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alarm

The annoying buzzer of my cheap flip alarm clock goes off and it’s time to get up. It is 5:30 am and I am 12 years old. This has been my routine everyday for the past two years as I rise to get to work. There are 75-80 copies of the Detroit Free Press waiting for me two blocks away. The winter months are the months I dread. I pull on my long-johns, jeans, hand-me-down snow mobile boots, and my hand-me-down parka with the fake fur that frames my face. I exit the back door and go out to the detached garage to retrieve my Town and Country red wagon with the high wooden sides. The sound of the hard plastic wheels hitting the cold concrete stirs me awake. I walk down our drive way and at the end of the drive way is the street light that lights up the dark morning; the same street light that my siblings and I will hit several times as we learn how to drive over the years. A right turn at the intersection of the driveway and sidewalk takes me towards my paper drop. Two blocks away in the vestibule of a small diner on 6 mile road sits my stacks of papers that I must deliver to my customers. The street is quiet and I am paranoid as I make the walk always scanning the street and looking behind me to make sure no one is following me. Growing up in Detroit has heightened by senses and don’t realize until many many years later that my vigilant stance that I take on on a daily basis isn’t normal. My ears tune into every sound and I’m very aware of my surroundings.  I am not scared because the peace that comes in the early morning hours calms me. On a typical day I don’t see anyone walking the streets but in the back of my mind I understand the possibility is there that someone could be there. Now as a father I couldn’t imagine letting my children walk the streets at 5:30 in the morning, but in the 70’s & 80’s it was commonplace.

As I walk the lonely walk I whisper a short prayer; praying that the papers are there. There are mornings when the delivery truck is late and it pushes my morning back cutting down on the sleep I can squeeze in before having to get up for school. Today the papers are there and the race begins. Everyday the goal is the same. Get the papers delivered and get back to bed as quickly as possible. I dump the papers in the wagon and run to the first house, slip the paper in between the screen and storm door and move on. Experience has taught me a naked paper on a customer’s porch when met with the wind will cut into my tips. I deliver the first block of papers on my street and then move over to Outer Drive, the next street over, where I park the wagon and grab enough papers to do a large loop of deliveries on Outer Drive.   On this loop I will make up the most time without the wagon. I cut across lawns, jump off porches, and at times sprint all while balancing a stack of papers on my right hip.

I end my route by doing one last circle on my own block and run up the driveway dragging the empty wagon behind me. It is about 6:30 am now and my warm bed is screaming for me to return. I shed my parka and boots on the back porch and slide in to the kitchen to get a quick bowl of Wheaties. I vacuum up the cereal flakes and I’m back in bed by 6:35.

On Friday nights and Saturdays I go to my customers and collect money for the papers I delivered durig the week. At 12 I am very shy and quiet and uncomfortable around people I don’t know. In this all White environment I am especially reserved because I am very conscious of being the only Black child on my street. I feel an obligation to present to my White neighbors a Black they don’t expect. In a sense I feel as if I am an ambassador for those like me. Being one of first Black people in this neighborhood I understand if I can show them a shade of Black they can be comfortable with it may mean the neighborhood may be more willing to accept others like me. I desperately want more like me to come in to the neighborhood. The weight of being “the only one” can be unbearable at times.

From age ten to eighteen I was the only paperboy on this route and over those ten years I saw people change.  Some who were obviously very uncomfortable with a person of color in their neighborhood changed. I become more comfortable in the neighborhood and more like me began to move in. By the time I left for college, the landscape of the neighborhood changed. About 30% of the homes were occupied by Black families and I was able to see a very White neighborhood become more diverse.

I often hear TRA families defend living in a non-diverse neighborhood in hopes that their neighborhood will go through a similar change and that their children of color will be the ambassador for change like I was growing up.

