By Blake Spurney
NEWTON—A.J. Benton has called Harvey County home ever since he enrolled at Bethel College as a basketball recruit in the fall of 2009.
Actually, it took a little time for the community to grow on him after coming here from San Antonio. He initially questioned his decision, because he said he never had seen so many white people.
“That was a little bit of a culture shock,” he said. “I was used to a mixture.”
Benton said Bethel had four African-American players on its team. The difference in talent was stark for a player who had two high school teammates make it to the NBA in Jordan Clarkson and Andre Roberson. He said he was scared during his first year, but he got more comfortable as he got to know more people.
“White people aren’t so bad,” he remembered thinking. “They’re friendly. They’re very congenial. Good, nice people.”
Benton said he started thinking more about his hometown.
Twice he had guns pulled on him. The first time occurred in seventh grade when he was walking home from school with friends. Robbers wearing masks held guns to their heads and took their shoes and other property.
“I was crying like a little baby because I had a gun to my head,” he recalled.
The second time, he and some friends were playing basketball on the east side. An opposing player got mad and went to his car. Benton and the others knew that meant trouble and took off running. They heard shots as they fled the area.
“It’s not wait and see,” he said. “It’s take off.”
Benton said he most likely would have been getting into trouble had he returned home after college.
“You don’t have to look for it,” he said. “It’ll find you.”
Benton said one learned so much growing up in that kind of environment, such as how to respond to police and to people of different races. He said he was adept at code-switching, changing his language and mannerisms to blend into society and stay safe. When he goes back to visit his mother, he said he affects the persona of someone from the ‘hood. Otherwise, he’ll be seen as weak and as a target. He said he’d been seen as a thug if he didn’t revert back to his Newton persona.
Benton said crime wasn’t that bad where he grew up and went to school. He said the crime rate was a little higher than normal but not like it is now. However, his best friend was shot and killed by another teenager. The assailant also tried to set the house on fire after shooting his friend. He later was sentenced to life in prison as a 16-year-old.
Benton said the death of his friend also played a factor in his staying in Harvey County. The memories were too painful.
“The only thing I have there is family,” he said. “That’s the only reason to go back.”
In Newton, Benton feels safe. He said he wasn’t looking over his shoulder every five seconds. He’s also part of a growing number of Bethel athletes who made the same mental calculations. He has friends from Chicago who decided to live in Wichita after their playing days were over.
“Of course, we’re shocked at first; there’s nothing to do,” he said. “That stuff doesn’t matter anymore, because you’re safe.”
Benton said he noticed that his adopted home was getting more diverse because of people like him. He noted how friendly people here were, and he feels they have his back.
“People here accept you, and they have your back for no reason,” he said. “I’m never stressed about anything. The community won me over.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t had any growing pains. He recalls getting pulled over while riding with a friend. The officer asked for Benton’s identification, even though he wasn’t driving, and the stated reason for the traffic stop was a turn-signal violation. He referred to it as DWB for “driving while Black.” Another time, he was walking to work at Applebee’s and an officer stopped him and asked for his ID. The officer told Benton that he fit a description of someone. Keep in mind that Benton stands 6-foot-7-inches.
“There’s not a lot of people who can be out there that can be like me,” he said. “There’s no way I fit the description.”
Benton said his situation got a lot better while working at Applebee’s. Officers got to know the friendly face behind the bar, and it’s not like he can blend. He said he felt like everybody in town knew him by now. He left Applebee’s for a period but returned a few weeks ago. Many have expressed that they were glad to see him back.
“It’s been great,” he said. “I felt the love of the community so much just coming back here.”
Benton said a detective also had reached out to him to pick his brain on how to foster better relationships with different segments of the community. The detective told him that police weren’t trying to target people, but he noted that some of the barriers had been passed down from generation to generation. He told the detective it might take a long time to heal and to just try to do the best one could.
“I respect that so much,” he said. “I don’t find that there’s a huge problem with the police force. The only people who think they’re bad are the ones doing bad things. They’re not picking on you.”
Benton said his mother, Yolanda Taylor, keeps asking him to return home to San Antonio. He also has family in Houston, but those places hold no allure to him.
“I like to talk positive about the community,” he said. “That’s the reason I stayed.”