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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
*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.