MAXWELL: INVISIBLE men // I’m not Elijah.

11/8/2000 – Printed in the FLORIDIAN section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


In 1980, when I was a teacher at Broward Community College, I was nearly shot by Fort Lauderdale police officers. I had walked to the corner convenience store and was returning home with ice cream for my wife and sister.

When I was two blocks from my house, a police squad car sped onto the sidewalk in front of me and stopped. Two cops jumped out of the car, their weapons pointing at my head. “Face down on the ground,” they shouted. “Face down.” I fell to the pavement so fast that I bruised my rib cage.

As I raised my head and started to ask what I had done, the more muscular cop told me to lay still and shut up if I did not want my head blown off. I shut up and kept my head down. They cuffed my hands behind my back, dragged me to the car and dumped me into the back seat. At the station, I was being booked for breaking into a house when someone yelled: “Mr. Maxwell, what happened?” He was a black cop and a student in my report-writing class.

At this point, everyone in the room, including the man taking my fingerprints, realized that a mistake had been made. I was not the black man they wanted. Two days later, the real robber’s photo was in the Sun-Sentinel.

I looked nothing like him. I was two shades darker and much taller.

Like most other black men I know, I am mistaken for another black man at least once a week _ usually more often. Here in St. Petersburg, where I live and write for the St. Petersburg Times, I am mistaken nearly every day for Elijah Gosier, another African-American columnist. Elijah and I look nothing alike. I am handsome.

After he left the Times a couple of years ago to write a book, white people came up to me all the time asking how the book was going. Sometimes I played along with them and said the book was going great. Other times, I would say: “I’ll let you know as soon as I see Elijah.” These folks’ embarrassment was palpable.

White people write me all the time to take me to task for writing this or that column. As calmly as I can, I tell them, “I am the other black guy.” Two years ago, an irate reader telephoned and lashed out that I write about black people too much. I acknowledged that I often had African-Americans on my mind but that I did not write the columns he had ticked off. He did not believe me, almost calling me a liar. I invited him to the newspaper for lunch, brought along the columns he had mentioned and showed him Elijah’s photo and mine.

Incredibly, he stared from one photo to the other and then at me as if he were still unconvinced. Suddenly, he said, “Damn! You guys don’t look nothing alike. You’re the guy who writes about the Middle East.” I told him that I was sure that Elijah had never been to that region.

The saddest instance of my being mistaken for for Elijah came shortly after his son died. A colleague here in the newsroom came to my desk and offered his condolences. I did not know what to do. I was embarrassed for him. As politely as I could, I informed him that I was not Elijah. He apologized over and over until I told him that people make the same mistake all the time and that he should forget about it.

Many of the other African-American men and I at the Times jokingly call one another the names of someone else. I call Elijah “Maxwell” or “Clarence” or “Jerry.” He calls me whatever name pops into his head. Now, some of our white colleagues have gotten into the act.

Being mistaken for another black man has caused me physical pain. When I lived near Gainesville, I used to shop in a grocery store in Archer. One afternoon, an older white man approached me and called me a racist for having written a certain column. When I started to reply, he punched me in the chest. Good thing he was old. Otherwise, well, oh well. I finally convinced him that I was “the other black columnist.”

Instead of apologizing, he said, “All you damned n___ look alike anyway.” He simply walked away.

Occasionally, a black person gets me mixed up with Elijah. I always have wondered why whites make the mistake so often. My theory is that author Ralph Ellison was right: Black people are virtually invisible to white people. They do not look at us. They look around us, over us, through us _ but never at us.

They do not see our features _ only our black skin. As a black man, I have never confused one black person for another. I look at people. I recognize the differences among various noses, lips, shapes of heads, physiques, fannies, skin tones, gaits. I recognize these differences because I know that each person has essence. And I care to notice. To see the differences among people, we must care to.

My hope is that white people would start noticing _ caring _ especially if they are in positions to take life and incarcerate.