What you don't know about Apple Tree Supermarket is that they sell strange fruit. I don't mean the type of bruised oranges and squishy pears that you find at Ferris Booth Commons. I mean blood on the leaves and blood at the root, that type of strange fruit.
This isn't to say that its employees are a lynch mob. Thankfully, my black body was not swinging that Saturday. It was walking through Apple Tree's front doors. But it was pursued by the same societal ignorance and prejudice that first caused Billie Holiday to sing of Southern trees way back in 1939.
My body wore a large jacket because a New York January morning is cold, especially for a Los Angeles body like mine. It entered the store with four bulges in its pockets: two in the jacket for my headphones and water bottle, then two in the jeans' front pockets for my wallet and cell phone.
I briefly toured through the small store with my hands jammed inside my jacket. I didn't have any gloves, and they still felt a lingering chill from the cold outside.
I stepped back out, and the door closed on my uneventful excursion to Apple Tree. But almost immediately, it opened again, and I felt a tap through the layers of clothing on my right shoulder. Two Apple Tree employees were stopping me in my tracks.
"What did you take?" the taller one asked accusingly as the short one gave me a TSA-style pat down, his hands passing over every pocket and bulge, his eyes peeking and inquiring and indicting.
"Nothing," I said.
My voice, usually expressive and loud, was quiet, weak, almost emotionless. I felt that I had lost control of my body. The man's hands were an awkward intrusion into my space that made me stiffen like a statue. As my body froze, my mind did too and turned my thoughts into faint, single words.
"Are you sure?" he said.
My eyes were cast down and my arms were up, because I assumed that that's where they ought to be. For a moment, I raised my gaze across the street and looked at the tall buildings where I sit in class and the shuffling students next to whom I eat in the dining halls. Education and privilege create the illusion of a safety net, a protective force against the outside world. But they were frisking my body, I realized, not me, and in the eyes of these employees, a black body was equivalent to crime.
They found four things on me: a wallet, a cell phone, a water bottle, and a pair of headphones. All of it, of course, was mine.
"You're free," the tall one said, as if there had been a moment when I wasn't, and he and his partner walked back into the supermarket.
Suddenly, I was alone on the sidewalk as I had been just a few moments ago. It was as if the incident had never happened, and I decided to treat it as such. I walked back out onto the street and past Morningside Park into Harlem where I could be around other black bodies for a while.
At first, I didn't want to say anything about what had happened to me. It had nothing to do with embarrassment, but I realize that I live in a world where I am an endangered species. I live in a world where young black male bodies are 21 times more likely to be molested by an officer's bullet than young white men. I live in a world where Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker had his black body frisked at Milano Market on 113th and Broadway, in a world where in that very same year Columbia professor Prabhjot Singh had his Sikh body attacked near 110th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard.
In such a world, I felt that my experience was too clichéd and perhaps even not shocking enough. I was unreasonably afraid that someone might say, "Oh, you were only frisked. Why are you complaining? You could've been killed by a cop."
Also, I feared that if I did speak out, I would become an angry black man in the eyes of the world: a trope, a clown, a minor character in this month's new hit blaxploitation. Expressing anger is a privilege that black bodies do not have.
For the next two days, I contented myself with the thought that they would think back to the mistake that they had made with me the next time that they decided to stop a black body at their door.
But by that Tuesday, I knew that hoping that the employees had learned a lesson was not enough. I still couldn't stop thinking about what had happened. I had done nothing. I had let him move his racist hands along my innocent body as if it was his right. Then again, what else could I have done? Anything other than compliance would have only further incriminated me, and I preferred to be handled by the grocery store employees than by the NYPD.
Nevertheless, I had to do something. As the other black bodies that I know had told me, if I stayed silent then, when would it stop?
I walked back to Apple Tree Tuesday evening after my Frontiers of Science discussion section. My backpack was still slung over my shoulders. I went inside, and I stood in line, but I didn't get anything, just waited my turn to arrive at the register.
"Hi, I'd like to speak to the manager," I said. My leg was shaking. I hated that.
I explained what had happened to the manager. Then he explained what had happened to me.
"I have seen the people who steal," he said. "They look like you."
That was exactly the problem, I told him. I had come in, registered a legitimate complaint, and had been told without an apology that the incident could be explained by they look like you.
He told me to come back tomorrow to talk to the owner, and he asked if he could take the next customer.
The next day, the owner apologized profusely. I told him that I didn't want his apology. I made him bring out the two employees who had violated me, and they apologized too. I didn't believe them.
I told the owner that he needed to train his staff, to teach them how to tell the difference between a black man and a criminal, to tell that I am a person and not an optical illusion. He agreed and pleaded with me not to write this article.
Clearly, I didn't listen, but I promised him that if he were to make any changes that wouldguarantee what happened to me never happens again, I would be sure to put in a good word. I gave him my email address.
It's been three weeks, and I haven't received any messages.
When I spoke to the owner, I was very polite. I said everything short of "Yes, massa." I even gave him an apology.
"I know that I'm the last person you wanted to see today," I told him.
What I really wanted to say was "Fuck you, Apple Tree," but I didn't, because I knew that that would've only affirmed their stereotypes.