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My True Life "When They See Us" Moment

Rodney Freeman

Watching "When They See Us;" one of the most proclaimed drama miniseries on Netflix for this year, sparked so many emotions. I started to think back to a moment in time where that could have been my best friend Chris and I. I remember that day so clearly. In the summer of '95, right before we started high school, we were fifteen; Chris might have been fourteen. I found out that this young lady that I liked so much was working at Baskin Robbins, which not too far from where I lived in Chicago Heights. Through osmosis, I came across the address where she worked, I quickly initiated a plan to go see her, but I needed my best friend Chris to ride along with me up to her job. At fifteen, I guess I was a hopeless romantic; listening to mostly R&B music on my red and black Sony Cassette Player to Black Street 'Before I Let You Go" and Heavy D "You Got Me Waiting" all the while thinking about seeing this young lady. In hindsight, Chris really didn't want to go up there, but he wanted to know this person that I kept on talking about. And of course, this was pre-Facebook and Instagram, so you had to go see with your own eyes. So we started our journey up to the ice-cream shop. Chris and I lived in a part of Chicago Heights that they called Serena Hills, although I don't think that was the technical name of the area, we just called it that because of the school that was there. It was an unspoken divide between where most of the Black people lived in Serena Hills and where most of the "old white money" lived.

One of the myths was that the other side is where many old white Chicago gangsters retired to after their "gang-banging time" was over for them in the city. In the "retirement community," there was a strip mall guessed it...the ice cream shop Baskin-Robbins. So yes, our journey was through the retirement community where we deemed that all the good stuff was like, food stores, fast food restaurants, barber shops; you name it because they had it all. They also had this big ass baseball field. So after we ordered our ice cream and chatted with the young lady that I was crushing on; Chris, of course, gave me the head nod, which was like his blessing and approval for me to like her, and we started to head back home, but my ice cream started to melt in my hands and was hard for me to steer my bike at the same time. Wanting to finish my ice cream up before it vanished, we decided to stop at the big ass baseball field we saw while riding up to the ice cream shop. We noticed the fun that people were having at the field and thought how it was nice to see people enjoying life. Racing of the bikes to finish up our ice cream, Chris and I parked our bikes and sat on the bleachers to watch one of the baseball games being played. We weren't into baseball, so we walked back over to our bikes because we were just finishing up our desserts when we curiously noticed two white men walking swiftly towards us. When they approached us, they identified themselves as undercover police officers. Broadcasting that they received a report that two young (Black) boys where selling drugs and that the report came from one of the houses next to the park. They told us that we have the option of going back to the station or submitting to a search and then being granted freedom.

We had nothing to hide, so we consented to the search, but I was enraged because I told the officers we're just eating ice cream. I questioned the detectives numerous times; asking why we were being searched. Chris wanted me to be quiet, so we could hurry back home; eventually, we were pardoned. Dejected, we rode home quick with emotions of fear, anger, and confusion running through our veins. My story or this brief run-in with racism can never compare to "When They See Us,' but my personal account on how some people of different races view many young Black men is something I can attest to.

My experience could have been just like the movie, but it wasn't, because I was fortunate enough to go to college where I was the College Chapter President of the NAACP and was inducted into the National Honor Society in college, started a graduate organization, and newsletter for African American Graduate students. I studied in Vienna, Austria, with the United Nations and Amnesty International. I obtained not one, but two master degrees and worked my way from being a library page on up to a Library Administrator and now an Assistant Professor/ Library Coordinator at an HBCU. So how can I pay it forward? I created a website called "The Black Male Archives," where we capture, curate, and promote positive stories about Black men and where young Black men can see positive images. We envision various ethnicities utilizing this resource so they too can have a holistic perspective of Black men, so hopefully one day we won't have these "When They See Us" moments.


Rodney Freeman has worked in academic, public, and government libraries for over ten years and has worked in multiple positions from a library page up to a library administrator. Driven with passion, Rodney Freeman started Preservation LLC to help people preserve and convert their photos and documents onto a digital format. Along with starting his company, in 2018, Rodney developed a platform called The Black Male Archives where the objective is to capture, curate, and promote positive stories about Black men to combat the negative images portrayed in the media.


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