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As a black man, I felt lucky to turn 40 — and sad that so many have not

As a black man, I felt lucky to turn 40 — and sad that so many have not.
(Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)

When I turned 40, I didn’t take a victory lap to celebrate my successes in L.A. after a bumpy landing during my early years in the City of Angels. I didn’t focus on the wonderful memories I had, or the deep sadness and melancholy that are simply a part of life, especially if you live and love long enough to reach middle age.

There was no big party with my closest friends. There were no escapades in France, Italy or Greece, no dancing and drinking into the night. My co-workers threw a surprise party for me at the old Times building in downtown L.A., and I had a getaway to Palm Springs for some needed me time, with Beyoncé playing in my earbuds, as I relaxed poolside.

I’m all about #BlackBoyJoy but what I actually celebrated when I turned 40 was that I hadn’t been a victim of a shooting or violence by the police.

Leading up to my milestone birthday almost three years ago, I thought about the people, especially other black men, who had never lived to see 40 because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the wrong time — no matter the circumstances.

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I got to see another day.

This is me as a toddler, from left, in Palm Springs and at my 40th birthday celebration at the old L.A. Times building.
#BlackBoyJoy: This is me as a toddler, from left, in Palm Springs at dinner and at my surprise 40th birthday party at the old Los Angeles Times building in downtown L.A.
(Marques Harper / Los Angeles Times)

Some of my friends, especially my white friends, seemed surprised or confused about why I would celebrate my 40th with these thoughts. That’s just the reality of being a black man in America, even one who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of New Jersey, often the only black kid in my classes in grade school during the 1980s.

Also, I was more fortunate than some of my younger cousins who were always in trouble with the law.

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For the last 18 years of my career, I have spent time with celebrities, artists, stylists, writers and fashion designers and traveled the world, sitting in the front row at fashion shows and, as was the case in February, being within an arm’s reach of the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, at the Tom Ford fashion show in Hollywood.

That’s just part of my life, but I’ve also seen enough movies and cop shows, read my share of news stories and lived enough to know that mistakes can happen in seconds or minutes. One minute you’re charged with a crime you didn’t commit, and 30 or 40 years later, you’re exonerated. I always follow those stories.

Just last year I was a near wreck when my parents told me about an incident involving my dad and the police. Around that time, my 72-year-old father, a veteran of the Korean DMZ conflict, had achieved a personal milestone. He and another veteran had spent five years working on getting a bill through Congress and signed into law by the president. (The new law, which went into effect in January, expands the benefits of those who served at the Korean DMZ and suffered herbicide exposure in the late 1960s and early ’70s.)

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His victory didn’t matter that warm day that he ended up in the right place at the wrong time. Or maybe it was the wrong place at the wrong time.

The police were looking for a blue Dodge van.

My father, Garfield Harper Jr., and his friend, Eugene Clarke
My father, Garfield Harper Jr., left, and his friend Eugene Clarke worked on a bill expanding benefits for veterans that became law last year.
(Marques Harper / Los Angeles Times)

That day my dad was driving my parents’ blue van through Willingboro, N.J., a township of about 32,000 residents. (It’s a town where black people were once denied the right to buy homes, and now it’s the county epicenter for COVID-19, with 584 cases and 23 deaths as of Friday.) Dad was on his way to pick up my mom from the hairdresser.

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As he was driving along, two police SUVs came up from behind and signaled him to pull over. He did. The officer had his hand on his gun as he approached the van. There were about six patrol vehicles on the scene. My father kept his hands on the steering wheel. Then the officer noticed my dad’s veterans cap and said, “Oh, my God, we have the wrong man. ... We almost made a mistake.”

Oh, mistakes. That’s why we’re taught early: Keep your hands on the steering wheel so the police can see them. Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t end up in a situation in which you’re gasping for air and saying, in your final moments, “I can’t breathe.”

Fashion brands supported #BlackoutTuesday on Instagram, but is that really enough? TV host and style expert Melissa Chataigne has some thoughts.

When I hung up the phone that day after talking with my parents, I teared up. You see, I’ve seen it all as a journalist. My dad was lucky. Based on the countless stories reported — and particularly those of late — not all black men and women are.

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The police could have easily made another mistake that day with my father.

Now, in the turmoil and powderkeg tension of 2020, which seems like a version of the 1968 assassinations and social unrest I learned about as a child, I’m riveted to the stories and video of George Floyd, who died in police custody on May 25 in Minneapolis. And the May 25 incident in New York’s Central Park, captured on video, in which a white woman called the police on Christian Cooper, a black birdwatcher, after he asked her to leash her dog.

Then there’s Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black jogger who was fatally shot during a Feb. 23 incident involving three white men near Brunswick, Ga.; 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, a black woman killed by police in her Louisville, Ky., home just after midnight on March 13; and Tony McDade, a 38-year-old black trans man who was shot and killed by police on May 27 in Tallahassee, Fla.

Photos of Breonna Taylor are displayed during a vigil for her in Louisville, Ky., on March 19.
(Sam Upshaw / [Louisville] Courier-Journal)
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As we emerge from our COVID-19 isolation, I find these latest shootings and racial incidents in the news to be painful and heartbreaking. We’ve messed up with race and diversity matters for centuries, even before a slave ship arrived in 1619 at Point Comfort in the colony of Virginia.

During my sheltering at home, I’ve been thinking about my paternal great-great-grandmother, a slave from North Carolina. My living family members who met her said she was feisty and mean, and you know what? I would be too if I had suddenly become someone’s property.

Protesters gather outside L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house
Protesters gather outside Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house on Tuesday.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Now if 2020 is a time when the ghosts of past Americas have turned up, as described last month in an Associated Press story, I wonder if my great-great-grandmother’s America is really that much different from mine today when it comes to diversity, financial inequality and police brutality.

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During these strange pandemic times, I haven’t been sleeping well, and when I scrolled through Instagram in bed earlier this week, a post from the black-owned New York fashion brand Cushnie caught my eye. It read, “I wish America loved black people the way they love black culture.”

I understand this sentiment from the work I do. Black culture is constantly influencing global fashion, but take a closer look at who runs the major fashion labels and who their creative directors are. With so many brands in love with black culture and so many posting #BlackoutTuesday messages on Instagram this week, why are we fashion journalists still writing about the need for racial diversity on runways? It’s a conversation that has been going on for far too long.

And it’s a part of the larger dialogue I see unfolding in protests and on social media. I’ll be curious to know the effects of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, which have been a daily presence lately here in L.A., as police and news helicopters circle in the skies and with COVID-19, the silent killer, raging on and taking, in abundance, the lives of black and brown people.

Jimmy Williams and his son Logan are black owners of a popular Silver Lake nursery that sells organic vegetable plants and builds gardens for the rich and famous, but that didn’t stop the police from pulling them over in their work van one day, saying, ‘We’ve had several robberies in the area.’

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I’m wondering if that change that Sam Cooke sang about decades ago will ever actually come. I have uneasy feelings about our “new normal,” and that’s on top of being upset about attacks on fellow journalists covering these protests.

I’ll see how I sleep tonight.

Or maybe I’ll be awake, wondering if I’ll always have anxiety when I’m doing nothing wrong and a police cruiser pulls up next to me on La Cienega Boulevard or Highland Avenue or wherever I’m driving in the city.

Like my father, who these days has been sheltering at home with CNN and the sounds of Marvin Gaye, will I one day end up in the right place at the wrong time?


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