A big difference between most White neighborhoods and the neighborhood I grew up in was that my neighborhood was in the middle of Detroit during the 70-80’s. Detroit was going through a major change as many of the White people that lived in the city moved out of the city to Whiter suburbs. A lot of the homes vacated by White families were purchased by Black families because Detroit had a large base of Black families in the area to move in. There are not a lot of cities that have that this type of situation and even with that big shift our neighborhood went from 0-30% in 10 years; it was a slow change. Most neighborhoods won’t go through such a significant racial change as we did

The burden of being the ambassador was felt.  Children shouldn’t be diversity ambassadors because while the change is or isn’t happening the burden of that responsibility on top of the pain you go through while everyone else is or isn’t changing is a weight no child should have to carry. Yes, I saw people change but I also was exposed to many who didn’t want to change and those interactions were difficult. There were interactions were there was an unjust hostility towards me that I couldn’t explain or justify. I now know there were some who were upset with what I represented. I represented to some the first of many to come. To them I was a scout not an ambassador and their facial expressions, their speech, and their mannerisms were very unwelcoming. These were the people who accused me of stealing, or accused me of vandalizing their property or who treated me as if I was invisible. Those inconsistent assaults to my self esteem left open wounds and scars that took years to heal. There were times when my immature mind couldn’t interpret, define or verbalize what was going on around me but the feeling of inadequacy was ever-present.

5 things I’ve learned as a newspaper carrying ambassador.

  • I had one job and didn’t need another. Being the pied piper of diversity is not a job for a child.
  • Developing a keen sense of awareness about what is going on around me was a great skill that has helped me in my life. The development of this skill could only come with the knowledge that there are people in the world who may try to hurt me. The lesson was worth the innocence sacrificed.
  • As a child I didn’t understand the power of race. When people treated me badly simply because I was Black I internalized it. I deduced their treatment of me was warranted because there was something broken in me that caused that unjust treatment.
  • I didn’t label it racism. There were things that were done and said that looking back on them were obviously racist but I didn’t see it…then. If my parents had asked me if I had encountered racism or racist people I would have said “no,” and felt that way up in to my 30’s. Parents have to have enough awareness to see what children can’t.
  • The clothes styles changed but a lot of what I struggled with is still very present today. Don’t write these lessons off as lessons of yesterday.

It was a typical Detroit Winter in the late ‘70’s about a week before Christmas. My grandmother was in town from Cleveland and all was good. The bathroom pipes were thawing out as this became a process we would have to do when the temperatures took a suicidal jump from normal to well below zero. We would set up a kerosene heater in our vestibule that was located directly beneath the upstairs pipes to thaw out the pipes and prevent them from bursting.  The steady stream that we were so used to was reduced to a trickle until the heat from the heater did its job to open up the pipes. The crisis of busted pipes was averted and we sat down to enjoy the company of my grandmother…until I heard my father’s voice from the upstairs bathroom.

My brother had recently gone to the bathroom and as he often did he used enough toilet paper to clog the Alaskan pipeline. The toilet was plugged and instead of telling someone about the damage he did my brother just exited the bathroom hoping the clog would magically disappear. My father entered and attempted to flush the toilet and the sudden rush of water having no place to go spilled over the toilet and on to the bathroom floor. As the dirty toilet water cascaded over his wing tips the dirty words also cascaded out of my father’s mouth. Soon after we could hear him wrestling with the plunger but the clogged toilet appeared to be winning. As a father now I know my father was thinking the budget for our family of 6 didn’t have room for an after-hours plumber to come and free the toilet. Balancing our budget around the holidays especially was a greater feat than anything the Great Flying Wallendas did. The slightest unexpected expense could send it careening over the edge. So as my father fought with the toilet he searched his mind for a solution that wouldn’t cost any money. I’m sure he thought; “If I just had a plumber’s snaking tool I could unclog this myself.” From the upstairs my father shouted down for me to call my best friend’s family who lived across the street to see if their father had a snake. Fearful of my father and his temper I quickly did as I was told. Our neighbors had advised they had a snake and it was ours to borrow. I grabbed my hand-me-down parka, slipped on my hand-me-down snowmobile boots half way, negotiated around the kerosene heater and out the front door.   I ran clumsily across the street hoping the boots didn’t come off in mid-stride to retrieve the snake. My neighbor greeted me at the door with the tool and I rocketed back home to help save the day. I’m sure the relief my father felt in knowing the repair would soon take place without busting the budget was a peace that passed all understanding. I entered the front door and in one motion shed my boots and jacket, jumped over the kerosene heater and jetted up the stairs to my waiting father in the bathroom still armed with the plunger. I handed him the snake thinking I had helped slay the ceramic dragon. The presentation of this holy gift was met with, “What the hell is that?”

