pay her property tax?”
The officer brought his monologue to an abrupt stop and peered into the rearview mirror:
“Where you from, bruh?”
Before Jay could respond, he said:
“That’s what I thought. I could tell by the way you talk you ain’t from here.”
Jay wanted to tell him that he was from here, that he had grown up a mere two towns away, that, without intending to, he had lost his accent during the many years he spent away from home pursuing his Ph.D.
“That’s alright. I respect you studying the words of Brother Malcolm.”
Jay was floored. Why had the officer become enraged if he knew that it was Malcolm all along and not him who had spoken?
“I knew that shit wasn’t you. You black, but you not that black. I didn’t mean to rough you up like that. It’s just that. Well, you know, my pops was in the Nation, and that sounded like some shit he would say. Easy for him to say. He never lifted a finger to help me and my moms, but always ready with some speech about knowledge of self…. How long you been in the Nation?” the officer asked, eyeing Jay’s bow tie.
“What? I’m not…”
“Look like you some kind of newbie to me. They must’ve relaxed the dress code. Ain’t you supposed to be wearing a suit?… Anyway, I should take you down to the station and lock you up for driving without a license, but seems to me like we just had a misunderstanding. Whaddyou say I let you out here, and we call it even?”
No equation in any branch of Math or Science that Jay could think of would ever result in their being “even.” He knew what the officer was up to. The department had recently come under federal oversight, and the last thing he needed was to bring in an innocent man with an unexplained injury. Still, Jay was ready to be free.
The officer pulled to the side of the road. Jay memorized his badge number for later use as the cuffs were removed from his wrists. His fingers were still numb and tingly from the handcuffs when the officer gave him dap, and pulled him in for a hug.
“We good?” the officer asked.
Jay nodded, mechanically.
The officer walked backwards to his car. “Y’all still got the mosque on MLK, right?… I’m a come over there and check y’all out. Get me some of them bean pies. As-Salaam-Alaikum!” he shouted.
“Wa Alaikum Salaam,” Jay mumbled.
Finally, with a moment to himself, Jay undid the kente cloth bow-tie that Khari had given him and breathed his first full breath of the day. He looked for a moment at the tie’s hypnotic splendor, then let it fall to the ground. He loved his son, but some gifts came at too high a price. He wanted to call Richard and Diane. He wanted to retrieve the car, but something inside him wouldn’t let him do either of these things, so he stood there, motionless, and reflected upon the voice that had brought him to this spot. It wasn’t so much that the voice was wrong. It just wasn’t right enough, not anymore, and more importantly, it wasn’t his. Raising his fingers to his swollen lips, he knew that once they healed, there would be no excuse. Even at this late age, and in these complicated times, he’d have to discover a new voice, a voice all his own.