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A city councilor’s run for Arbery

As I sit looking at a certified birth certificate from the 1940s, what stands out is not the state of Georgia, not the place of birth being McIntosh County, or the name of the town being Townsend.

What stands out to me is the space titled “color or race” and what is written in that space. I pause and stare at that space intently as I see the word Negro written in that space. What was it like growing up in the South during this time? A time of segregation, racism, violent and nonviolent protests, violence perpetrated on you because of the color of your skin.

I can only imagine what the times were like from that era having read books and spoken to family members and others who grew up down South during those times.

Flash forward to 2020. I’m an avid runner. I’ve raced locally and abroad. I run to feel good, to reflect, to decompress, for camaraderie, to find a solution to things that might be bothering me, or simply to just enjoy the outdoors.

What was Ahmaud Arbery of Georgia, a black man, thinking about when he was running on Feb. 23, 2020? Was he reflecting, decompressing, or simply trying to enjoy the outdoors? The world and his family will not know because he was shot to death on the same day after being chased by a white father and son who thought he was a burglar. Ahmaud would have been 26 on May 8.

On May 8, 2020, people across the country came together to run and walk 2.23 miles in honor of Ahmaud — 2.23 to mark the day he was killed (#irunwithmaud). I ran the 2.23-mile run on 5/8/20. As a black man, this recent incident of violence against another person of color, again while unarmed, hit home with me. I ran in the early morning, keeping Ahmaud and his family in my thoughts and prayers as I headed toward Edwards Church, as I often do, to see the bright glowing cross through the church window and to ask for guidance.

I ran in my surroundings thinking briefly I was safe until I gave myself a reality check. I run the streets of Northampton quite often. Maybe you’ve seen me, or maybe you have run with me. From South Street to Main Street, down Ward Avenue, through Henshaw, Roundhill, to Florence, through Leeds, down Market Street and beyond, I run. I run through these neighborhoods knowing that some of you don’t know me. Do I appear out of place to you? Do you feel threatened by me being on your street? Do you feel I might return to rob your homes or harm your family?

I do not expect most of you to understand or to know what it’s like unless you are a person of color. To be watched, sometimes scrutinized, made to feel less than and, for some, to be violently attacked for no other reason than being out of place due to the color of your skin. It pains me when I read these stories and watch them on the news. It is my reality and the reality of other people of color.

These are turbulent times we are living in, and if you are a person of color, even more so. Racism has no place in society, yet it persists. Driving While Black, Running While Black, White Privilege, White Guilt, White Immunity, and whatever other term is used and whatever new term is created, we are still left with the same underlying issue which is racism. It hasn’t gone away.

And let’s not think it is not here in our community, this area, this region and that what happened in Georgia couldn’t happen here.

I look back at the birth certificate I’m holding in my hand and reflect fondly on the name I see on the certificate, for it is my father’s. The birth certificate of my father who grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and still has family there and in Brunswick, not far from where Ahmaud was shot and killed. A man who, along with my mother, raised me to see the good in the world, to remain optimistic and hopeful, but made sure I was aware of who I was.

They had no choice. That was our reality. To know how some in the world will see me. To know that racism exists, but that the world is also full of good people who will come together to stand up against these injustices. I was raised to work hard no matter what. My parents instilled in me the need to give back to one’s community, to volunteer your time and to help people the best you can. I’m fortunate to be alive today and grateful to have parents who are still here for me, and I am grateful to still be here for them. Ahamud’s parents do not have this same good fortune.

If Ahmaud Arbery was running down the streets of our city, what would you have seen? What do you see when you see me?

John Thorpe represents Ward 4 on the Northampton City Council. The avid jogger is believed to be the city’s first African-American councilor.

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