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“It’s the snake you asked for,” I said. I wouldn’t have known what a plumbers snake was if it bit me. I was simply told by our neighbors this was a snake so I believed them.

“This isn’t a snake!” My father said as he held this apparatus out in front of him as if it were a deadly king cobra.

What I had been given was a funnel with a small piece of garden hose duct taped to the small end of the funnel. After my father explained to me what a snake was I understood his frustrations.

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“Well, they told me this is all they had.” I said as I ran out of the bathroom and downstairs. The colorful speech returned and I landed on the couch with my grandmother afraid I would be chastised for our neighbor’s poor interpretation of tools.

When I explained what happened to my grandmother she erupted with laughter. My brothers and I sat there and replayed the scenario over and over trying to figure out what my friend’s father was thinking when he presented us with this poor excuse for a snake. The more we talked about it the more we laughed. Tears rolled down everyone’s cheeks from laughing so hard, including my grandmother’s. Her inclusion in this made it okay to laugh. She made it okay to laugh at my father who was beside himself in anger. It was her son upstairs waging war against the toilet so we felt safe in having her enjoy this moment with us. She was immune to any punishment my father could give out and she would make sure to cover us in her immunity.

Two years later, my beautiful grandmother would be diagnosed with Cancer. She was a smoker for many years although I never saw her smoke. I found out later that she would sneak out behind the garage when we would come to visit to get a smoke in so we couldn’t see her. Two weeks after she was diagnosed, grandma passed away in the middle of the night in a Cleveland hospital. I remember my father calling the house in the middle of the night from my Grandmother’s room to tell us she had died. I miss her especially around the holidays and always think of the snake story when I think of her.

Grandma was always a soft place to land. Being a transracial adoptee I was always conscious of not fitting in or matching the family; especially around extended family. In my grandmother’s presence I was simply just one of her grandchildren and she had a way of making me fell like I was her favorite.

She was a small silver-haired German immigrant who settled in a German neighborhood in Cleveland. Grandma had this wonderful accent that I loved to hear. We would often tease her about the way she pronounced certain words. Grandmawould patiently sit with me on her davenport (she was the only one I knew who referred to her couch as a davenport) and we would exchange words each pronouncing them in our own way. We would laugh as I would try to get Grandma to say them correctly.

I never remember her angry and only saw her frustrated a few times. Her frustration would display itself with an “OY,” and a simple shake of her wrinkled head. Whenever I hear that word today I think of this kind soul that God choose to be a part of my life.

Since Grandma was a German immigrant, I think she understood what it was like to be treated differently. I’m sure she was treated differently every time she left her German neighborhood and opened her mouth. There was no denying she was German and her broken English made it difficult for her to communicate. I think that experience made her partial to who I was and how I fit in to the family. She was kind and gentle and wonderful and I knew when I was in her presence no one else mattered and I was safe.   I was still Black but not as conscious of what that difference meant when I was with Grandma. As a result, my grandma had full access to me granted by my parents.

My mother’s mother was much different. She really struggled with race and what it meant to be a grandmother of a child of color. In her presence I felt I wasn’t good enough and wondered why I didn’t share the same closeness with her and Grandpa as my brothers did. My small brain had reduced there was something less loveable about me that caused this.

Over the years my grandmother did the best she could and I think she justified me in her head by saying, “Well, he’s not really Black.” So I was different shade of Black than the Blacks she feared. Once while visiting my grandmother’s home she noticed a Black man was walking down the street. My grandmother turned and whispered to me, “I think he’s been stealing my tomatoes from the my garden.” I was in my 20’s and by then I understood she had issues with race so I prodded her a little just for my own enjoyment.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Well I’ve noticed some tomatoes missing from the garden so I’m sure it’s him.” She said convinced.

