The Stakes of Driving While Black Are Unconscionably High


I was excited when I RSVP’d. It would be a lovely way to end the tour, I thought, maybe even comforting— a balm for the months of nightly performances, all the new faces. I secretly love weddings despite the bitter hopelessness loudly knocking on the door to my temperamental heart. I get to dress up, there’s tons of wine, the social atmosphere is easy because everybody at least wants to be in a good mood, and, aided by said wine, I’ll be goddamned if witnessing the weight and depth of commitment and certainty of love doesn’t make me cry a little bit, every time. Either because it’s the stuff of Lisa Frank unicorns and Pixar fairy tales, or because (in spite of and in spite of and in spite of), I believe it for myself, for everybody. Maybe I’m a sucker. 

The plan was to connect in Dallas from Arizona and land at LaGuardia (that would be the worst part), pick up a rental car at the airport, and have a chill drive to Hudson, New York, land of millennial weddings and trendy second homes, about two hours away. 

But, as too many people had already hinted, the plan was far too ambitious—I’d started feeling sick two cities ago, and I was generally broken down, unraveling in airports. Whatever. I’d started taking mood stabilizers before my tour and was invigorated by the promise of such an extraordinary idea, a stabile mood. 

I’m always excited when I RSVP. 

Another problem with the plan is that it was 2017, which meant that for the past two years, anytime I drove alone at night, anytime I saw blue lights in the rearview, anytime I drove alone on a highway at the mercy of unfamiliar landscapes, and actually, every three days in between—brushing my teeth, or taking my meds, or seeing a bumper sticker about my life mattering, or seeing a commercial about mental health mattering, or if my mind wandered to any future beyond tomorrow—I thought of Sandra Bland. 

On the Dallas flight I could not get water. Twice, I asked the Dolly Parton–blond flight attendant and after making eye contact, she legitimately looked away. After the third time, a young mom in the aisle seat had mercy enough to be a White Savior and go to the back to get me one of those little half bottles. 

I secretly love weddings despite the bitter hopelessness loudly knocking on the door to my temperamental heart.

From Arizona to Dallas, my requests were ignored to my face—my requests for the one inalienable requirement for being an alive person. I was too tired to feel slighted and invisible, again, in transit, helplessly gawking at the rampant preferential treatment around me, the data and disappointment. And when I was on the ground, what I did every day was perform. I cried in the Dallas terminal bathroom after a white woman bumped me as she passed and didn’t apologize. 

LaGuardia was LaGuardia—I heard someone once describe it, perfectly and hilariously, as akin to a hallway. My plane is hours late and I arrive at the rental car place at almost midnight, tired enough to get a bottle of Coke from the vending machine, and there’s a whole drama in there— a full and properly inconvenient breakdown, everything covered from fear of lifelong loneliness and aloneness, the heaviness of expectation, the self-punishment, never admitting I’m tired, punking out. I had created the mess I was in, and worse, I had created the kind of life that could reap this kind of mess. I even called my parents for an extra serving of I-told-you-so. 

When I finally get my rental car, which is decades younger than mine and too “smart” for me, I seem to circle the same two blocks of Queens in the pitch-dark before pulling over and crying again. It’s pitiful. I hate myself for it. I can’t get the Bluetooth thing to work, I get obsessed with trying to make the Bluetooth thing work, I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t think my lights are on, this car is not on my side. I wonder if I should or can or will fold on the wedding. I realistically do not know how to use this car, it is the middle of the night, how shitty is it to cancel right before a wedding? They’d probably already ordered my food, right? 

I don’t want to fail just because I’m alone. I say a bunch of mean things to myself until I decide to go back to the plan. 

I already knew the stakes of Driving While Black, how important it was to be faultless, and how that probably wouldn’t matter in the end.

Finally on the dark road heading upstate from Queens, empty but for a few semi-trucks, I was scared, hesitating even as I sped up. The whole day was bullying me to give up. Into giving up on myself. I didn’t want to prove myself right. 

It was starting to look like wilderness, which is to say I started to think about Sandra Bland. As I drove I worried: If I were to slip up handling the unfamiliar vehicle and its screens and buttons. If I started frantically and idiotically crying again. If I got tired and drove too slow. If I tried to keep up with other cars and went too fast. If I were to pull over. If I were to be pulled over. If the cop happened to be a white man from the wilderness. No witnesses, one subtle movement in the deep dark, and just what am I doing out here driving this road at this time of night? Why was I alone, where was I going, why are my eyes so red? If they claimed I killed myself, it would be believable, everyone knows I have suicidal thoughts. 

Anything could happen. Anybody could say anything happened. 

After her death in 2015, Sandra Bland visited my thoughts daily; now I’m down to just once a week. I google her name, irrationally hoping the cause of death will have a different word after its colon. It’s not just that she was around my age, it’s how the death ruling is so effective and final. It’s her smile, and how the word suicide shut her up for good. How she was starting a new job the next week. How she acknowledged her mental illness. The video she posted, eloquent and passionate and proudly Black, condemning police brutality. She was pulled over for a broken taillight (ain’t it always that?), and after that, “hanged herself” in a cell at the empty jail. 

I already knew the stakes of Driving While Black, how they fluctuated county line to county line (that part we’d known since Till), how important it was to be faultless, and how that probably wouldn’t matter in the end. When I see someone’s on my tail and I’m already doing close to eighty, I just think, that person must not be Black. 

Every Black person has a victim who hits hardest. Whose death at the hands of the police changes everything.

Risk. Our particularly heightened sense of doom produces in us a skill for continually and quickly evaluating risk. An additional region of the brain is devoted to this analysis, gathering sensory information in order to be one step ahead. Two or three if you can make it. Otherwise, hide. You never know what they can get away with in the dark. 

Every Black person has a victim who hits hardest. Whose death at the hands of the police changes everything—about how and how often you step off the front porch, how you interpret every gaze at the grocery store, whether or not and whom you date, the list of ambitions you hope to accomplish before it’s your turn. 

Back at the rental car office, I admit defeat and return the keys. That night, instead of staying with friends, I sleep at a hotel in Flushing that’s also an all-night karaoke bar. 

I’m what you call a “high-functioning” depressive. Which is a fancy way of saying I can “pass” as someone not having a nervous breakdown, even when I am, that my depressive episodes seem, for other people, to come “out of nowhere.” Being a Black woman is another way to say I can “pass” for someone unneeding and undeserving of help. A high-functioning single Black woman: redundantly no one’s concern. 

The next morning it’s back to the suitcases, all the effort, no witnesses.

Excerpted from You Get What You Pay For copyright © 2024 by Morgan Parker. Used by permission of One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

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