By Shawn Marqus Dromgoole, as told to Jennifer Clopton
One day in May, after being cooped up inside for weeks during the pandemic, I decided to head outside for a walk. I put on my sneakers and walked out the front door. But to my surprise, I froze. I couldn’t go any further. I was gripped by fear. Fear so great it kept me from stepping off my own porch. So I turned around and went right back inside.
I was paralyzed by fear thinking of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and of countless Black people who have been violently confronted and killed by white people who don’t think they belong where they are. When I hear their stories, I think – as a Black man, that could just as easily happen to me when I do something as seemingly simple as heading out for a walk. But I didn’t realize until that day on my front porch just how much fear and trauma had built up inside of me as a result of how others perceive my skin color – even in my own neighborhood.
I’ve lived in my neighborhood for most of my 29 years, but it has changed a lot in that time. Gentrification has transformed what was once a lower/middle class neighborhood of mostly Black families into one with mostly white residents living in expensive townhomes. Our streets are now filled with more single people, fewer children, and much fancier cars. There also aren’t as many Black faces as there used to be.
As the neighborhood has changed, so has my comfort level here. First there were the letters sent to the house – on legal paper and with big red lettering that said things like – We want to buy your house. Find a better life somewhere else. You should move. One time a Realtor even called our house and sounded surprised when I said we didn’t want to sell. “But I thought all you people wanted to move,” he said. Those were some of the first building blocks of fear that started to take root inside me. More have been added in recent years as post after post on our Nextdoor app includes warnings from neighbors about a ‘suspicious Black man’ seen on the sidewalk or in front of their home. I can’t help but wonder when I read those posts – did someone see me and just not recognize that I’m their neighbor?
It hasn’t always been like this. Growing up, this was a magical place for me. My grandmother has lived in this house for 54 years. Several aunts lived nearby, and we knew our neighbors so well, they were like family. I felt loved and safe from one end of the block to the other, and on several surrounding streets, and so did the other Black children growing up here. We could walk, run, and bike anywhere we wanted. We could pop into just about any house on the block for a snack or a meal. Our next-door neighbor grew spring onions in her backyard garden for as long as I can remember – just for me, so I could wander into her yard, rinse them off with hose water and eat them whenever I wanted. If someone on the street died, our block was silent because everyone went to the funeral. If someone had a birthday, we all went to the party and celebrated together.
But slowly, over time, the neighborhood began to change and those building blocks of fear kept piling up inside of me. As I got older my mother would say to me – ‘Remember you are a Black man’. So I was always aware I had to be above board. I had to speak clearly. I am very demonstrative and talk with my hands, but my mom always told me I couldn’t do that if I was talking to the police.
Growing up, my grandmother used to take me with her to estate sales, but wandering into an antique shop down the street from our house almost got me arrested when I was 16. The white ladies working there were so mean. They said I was stealing and threatened to call the police and the only reason they didn’t was that I called my grandmother and she made the 2-minute drive down the street to come in and get me.
As I got older and the neighborhood continued to transition, police stopped me so often to ask what I was doing and where I was going as I walked to catch the bus or get something from the drug store that I started keeping identification on me to prove where I live. Then I made sure I was always talking on the phone – so a friend or loved one could hear if I encountered somebody who didn’t think I belonged. Eventually I just stopped walking by myself. I’d wait until someone could go with me or I could catch a ride. It never made me angry, maybe because I have a deep faith. Plus, my grandmother has always said – being angry will kill you faster than the person you are angry with. I just didn’t realize how scared I’d become until that day in May when I tried to go for a walk by myself…and couldn’t.
When I tried again the next day and still couldn’t push past my fear, I called my mom for advice. ‘You can’t let fear cripple you,’ she said. She told me to wait, and in 15 minutes, she was there and we walked together. We had a great time and when we got home, my mom posted on social media, explaining how upset she was that her son was afraid to walk in a neighborhood our family has called home for six decades. That inspired me to verbalize my fears too – so I posted on my Facebook page as well. Almost as an afterthought I copied the post on Nextdoor too – thinking of all those warnings about ‘suspicious Black men’ in the neighborhood. I added my photo, which my mom says humanized me and before I even went to sleep, 50 responses and comments had poured in.
Oh my God we are so sorry.
I want to walk with you.
We want to walk with you.
By the time I woke up the next morning there were about 100 similar responses, so I extended an open invitation, to anyone interested, to join me, my mother, and my mentor that night for a walk. I expected 20 people tops. But 60 people showed up. So I suggested another walk the next week and about 500 people showed up. The following week – a few hundred once again turned out and weeks later, large crowds are still regularly meeting up weekly and walking with me.
I’m not an activist, but this movement – that we’ve dubbed ‘We Walk with Shawn’ – is so much bigger than me. I am shocked, amazed, blown away, inspired, and grateful for it, and I think it’s really beautiful that so many people of all colors, backgrounds, ages, races, and ethnicities heard my story, listened to my fears, and want to do something about it. I’ve realized through all of this that I do have a voice and there is power in using it to share the fear and trauma that I have felt as a Black man. Healing can happen when you speak up. My neighbors now know me, so I’m no longer afraid to walk on my street.
There is power in telling our stories. My grandmother’s generation grew up during Jim Crow Laws when nobody talked about the emotional impact of racism or the trauma that resulted from it. This is a different time. There are people out there who want to listen and work to make things better. I have gotten a few ugly messages here and there, but the vast majority of people have said to me – ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘We didn’t know.’ ‘We want to understand.’ ‘We’re working to understand.’
But I still worry when I walk on any other street but my own. I still am conscious about minimizing risk anywhere else I go. I know that other Black men and women, and many other people of color, know this feeling – of being afraid to walk in their own neighborhoods. It’s not right. It’s not okay, and I want to work to change that. I’m going to try to do that by raising awareness of the negative effects of gentrification on Black and brown people. Not feeling welcome in your own neighborhood, your own town, and your own country causes real fear and deep trauma, and we can’t change that if we don’t talk about it.
So in my neighborhood and town, we’re walking and talking and listening to each other. We’re getting to know our neighbors, and at least on my street, things are starting to get better. But Black men shouldn’t need a parade each time they want to walk down the street to keep them safe, remove their fear, or keep others from feeling scared by their skin color and their presence. We have to work to eradicate the systems and prejudices that have made this so. It won’t happen over night, but I do believe, that in time, if more of us speak up and more of us listen, things can and will start to change – step by step.
Shawn Marqus Dromgoole lives in Nashville and is launching a series of walks across the country to raise awareness about the effects of gentrification on people of color in urban communities. He’s also working to encourage others to organize walks with this shared purpose in their own communities. His first “We Walk With Shawn” event is scheduled for July 4, 2020, in Philadelphia. Connect with him and learn more about the We Walk with Shawn movement on Facebook and Instagram.