There was no logic to her answer and the way she connected the dots was random but in her mind it was simple calculation. He was the tone of Black I wasn’t. He was the Black that was criminal and less-then in her mind but if you asked her to explain things like this she couldn’t. It was so in grained in her belief system that it became logical to her when it was so far from logic. My mother knew this about her mother and because of this, this grandma’s access was contained. We only saw her and my grandfather once a year purposefully because my mother didn’t want her parent’s uneasiness and discomfort to be felt by me.  Even though the access was contained I still came to believe I was not like her biological grandchildren. I’m sure she loved me but I was never convinced she liked me. When it was just her and I in a room I always felt like she would have rather had any other grandchild there with her.

The last time I saw my grandmother alive she was in and out of sleep/consciousness. In a very lucid moment she looked intently up at me and said, “You look alright, Kev.” I thanked her not putting much thought in to what she said. On the ride home my wife asked me. “Did you hear what your grandmother said?”

Before I could answer she asked again, “Did you really hear what your grandmother said?”

I hadn’t.

Grandma, after 30 some years was finally saying I was okay. I worked a lot of years for those words and they were good to hear, finally even if I almost missed them.

What I’ve learned from my grandmas and a snake.

  1. Access to your children is not guaranteed it’s earned.
  2. All children should have a safe place to land.
  3. Vetting family members is important prior to bringing the child home. You should know who will and won’t be okay with your child’s different race. This is done through conversation not assumptions.
  4. Children can sense much more than we give them credit. Assuming they won’t leaves them open to walk away feeling less then without the ability to understand it.
  5. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without my German grandmother and a snake.

shadowA good friend of mine used to call me and share with me his frustrations when he and his girlfriend were fighting. This went on for about 6 months while we were both away at college in two separate states. Eventually, when I met her I was shocked. She didn’t have horns, or warts, or a broom. She was far different than the picture he painted for me over the phone and I struggled with getting to like the nice person in front of me when I couldn’t get away from the image that was given to me over the past 6 months. I was never comfortable around her because I couldn’t find the antidote for the 6 months of poison I was given. She never had a chance with me and that had nothing to do with her. I couldn’t see who she was because I couldn’t un-hear the bad image I heard through the phone.

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The grand jury that assembled to review the John Crawford III incident in Dayton, Ohio decided the police officers should not be charged in John’s death. John Crawford III was the young man who was shot and killed in a Walmart while walking around the store carrying a toy gun.

I don’t get it….

I just don’t get it.

This last year has been a tough year. A little over a year ago I watched the Treyvon Martin trial and listened to the debates and saw the life of a young black man be deemed worthless. A jury acquitted George Zimmerman of killing an unarmed 17 year old and George has been raising hell since then but he still walks free.

In late 2013, a young Black woman, Ranisha McBride, was involved in a car accident where she hit a parked car in the early morning hours in Dearborn Heights just outside of Detroit. Ms. McBride left the disabled vehicle and showed up at the home of Theodore Wafer at about 4:30 in the morning asking for help. According to Mr. Wafer she was panicked banging on his door asking for help.  Mr. Wafer fired his shot gun through his front screen door hitting Ms. McBride in the face and killing her. Mr. Wafer was charged and convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 15-32 years in prison.

On my birthday, August 9, of this year, Michael Brown was walking in the middle of the Canfield Drive, in Ferguson, Missouri with a friend. Officer Darren Wilson drove up to Michael and ordered Michael and his friend to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street. 3 minutes later Office Wilson had shot Michael Brown 6 times. Michael was unarmed and died soon after.

4 days before Michael was killed, John Crawford was walking through a Walmart store in Beavercreek, Ohio, just outside Dayton. He had picked up a toy gun that was on a shelf that someone else had taken out of its packaging. John was carrying around the toy in the store while he talked on his cell phone. He had the gun pointed towards the ground and was casually walking up and down the aisles. A customer saw John walking through the store with the gun and called the police. The police arrived and shortly after John was shot while still on the phone with his girlfriend and mother of his two children. The officers stated John would not obey their orders so they were forced to fire. John would die later that day.

When the Trayvon incident occurred I was hoping Zimmerman was a delusional racist. Although some will argue that he is, I’m not sure I agree. The easy answer is he is a mentally unstable racist.   The scary answer is he is a product of messaging.

