The American Scholar

Dangerous Ground


CERTAIN BORDERS SHOULD not be crossed. Some are clearly demarcated by signs and walls and other barriers. Some are not marked at all, mostly invisible and almost laughable at first, absurd, but real. And some have signs that we, or some of us, simply ignore.

Here is the sign I am ignoring today:


I have reached the halfway point of my regular bike ride, a loop that carries me out to the coast under live oaks dripping Spanish moss and past some historic plantation houses, then down into a more modern though still ritzy neighborhood right on the water. The neighborhood has its own little harbor with docks for the residents’ boats, and often I get off my bike when I reach the docks and have a sip or two of water. Sometimes, if there are birds over the ocean or the light is nice, like today, I walk right out on the docks to be closer to the action—despite the big sign warning me not to and despite the camera pointing down at me from one of the pilings. Sometimes I even wave for the camera. I am a middle-aged white man with a professorial goatee. I trespass without much worry that a cop car will greet me when I return from the end of the docks. For me this is not a serious sign.

But today, as I walk to the water’s edge in search of ibises and ospreys, I do not wave to the camera. I am thinking of my student Will. How Will, given his recent history, might not be so cavalier about ignoring the sign and strolling out on these privileged docks. How we all have places we can walk where others shouldn’t.


WILL, HANDSOME, EARLY 30S, charming but sometimes a little shy, a recent grad student at the southern public university where I teach. Oh, and not incidental to this essay, African American. Will, with his dreadlocks and nice smile, has more than once been featured in promotional photos on the school’s website that are meant to boost our image and to, pardon the expression, whitewash the fact that the school is not fully integrated.

But Will’s relationship with the university is a little more complicated than that. Twice now, university policemen have pulled him over and questioned him. A few years ago, back when he was an undergrad, Will was driving to school when an officer stopped him, asked him what he was doing on campus, and checked his license and student ID. This first encounter, in Will’s mind, was more forgivable than the second, because the officer at least explained that police were looking for someone who might have matched Will’s description in connection with an incident. When his ID checked out, the cop lamely tried to talk sports with Will—it was basketball season after all. And that was pretty much it. Other than telling a couple of close friends, he kept quiet about it. Will is a writer, mostly of speculative fiction, but it wasn’t until the second incident that he went back and wrote about the first. “Never did I cry race or make anything of it,” he wrote, “because maybe, JUST MAYBE, they were simply doing their job and looking out for us.”

That second incident, when Will was in grad school, was different. He was walking on the bike path near the basketball stadium, a backpack full of books over his shoulder. And though you could describe what he was wearing as a

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