Writer Sees the Light on Race Amid Accident

“A funny thing happened to me on the way to the hospital,” cracked Sophia Nelson, a writer for HuffPost, Daily Beast, Essence and theGrio.com, in a phone interview with FishbowlDC Sunday afternoon.

Earlier in the week, Sophia was on Twitter like she always is, firing off spurts of motivational thoughts that vary on any given day from sex and relationships to joy, jealousy and friendship and how to not let the assholes of life get you down. But then, suddenly, the tweets trickled to a standstill. Suddenly it wasn’t Sophia anymore, it was someone who had stepped in for her, saying that the freelance writer and author had been in a serious bike accident last Wednesday morning.

She was biking in Louden County, her morning ritual of sorts. Like most accidents, she never saw it coming. The road shifted, and she flew over the handlebars and fell into a drain. “There was a pipe thing protruding out,” she explained. “I was lucky it was rounded.” She suffered blunt trauma to her abdomen, has a swollen spleen and walks with a cane as she recovers. Two strangers found her. One, a white father and his daughter on the way to a swim meet. Two, a black thirtysomething woman named “Phyllis” who held her hand and said prayers until the ambulance arrived. At the hospital they ruled out a head injury and internal bleeding.

“I’m definitely staying off bikes going forward,” said Sophia, remembering another serious bike accident she had in 2009 in which she fractured her skull. She joked, “I guess I’m improving in that I didn’t try to knock my skull off. I think I’m going to a spin class and for a walk. Sophia is done with the bike.”

In the foreground of the accident, strangely, was race. And it’s something that never left her mind. Sophia, who is black, was struck by the fact that a white man and his daughter stopped to help her and that a black woman came to pray with her.

On the way to the hospital, in an ambulance full of young, white men, a worker named “Mike” from the Moorefield Fire Station recognized her from TV. He wired her up, got her vitals. Then he asked for her thoughts on the George Zimmerman verdict.

Oh boy…here we go.

“I said, am I really about to talk about this right now?” she said to herself, expressing her recollections of the hazy conversation en route to the hospital.  “I said, it’s an interesting thing that’s happened in our country. Right now, I’m here, I’m banged up, you don’t care what my color or gender is. I don’t care what your color is.”

Mike, a new father, told her it saddens him to imagine having to tell his son what to wear or to be careful so he doesn’t get hurt by the police or someone else. “We had this amazing dialogue,” she said. “We’re talking about how our country rises to its best self when we love each other and support each other and dealing with a crisis.”

Sophia slips easily into preacher mode: “If we don’t talk to each other, then we don’t listen to each other, then we miss the important things we need to know about each other,” she said. “Everyone starts calling names, everyone breaks into sides. What struck me was how good it felt to have a conversation with people who were different from me–complete strangers–it was kind of like having a bunch of big brothers.”

She called it a “very respectful, civil, profound dialogue.”

As it is with everything Sophia, God is never far from her mind: “I thought God was using that moment where I was banged up – it was just interesting whether it was the nurses, doctors, everyone was just good and kind and decent and positive. They were trying to make jokes.”

Sophia, who is in her 40s, admits the accident may have happened because she was trying to keep up with a couple of young women in their twenties who blazed by her. “I’m thinking you need the senior Olympics,” one of the nurses chided her. Sophia told FBDC, “I look good, but I ain’t 20-years-old anymore.”

Returning to her conversation with Mike, she continued, “Look, we all know where I stand on the Trayvon verdict. I have two more columns coming out. I am disappointed like a lot of African Americans and a lot of Americans. I was explaining to him, yeah, I remember my mom having that conversation with my brother – hey, don’t wear that cap. The reality is that that’s what we as black people know growing up. We know what to watch out for. Black women are taught the same things, but for different reasons.”

Sophia was moved by President Obama‘s recent speech on race. “What Obama said Friday was not only courageous but proper,” she said. “For a moment he was trying to explain very peacefully but candidly that being black in America comes with a whole set of challenges.”

Though an attorney, author and a writer who drives a BMW, Sophia knows these challenges only too well. “I’m going to get it when I go into Saks Fifth Avenue or Niemans,” she said, noting that within the last year she was in an upscale shop when a clerk made assumptions about what she could afford. “I pulled out my gold card and you get the red face and embarrassment,” she recalled. “We need to stop pretending as black people that everything is OK when we know it is not OK. Even the President, he had to parse his words.”

As an attorney, Sophia respects the verdict. As a black woman, she says, it stings.

Just out of law school she recalled going to work for Christie Whitman in New Jersey. “I bought this new red car, a Mazda sports car, and got pulled over one night in horse country,” she said. “I was down visiting friends. The officer asked, ‘Whose car is that?’ I’ll never forget that experience.” He said she was swerving a little bit. “I hadn’t been drinking,” she said. “Really, he pulled me over to ask me whose car is that? That was his first question.”

Particularly disturbing for Sophia has been some tweets and Facebook posts from, as she puts it,  “Americans who are not of color who don’t even have the empathy to see that the young man was allowed to be where he was and wasn’t doing anything wrong that night.” So she dropped the axe and de-friended people on Facebook who she found offensive.

And then, at least mentally, she returns to the scene of her accident and goes into free thought.

“There I am black woman laying on the ground. White man stops car…what can I do, what do you need? Can’t get daughter to swim meet. My family met me at the hospital. Gave me some hope. Nothing mattered. I wish that was the level that we could operate on as human beings everyday. We’re Americans at that point. All of this hate stuff going on, its very distressing.”

Still, Sophia, ever the optimist, holds onto hope where race is concerned. “When we have courageous conversations the world shifts, changes,” she said. “I think we should be careful with the R-word. At the end of the day we have a dead kid who had Skittles and tea. That should bother everyone. Americans are good people–loving, fundamentally fair–and when our neighbors are in trouble, we help each other.”