We are fed subtle messages through TV, movies, and the news, that tell us Black is bad. That messaging is repeated over and over and over and eventually people begin to subconsciously believe it. So when a 17 year old Black boy walks through a neighborhood with his hood up, subconsciously he is a threat and if someone feels threatened then they are justified in defending ourselves. But sadly, when the sun comes up, or the lights get turned on, or the pace slows down we see only an unarmed 17 year old boy, or a scared 19 year girl who needs help, or an 18 year old who would start college in two days, or a 22 year old father of two carrying a toy. When these subconscious beliefs are mixed with fear and adrenaline the results have been deadly and these tragic results appear to be more and more common.

I recently listened to a behavioral psychologist explain how this messaging can be so dangerous. Our minds begin to believe these messages so when some come across a Black person, someone who we have been told to fear, our mind creates what isn’t there. The messages are so ingrained that the mind’s interpretations of the incidents are screwed.   For example people become convinced that a person raising their hands in surrender is raising their hands in defiance and aggression.

There’s a viral video traveling the internet that was shot from a police officer’s dash-cam in South Carolina. The officer approaches a Black man as he parked and was exiting his vehicle in a gas station parking lot. The officer noticed the man wasn’t wearing his seat belt as he rode through the parking lot.   The young man was in the process of going in to the gas station when the Officer ordered him to stop and demanded the man show him some identification. The young man went back into his vehicle to get his license and the officer responded by shooting at the man who was now five to eight feet away. Later when the officer was interviewed, the officer used phrases like, “He dove back in to the car.” When I watch the video I see the man calmly and casually turn and reach in to his car. But because of this messaging, in the officer’s mind he saw something totally different and on tape you can hear him yell, “He’s got a gun,” as the Black man reaches into his vehicle. His mind has been predisposed to think that Blacks are dangerous, violent, and more likely to carry weapons. This suspected profile plays in the head of the officer as he exits his vehicle looking for any shred of evidence to support his subconscious beliefs. It is not because he’s a racist but because he is convinced he is in danger because he has been told subconsciously, “Blacks are dangerous, proceed with caution.”

Messaging is a lot like those phone calls I would get from my friend at college. He would spend hours telling my why he and is girlfriend got into a fight and she was always the one at fault. The picture he painted of her was dark and gloomy and evil. When they would make up my phone wouldn’t ring; only when they fought would I get a call. In that call he would add more and more dark paint to a picture that was full of shadows. She never had a chance with me because I couldn’t dissolve the layers and layers of dark paint he used to paint her. I was predisposed to not liking her. This is what messaging does to people of color and it scare me to death.

I fear the person who comes across my sons will believe the subtle messaging and see a shadow cast from them in the form of a thug before they see their humor or their wit or their intelligence. Instead they will respond to a thug instead of the writer my oldest son is or the math wiz my youngest son is and the response to the thug is must more aggressive. The response to the thug is much more adversarial; much more controlling, much more fear-based, much more violent.

This was the shadow that was cast over Treyvon, Ranisha, Michael and John. Through these shadows shots were fired and lives were extinguished and these kids never had a chance and I don’t know how to stop it from happening.

Often when we talk about race and the subject of history and slavery comes up a very common objection is, “That happened decades ago. Why do we have to keep bringing it up? Can we just move on?” In my mind those statements are translated to one; “Just get over it!”

So why can’t people of color just get over it? Why can’t we just move on?

Recently my wife and I subscribed to HBO and the movie 12 Years A Slave seems to be on a repeating loop. Every time I have some free time I sit down and flip through the HBO stations looking for a good movie. I scan through the guide and see it in bold letters, 12 YEARS A SLAVE and I wonder if I should watch it. I’ve seen it before and the emotions it stirred in me were painful. It took me weeks to get some images out of my mind but when I see it listed in the guide part of me wants to watch it because I know we mustn’t forget. I feel bad even debating it when I think about the treatment so many endured and yet I want to turn away from just looking at it.

