“This Is It, I’m Going to Die. Mom, Help.” A Hawaiʻi Man Remembers His Days as a Black College Student in New York
After Jayson Harper graduated from Kaiser High School, he was eager to make his mark in New York. But soon, an encounter with police taught him instead to be invisible.
My first car was a 1972 Buick Apollo. My mother bought it for me when I was 17. It was in excellent condition. The car had beige vinyl seats, air conditioning, an AM radio with one speaker in the back seat and whitewall tires. It was precisely the kind of first car that most teenagers living in Hawaiʻi Kai during the late ’80s would not want to be seen in. I called my Buick the “Brown Bomber.” My friends used another term which I cannot repeat.
In hindsight, I think my mother knew the Buick wouldn’t attract attention and would probably keep me out of trouble in Hawaiʻi. She was right.
Fast forward a couple of years to when I found myself in New York for college. I was young and eager to make my mark on the world’s biggest stage, New York City, the place of my birth.
Gone was the ’72 Buick, replaced by mom’s 1990 Mazda MX-6. It was the coolest car she would ever own. The car had an AM/FM radio with a tape deck, sunroof, rear spoiler and thankfully, no whitewall tires.
That car didn’t have a name, but like the Buick, it served a purpose. It kept me safe.
For young people during this time who had the luxury of a vehicle, a car was a canvas for creative expression. I had friends with cars with chrome rims, ragtops (fabric covering the roof), tinted windows and gold exterior trim. Jeeps and Mercedes Benz, we called them Benzes, were big, and I loved all of these things until I didn’t.
The Mazda was nice, but I was a broke college student, and I couldn’t afford to outfit my car with any of the extras others had on their cars.
One night I was out with my friends, all full-time college students at Columbia, SUNY Old Westbury, and NYU, all of us black. It was my first visit to a Jamaican Dance Hall club in Queens, New York. The music and food were amazing; it also was my first time as a young adult that I was experiencing the culture of my late father, Americanized as it was.
Leaving the club, we got into a Toyota Corolla my friend owned. His car was tricked out, bronze BBS rims, low-profile tires, tinted windows, and for an added touch of class, the Toyota logo was replaced with the Mercedes Benz logo because naturally, how can you not mistake a Corolla for a Mercedes. In hindsight, it was the ugliest thing on the road with four wheels.
After leaving the club in Queens, we drove one block and were immediately stopped by an unmarked NYPD vehicle. Soon after, several other marked police cars pulled up. Officers ordered all of us out of the car at gunpoint.
I remember sitting in the back seat, heart pounding, saying to myself, “This is it, I’m going to die. Mom, help.”
The officers, white and black, pulled everyone out of the car and searched us. Sitting on the cold Queens pavement that night, I knew my life would be different.
The police did not explain anything other than we, and our car, looked suspicious, and we should stay away from Queens. We had told the officers we were college students while we were sitting handcuffed on the pavement. I remember one officer saying to me, “I can’t believe they let people that look like you into college.”
The drive home was sobering. I never would go back to the club in Queens or spend much time there during the remainder of my time in New York. I also realized that night that if I wanted to survive in New York, I couldn’t stand out. No flashy cars, jewelry, nothing nice. I would have to be unassuming and nonthreatening, invisible.
About a month after the Queens incident, my cousin pushed me to put nice rims on my car and to add dark tint on the windows. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. He kept pushing. Eventually, I shared that if I have something too nice, the cops will pull me over. He agreed with me.
For the rest of my time in New York, getting pulled over by the police would become commonplace, especially if I was in a nice car with black men. Eventually, I decided to avoid the trauma of being pulled over by the police I needed to consciously work not to draw attention to myself or the others I was with. I needed to become invisible.
That became evident in the cars I chose. If I went out with my friends and someone else was driving, I would find myself having panic attacks. If I didn’t know what the person drove, it was a nightmare waiting to see what showed up. If the car that arrived was a flashy Jeep or a Benz, forget it, I would drive in my car or find a reason not to go out. If it was an older model that wouldn’t attract attention, I would reluctantly get in. It was an exhausting experience for me.
I had one buddy that had an old beat-up Chrysler Mini Van, no tints, no rims. I loved driving with him. I could be invisible.
My friends would give me grief. “Jayson, you drive a mom’s car.” Often, they would refuse to ride with me because my car wasn’t cool enough. Some thought I was ashamed of being black. That hurt the most.
One summer, my younger brother came to visit from Hawaiʻi. He was a junior at Kaiser High School at the time. We were going to Long Island for a concert where L.L. Cool J and other hip hop icons were performing. We were excited. My brother wanted to ride with a friend, another full-time student who was driving his parents’ BMW. I insisted he ride with me. My brother was pissed during the whole drive to Jones Beach.
Driving through the parking lot after the concert, we saw my friend on the pavement in handcuffs, officers surrounding his car. Again, no explanations, nothing found, no charges. In my mind, it was another example of being black in a nice car. He wasn’t trying hard enough to be invisible.
Eventually, I returned to Hawaiʻi, where I started my career, got married, had kids and bought a home. I’m fortunate to have a great family, friends and the opportunity to have worked for and with people who looked at what was in my heart as opposed to the color of my skin. I no longer feel the need to be completely invisible. Of course, Hawaiʻi is not without its racial challenges. In 2018, the Star-Advertiser reported that the black community made up nearly 30% of race-related employment discrimination over the past decade. As a community, there is still work to be done to narrow the wealth divide, provide affordable housing, take care of at-risk populations, and help create a Hawaiʻi where our kids and grandkids can not only live here, but prosper.
I can’t help think of the journey of George Floyd. He was about my age, we are both fathers, and we are both black. As life was leaving his body, and he was calling out for his mother, was he thinking the same thing I was thinking when I was sitting in the back of the Corolla in Queens decades ago, “I’m going to die. Mom, help.”
I’m not sure if my mom considered whether I’d like the Buick when she purchased it all those years ago or what would happen to her Mazda when she sent it to me in New York. I think she knew that I would experience things in my journey into adulthood. In her way, she wanted to remind me that as a black male, I need to make my mark, but be careful not to stand out too much. Did she want to share this with me through my cars? I don’t know. Being invisible, as oppressive and sad as it seems to me now, helped keep me safe during those years in New York. But the pain is still very visible to me now.
Jayson Harper is a director at UH Mānoa’s Outreach College, community volunteer and occasional marathoner. In rare moments of spare time, he supports the marketing efforts of Hawaiʻi nonprofits and tries not to embarrass his two teenage daughters.