My Heart is Invisible Vol. 5: And I'm Not There

In the wake of the fatal police shootings of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling, writers in the Grub community asked for a space to address the effects of police brutality on communities of color. To create that space, this series of "Writers React" is dedicated to personal essays that respond to prejudicial violence. The title, "My Heart is Invisible," comes from the first essay in the series, "Driving While Me," by Kerry Beckford. In this fifth installment, Cheryl Smart reacts to watching over her family. 

Black male, late teens early twenties, black male late teens early twenties… it’s a scene all too common in Memphis, one I’m inured to, but don’t turn away from. 

It’s a quiet night. Now there are blue lights. I peek through the fence.  At the end of my drive are two cops, white, middle-aged, conducting an interrogation. Who are you?  Why are you here?

I squint past the lights and see him there. Knowing his penchant for challenging everything that doesn’t seem right to him, I’m aware that things could go bad fast. I need to go out there.  

I say, I’m the homeowner, ask what’s going on.

The officer gives no clear answer, but indicates they’re just checking things out.

“It’s looking pretty 1950 out here if you know what I mean, Officer. And that young man is my family.”

The officer looks over my whiteness, the whiteness of the neighborhood, as though something doesn’t add up for him and he’s trying to piece it all together. But he’s pleasant, relaxed, calm with his body language, so I’m calm, everyone’s calm.

 “Yes,” he says, smiling. “I can see what you mean. I’m sure everything will shake out fine.” He repeats, “Just checking things out.”

“I'll just wait around for my nephew.”

“Yes ma’am.”

These are good cops, good people. But even so, their minds are trained to hone in on a particular scene and act on it. Black male, late teens early twenties…Who are you?  Why are you here?

So far, he’s escaped the system – the school-to-prison pipeline, the systemic poverty, the lack of resources.  He’s just a kid hanging out, enjoying a nice night, talking, playing on his phone.

If he were white, would that be okay?  Would he be allowed?  

What will happen should he be black in the wrong place again and I’m not there? When he has a taillight out, happens to say something the wrong way, happens to reach for his wallet…


Cheryl is a final year MFA candidate studying Creative Nonfiction at the University of Memphis, where she is recipient of the 2015 Creative Writing Award in Nonfiction and the 2016 Outstanding Graduate Student Award. She is current Managing Editor, past Assistant Managing, and past Nonfiction Editor of The Pinch. She has publications in Gulf Coast, The Collagist, storySouth, Little Patuxent Review, Appalachian Heritage, Cleaver Magazine, Word Riot, The Citron Review, Pine Hills Review, Apeiron Review, and others. She is a 2016 Best American Essays nominee, and was a finalist for the 2016 Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction. Her fiction has been anthologized in Crack the Spine XII 2016 Edition.

About the Author

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