So I select it and I turn it on. Immediately I gauge the movie by one scene. As the channel comes up I try to remember, “Is this before or after Solomon is forced to whip fellow slave Patsy?” It is in that one scene that my heart breaks and screams. When I first watched the movie, I sat in my office in my comfortable leather chair and I squirmed and shifted restlessly. As Solomon whipped Patsy and she cried out in pain so did my heart. In the 2 hour in 14 minutes it took me to watch the entire movie, it felt like 2 hours and 12 minutes were of this scene. I remember saying aloud, “Okay! Okay! Stop!” This scene seemed to go on and go on and again I had mixed emotions. I wanted to look away but part of me felt obligated to watch and feel and live what slavery was really like..so I would not forgot.  So I didn’t turn away and I felt every lash Patsy received deep in me.

The woman who played Patsy, Lupita Nyong’o, went on to win an academy award for her portrayal of Patsy and she should have won. The fear of being whipped rang out as she sobbed as they tied her to the whipping post. The cries of pain grabbed me and squeezed me and stayed with me for days after. As the pain became so unbearable she lost her breath and even crying became impossible and I felt it all…deep.

Solomon, her fellow slave, was forced to beat her. Patsy was being punished for leaving the plantation to get a bar of soap so she could wash herself…A BAR OF SOAP!  The inhumanity of forcing one person to beat another to the edge of death was unbearable. The degradation Solomon endured throughout the movie was humbling and I often wondered how I would respond in the same situations. I also weighed back and forth who was more fortunate, the slaves that were hanged or those that had to live through such torture.

In the middle of the whipping scene by 14 year old son walks by to give me updates on the Detroit Tigers chances to make the playoffs and I debate whether to let him see what I am watching or not. I decide not to…today. Stealing some of his innocence today just didn’t seem right. I pause the movie and my son and I talk about our baseball team for a few minutes and he leaves to go play video games. He knows all about slavery, and life’s inequalities but he doesn’t need to know it at this level…today. This will be a movie we sit down and watch someday…but not today.

Patsy explaining why she left the plantation.

Patsy explaining why she left the plantation.

Finally the scene ends and Patsy is cut down and hovers just above death. A group of slaves gathers to take care of Patsy’s wounds and just be close to each other in their small living quarters. In this, I see community, compassion, strength, and beauty born out of hell on earth.

This movie does a wonderful job showing the degradation, and the inhumanity of slavery. It shows it as it was not colored with romanticism or white-washed to be less painful.

The next time someone asks me why we still wallow in the past I will ask them if they have watched this movie. After watching this movie it’s impossible to look past the past and the scars it has created.

My old pastor used to tell a story about a young couple who hosted Thanksgiving at their home soon after getting married. As the wife was cooking a beautiful ham the new groom stopped her and asked her why she didn’t cut the end off the ham. The wife was taken aback by such a strange request to which her young groom replied, “Any good cooks knows you always cut the end off the ham before you cook it.” The groom was too new to understand not everything you think should pass over your lips; It was too late to lasso the words back. The words were out and this began an argument that lasted right up until the first guest arrived.

The tension was obviously still present when they all sat down to eat. The table was strangely quiet as dinner began and the groom couldn’t contain himself. He wanted and needed to prove he was right. The groom turned to his mother and said, “Tell her, you have to cut the end of the ham off before you cook it!”

His mother agreed. “Well of course you do. Everyone knows that.”

The bride sank in her seat and simply stated, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that…. but why?”

Her mother-in-law was stumped. “Well you just do, it makes it taste better.”

The groom’s grandmother who was present at the table and quiet to this point started to giggle. “That’s not true. Where’d you get a crazy idea like that?” The grandmother said as she turned to her daughter.

“From you Momma. That’s how you’ve always done it.” The daughter respectfully replied.

Oh, Lord, when I first got married and I would cook a ham, I would cut the end off because the pan I had was too small. The ham wouldn’t fit in the pan unless I cut the end off.  I couldn’t afford a new pan so I guess I just kept doing it.” The grandmother smiled and turned towards her grandson, the new groom. “and when your mother watched me cook she saw me cut the end off the ham and I guess she started doing it too.” baked-ham-treacle

A few weeks ago, the Minnesota Vikings deactivated their star running back, Adrian Peterson when it surfaced he was accused of beating his 4 year old son.   Adrian admits he beat his son with a thin tree branch leaving welts, and cuts and bruises all over the child. This has been the dominant subject on sport talk radio this week and many callers have been in support of this type of discipline. The overwhelming defense has been, “My parents hit me with a switch and I turned out okay,” which I think is an incomplete argument. The psychological toll this type of discipline leaves is hard to erase.  Just because it was done in the past doesn’t make it right.

