The Reckless Eyeball

This is Matt Ingram.

In 1951 Matt Ingram drove his old car to a neighbor’s house to see about borrowing a trailer. The neighbor didn’t answer the door, so Ingram went and looked out in the field to see if the neighbor was there, but all he saw were some kids. So, he left and borrowed a trailer from someone else.

Matt spent 2 years in jail for looking at those kids.

Well, really for looking at one kid. Willa Jean Boswell, a 17 year old girl saw Ingram driving on the road and was frightened when he looked at her. She ran to the field, told her brothers, who told their dad, who told the police, and they arrested Ingram for assault with intent to rape.

That’s it. No other relevant details. No one contested or offered that there was more to the story. The entire court accepted that Matt, who had not been in, or caused, any trouble previously, never got closer to Willa Mae than 75 feet. He never spoke a word to her, never even made any sudden or aggressive movements, just a look, and the jury convicted him. He was sentenced to 2 years on the chain gang.

A series of appeals and a whole lotta pressure from… the Soviet Union, eventually brought his case to the North Carolina Supreme Court where his conviction was overturned.

That process took around two years… which Matt spent in jail.

For a look.

Or maybe rather, because he had a look.

Mr. Ingram wasn’t trying to have a look, he was just doing his thing. He was working and being himself- which is in some way the root of what makes that look “a look”. There is some form of innate coolness. Not posing. Not trying. Just being. All business.

Thing is, Ingram’s look wasn’t all that unique. He was by all accounts- normal.

For a Black man.

At that time all sorts of other folks, who were in fact trying, worked this look. In fact, that look was being imitated and replicated all over movie screens and billboards because there was, and still is, something in there, that is undeniably cool.

But cool is only safe for some.

And if that cool is innate, the sort that just is, then what do you do if you are Black? In order to be safe should someone not be themself? Tone it down? Tuck it in? Reel it back? Take what others imitate and monetize and push it down to make white people feel safe? To a lot of people, those who just wanted to get on with life, the answer was “yes”.

It was the sort of thing that when white folks do it, they are popular and get to be in movies but when Black people do it…

It was just after Ingram’s case was won, and received worldwide media attention, that a group of White men decided not to take their case to court when a Black kid named Emmet Till was accused of having that same look.

We have, in so many ways, come a long way. That was 70 years ago. So many people have marched, and worked, and changed since then.

But then I think about backwards hats and hoodies and I have to wonder.

And man, when I look at old pictures of Matt Ingram,

I can still see that cool. Plain as day.

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