Back To Black: The T-Mike Story

You know those almost mythical figures from your school? That was T-Mike in my grade. With a nickname like T-Mike, it’s hard not to be legendary, right? He was one those kids who just about everyone knew and liked.

He was also one of those kids who broke through the racial barriers. Conway was — and still is — a diverse school, but just like in everyday life, we knowingly and unknowingly divided ourselves at lunch and in the gathering spots before and after school. But T-Mike was accepted everywhere, whether he was with his fellow Black classmates or his white counterparts. 

He was invited to the white parties and to white friends’ houses. His status and prominence got him a pass from time to time in altercations or situations that his other Black friends didn’t enjoy. 

As T-Mike puts it, he was known as the token Black kid. One of the good ones.

“It hurts you because you can see it hurts your friends,” T-Mike said. “Sometimes, they resent you. You don’t want to be the guy your Black friends call a sellout. It can happen quickly.”

Things have been different for Thomas Michael Askew II since high school. The world no longer sees him as the token Black kid. He’s a full-grown, Black man with all the baggage that can carry with it in today’s America.

“You don’t look like a Thomas,” is something he hears often during job interviews.

“You’re taught to chuckle it off and move past it, but even that small statement is racist in itself,” T-Mike said.

There are times he’s reminded of how he used to be viewed, but it only goes further in showing the normalcy of life as a Black male in the United States.

“Oh, That’s T-Mike”

A year or two after high school, T-Mike and two former classmates — with less-than-stellar records, he says — were coming home from a club in Little Rock around 1 or 2 a.m. When the trio exited I-40 onto Oak Street, a Conway officer pulled them over.

“We had done nothing that night,” T-Mike said. “We had nothing in the car — no guns, no drugs — nothing. We weren’t speeding, we didn’t have a taillight out. We weren’t even drunk.”

The reason for the stop? A silver, Pontiac had allegedly been involved in a recent break-in. The trio were driving in T-Mike’s gold, Pontiac Sunfire coup.

“It was dark outside, but it was clear this wasn’t a silver car,” T-Mike said. 

The three men were told to get out of the car and wait on the curb. Another patrol officer arrived on the scene and recognized one of his son’s former football teammates immediately.

“Oh, that’s T-Mike,” another officer says after arriving on-scene. “He’s good. Let him go.”

T-Mike was asked to leave while his two friends were held in police custody.

“My friends didn’t have the best records but they didn’t have any warrants or anything at the time,” T-Mike said.

“That Could Have Been Me”

Whether it’s Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd or another unarmed Black man killed by police in recent years, one thought is constant in Mike’s head.

“That could have been me,” he says.

Of all the recent killings, Philando Castile’s has weighed heaviest on his mind because of the effect it had on his daughter. 

“She asked me, ‘Daddy, why are they killing people because we’re Black?’”

Now, she waits up for Mike until he gets home every night. Mike owns an entertainment company which brings a lot of late nights and not getting home until 3 or 4 a.m., but there is his daughter, always waiting up to make sure Daddy makes it back.

Being a Black Father

Mike and I both have two kids, a girl and a boy each. My daughter is 5; Mike’s is 7.

Over this tumultuous summer, my wife and I have made a conscious effort to talk more about diversity with our daughter — our son is only 2 years old — but it’s a subject we can wade into slowly. We have the luxury of shielding certain details from her. That’s not something Mike can do.

“We have to teach our kids at a young age what is going on,” Mike said.

“I always reiterate to her that every white person is not bad. Every cop is not bad,” he said, a point he makes especially clear since his daughter’s mother is a police officer. “Not everybody is racist, but there are people out there who are.”

His 4-year-old son adds another element of worry to Mike’s mind.

“It’s hard for black women, but it’s hard for black men as well,” he said. “We get labeled a lot quicker when it comes to the judicial system and things of that nature. It makes it scary raising a son. When does he go from being a cute child to a threat?”

In the last few months, I’ve listened to many podcast episodes dealing with race, in an effort to learn about the experiences of those who don’t look like me. One of the most enlightening, infuriating and uncomfortable moments for me came while listening to Bakari Sellers recall “The Talk” he had with his pre-teen daughter about riding her bike around the neighborhood.

Always remain calm and respectful if an adult or an officer approaches you. Be kind and courteous. Always. Even if they get rude or hostile, you stay calm and respectful. Do not escalate the situation.

The advice is harmless enough, but it still made me physically uncomfortable. It occurred to me, Black people are forced to give up normal, human emotions and normal reactions to certain situations just to survive. 

Mike’s daughter typically rides her bike while he walks their neighborhood, and being a typical kid, she likes to ride ahead of her dad and go fast. Mike won’t let her get too far. If he can’t see her well or feels he can’t reach her quick, he has her come back, fearful of what could happen just out of his reach.

I have fears concerning my daughter. Will she make friends at school? Will someone make fun of her? Is she happy? None of these are trivial fears for a parent, but none of them include — If I let my daughter go on a bike ride, will she come back home?

Of course, I want my daughter to always be kind and respectful, but in certain situations, I also want her to stand up for herself. As a father, I couldn’t imagine being forced to live with a constant fear of what could happen to my son or daughter just because they’re Black.

“It’s tough to sit down and tell your kid not to be them, not to feel typical reactions and emotions, telling them they can’t react — even if they are not in the wrong and being blamed — you can’t get upset, you have to keep your composure,” Mike said. 

Back to Black

In the aftermath of George Floyd, the City of Conway held a community walk where residents walked the streets of downtown before they gathered to hear from a host of speakers. It was a good first step and a nice moment for Conway to show unity, Mike said. 

But he wanted to see more, including more thoughts, opinions and voices of Black residents and leaders in the city. Instead, the majority of the speakers were white and many issues he felt crucial to change and understanding went unaddressed, Mike said.

“I felt that was the time to address a lot of things,” he said. “The problem is people don’t like to be uncomfortable, but the thing is, we’re always uncomfortable. I think, if you’re there, you want to know. You’re there for a reason, so let’s talk. Let’s put it on the table and inform you about what really happens in our community.”

It drove Mike to start his own series of rallies and Back to Black was soon born.

“I texted a friend who is always creative and she immediately texted that name back,” he said. “It represents what we wanted to communicate, back to Black excellence, back to Black peace, Black power, Black love, all of it.”

Mike held his first meeting over the summer and plans are underway for more in the future. At the first rally, he shared some of his experiences as a Black man in Conway.

“Get Out and Walk the Street”

When Mike visits his friends and family in areas like Willow, Ash and Davis Streets, or over on First and Second avenues, he notices a particular way police like to patrol the area. It’s noticeably different than the west Conway neighborhood he lives in where officers drive through and wave to residents as they pass.

“They ride through at a creep, almost looking and expecting to see trouble,” he said of east Conway police patrols. “I don’t think they realize sometimes these are normal people with kids who run around and play in the neighborhood.”

Mike said he’s been present when a large group of Black men and women are congregated outside and police stop and check everyone’s IDs.

“I know officers are intimidated by looks, I get it,” he said. “You want to make it home, but the only way to make this relationship better is getting out and talking. People throw stones at Officer Norman, but that’s how he became who he is because he wasn’t scared to get out and patrol and get to know the people. The community loves him.”

While not every officer will go viral for their efforts, they will make a difference where they live and work, Mike said. But until something changes, we’ll continue to see issues between the Black community and police departments.

It’s going to take action, Mike said.

“Get out and walk the street, they ain’t going to bite you,” Mike said. “Talk to the kids, who grow up learning to be scared of the police.”

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