Ex-Viking Chris Carter spoke about this in the pre-game show last Sunday. He said, “My Momma raised 7 kids on her own and she did the best she could but some of the things she did were wrong. Beating a child is wrong!” I could feel the emotion in Chris’ voice when he spoke. I could feel his struggle with saying the right thing while at the same time saying is mother was wrong. He was so right. It was wrong then and it is wrong today. Even more so is it wrong today because we have at our finger tips study after study that shows exactly what hitting a child with this force can do to the child emotionally and psychologically.

I understand why so many in the past felt that beating their children was a necessity. The belief was, especially for children of color, that beating them in to submission would teach them respect for their elders and those in authority. Many believed, “I will kill them with my own hands before I let the streets take my child.” I understand the history and the mentality behind such thinking but we must do better now that we know more. I understand this has deep deep roots in some cultures but we can no longer look the other way and offer up the other cheek of an innocent child.

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After several years, the grandmother was able to afford a larger pan, but she continued to cut off the end of the ham because that is all she ever did when she cooked a ham. I wonder how much great ham was wasted clinging to tradition that makes no sense.

Two Elevators

Two elevators

Two grainy videos

Two Black men

Two different responses

Rapper and entrepreneur Jay Z enters the elevator and his sister-in-law unleashes on him, kicking and wind-milling her arms and he calmly steps to the side, blocks her assault and chooses not to retaliate. Several seconds later Jay Z emerges from the elevator as if nothing happened. There has been plenty of speculation around why the sister-in-law attacked him and I don’t really care why. I care about the images that are sent and received.

Baltimore Ravens running back, Ray Rice and his fiancé enter the elevator. The doors close and the fiancé lofts a swing at Ray after he spits on her. Ray retaliates with a punch to her face. She moves towards him and he punches her again…in the face.  She falls lifeless and is unconscious before she hits the cold marble floor. Many have argued that she could have provoked this and want to argue that we don’t know the whole story and I really don’t care why. There is nothing she could have done to warrant this abuse. Period. I care about the images sent and received.

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The message I got from the first elevator ride was focused on how crazed and out of control Jay Z’s sister-in-law was during the floor to floor ride. It wasn’t on Jay Z and that fact that he did the right thing. The focus wasn’t on the fact that he did what I hope my son’s would do if ever in that situation. But “thugs” don’t do good things so instead the focus falls on the image of the “crazy Black girl.”

The message I got from the second elevator ride was focused on Ray and rightly so it should have been. What he did was indefensible and that image of his brutal act will be play over and over because it fits the stereotype. I’m furious at Ray, the man, for hitting a defenseless woman. I’m furious at Ray, the Black man, because he offered up footage that will be used to show black males can’t control their violent tendencies.

As parents of children of color you must alter the lenses through which you view life. You must be aware of the messages sent and received, the stereotypes, and the assumptions that come with the color of your child’s skin. It is through these altered lenses that you must view the world that goes on around your children. So when your daughter is treated unfairly because the image of “the crazy black girl” replaces who she is you must be able to recognize that and advocate for her. When you son is unjustly punished in school because the image of the violent black male replaces the sweet child he is you must be able to recognize this bias and advocate for him.

When you advocate, do it tactfully and be aware of the reaction that comes with race or even a hint of racial bias. The reactions will come in statements like, “I am not a racist!” “Why are you playing the race card?” “We don’t see color!” … Don’t let these statements distract from your mission. Your mission is to be your child’s advocate. Your mission is to help others to see beyond the characters and stereotypes that are assigned to your child and help them see the individual your child is and can be come.

Comedian Chris Rock has a bit he does where he talks about his role as a father.  In the punchline of the joke, Chris Rock says his role as the  father of a little girl is the same as every father raising a little girl….”To keep her off the pole!” Its a funny bit and I enjoy his presentation and comedic approach.

My role as a father of two Black boys doesn’t elicit the the same chorus of laughter.  My role, which has become more and more immediate almost on a daily basis, is to keep my sons off a list that continues to grow and grow and grow.

Michael

Michael Brown

 

Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, and Michael Brown; They were all young Black children who were unarmed, shot and killed because of what someone thought they were.

Renisha

Renisha McBride

I am raising young Black men in my home and with each unjust death of someone like them I have less to tell my sons. I don’t know what to say to assure they will be safe in a world that has declared open season on those that look like them.  I haven’t followed the Michael Brown case very closely because I don’t want to look at it in the face like I did with Trayvon.  Trayvon’s picture is burned into my brain and instinctively when I see his picture I go back to that night where I’m sure he was scared, and wet, and terrified and died with his executioner standing over him as he drew his last breath.

I can’t do that with Michael.  I don’t want to see the face of another Black youth that will no longer age.   I stay blissfully ignorant because the facts and circumstances are too real, too painful.   The more I find out about Michael Brown the more I can draw comparisons between him and my young Black sons; the easier it would be to mentally photo-shop my sons faces on to Michael’s body. Too scary.   Too real!   Too heartbreaking.

When Trayvon was killed I told my sons when they are confronted to move slowly, hands out of their pockets and hood or hat off their head. I told them to do whatever they had to to get home alive.   But that didn’t seem like enough.   The stalking and killing of a young 16 year old like he was an exotic animal is hard to protect against or strategize around.

Tray

Trayvon Martin

A few years ago, I was riding my bike and came up to a “road closed” sign. Not wanting to take the long way around I decided to continue down the closed road.   As I came around a corner there sat a police cruiser with a young White officer behind the wheel.   I knew enough not to turn around; not to run.   He saw me and there was no way out of it.   So I slowly pedaled forward. As I got even with the cruiser the young officer bolted out of the car and into my path.   He was frantic, waving his arms wildly,  and yelling in my face.   He was about half my age which added an interesting sting  to the story.  As I grow older the treatment I  receive from some  younger White people adds to the pain and frustration of moments filled with such disrespect.   As he stood 6 inches from my face yelling, I had a decision to make.  I could meet his intensity with my own or I could take control.  I paused, took a deep breath, and as I motioned with my hands as if pushing air down in front of me, I calmly and quietly said, “Okay,Okay.”  I knew I had to negotiate a way out of the fight that he seemed to want.   My calm demeanor and quiet voice caused him to reset.   He lowered his voice, slowed his movements, and became calm.  I apologized for ignoring the sign, he took my license, ran it through his computer and let me go.

Jordan Davis

Jordan Davis

 

From this incident,  I  gained the words to instruct my sons. I will now tell them you must be the cool head. You must become the negotiator. If you fire back with the same intensity you will burn from the explosion that results. You must shrink, but not cower. You must control but not overpower. Speak calmly, be humble, never step forward,  stay as still as possible,  never move quickly unless told, and stay calm because your life depends on it.

Concentrate on the mission: The mission is to come home to your mother and me.  Understand,  I can’t be the parent at the No-Justice-No-Peace rallies marching with your picture talking about what you were going to be in life. Selfishly, I need you to stay calm and focused and negotiate your path through our front door.

I am fortunate because my sons are small and their skin is light.  A large dark skinned Black young man activates warning signals in the minds of many.   If they were big I would tell them not to raise up to their full height while in this situation.  I would tell them to make themselves small; no puffing of the chest, no flexing of the arms, stay relaxed in this tense situation.  Be humble; be calm, because your life depends on it.

Oscar Grant

Oscar Grant

I shouldn’t have to tell my children to be the mature one in this situation. I shouldn’t have to set up these rules.  I shouldn’t have to…But I do…because their lives depend on it.  This is what I tell them today knowing the next incident will add more rules and more conditions and more “what ifs.” Until then we will talk about Oscar, and Trayvon and Renisha, and Jordan and Michael hoping the list and rules will stop growing.   We will talk about what to do to stay off the list and I pray what I tell them is the right thing and I pray they will never need to use it and I pray if they need it they will remember, and I pray…

and I pray

and I pray

and I…

*Note:  Since I began this,  the list has grown.  John Crawford III was shot and killed in a Dayton, Ohio by two police officers because he was carrying a toy gun in the store.

John Crawford III

John Crawford III

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