“The police in New York City
They chased a boy right through the park
And in a case of mistaken identity
The put a bullet through his heart
Heart breakers with your forty four, I wanna tear your world apart”
-The Rolling Stones, Heartbreaker
Do you worry about what others think of you? I know I do. I worry about it too much. My worries are there because I want people to like me. But imagine if simply being you made others uncomfortable. Imagine if walking around in your skin caused fear. What if upon seeing you a person’s eyes enlarged, they backed away, they avoided eye contact or even turned and walked the other way.
Last summer I read a post by Questlove (Drummer of the Roots) on the Huffington Post blog. He wrote about how he has to worry, all the time -everywhere he goes, about what others think of him. Of how they may react to his appearance. I cried quietly as I read it. He detailed living his life, walking around trying to not be imposing. He described what it’s like to put fear in people simply by looking the way you look…
“All the time I’m in scenarios in which primitive, exotic-looking me (6’2″, 300 pounds, uncivilized afro for starters) finds himself in places that people that look like me aren’t normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct?”
He routinely turns down invitations to swanky places because it’s “been hammered into his DNA to not ‘rock the boat’ “
I won’t attempt to summarize any further what he wrote because I won’t be able to do it justice. You’ll have to (click the highlighted link above) and read it for yourself. He wrote this right after the acquittal verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.
I wish I could say that his story is rare, an anomaly. Sadly it’s not. It is so common that African American parents in our country have to explain to their sons at a young age how people may perceive them and react to them.
They have The Talk with their sons.
No, not the sex talk. This is a conversation aimed at preventing young black men from inciting violence or suspicion or incarceration because of the color of their skin. This conversation informs these young boys that they must tread lightly around white men and police and other authority figures. Tragic stories abound of young black men being roughed up by the police for no reason. Young black men being killed because they didn’t defer to authority even in the face of extreme and obvious injustice. Young black men being shot because they were simply there.
Don’t talk back to white men.
Don’t try to explain, even when they have obviously mistaken you for someone else.
Don’t run down the street, someone might think you stole something.
Don’t hang out on the corner with a group of friends, they might assume you’re in a gang.
Don’t reach for your phone, they might think you’re reaching for a gun.
Keep your hands visible at all times.
You may say that these are reasonable instructions for anyone. But I don’t know anyone personally who has been arrested or killed who did nothing wrong, committed no crime. Because I’m a white woman living in suburbia.
I have never had to tell my son that if he is running down the street that someone may assume he has committed a crime. Think about the absurdity of that for a minute. Don’t run. Your game of tag or your attempt to race to a friend’s house may be perceived as a threat. Think about telling your son not to run down the street. Ever. That is the reality you face if you are the parent of a young black boy.
This isn’t a new thing. The Talk dates back to 1863 following the Emancipation Proclamation. When slaves were freed in rebel states they were told to not celebrate openly, to essentially “fly under the radar” to avoid giving angry rebels cause to go after them. What I learned after the Trayvon Martin case was that The Talk still exists. It’s still relevant and necessary.
The Talk is a sad part of coming of age in the black community. And I had never heard of it before. Such is the privilege of being white in America. You can say you know racism is still alive in our country. You can have your heart ache with each new story of a son and a brother being shot. But if you’re white in America, you don’t know what it’s like. This is a reality that has been around for over a century and most of us have never and will never experience what it’s like to live in this kind of fear.
Right after the verdict in the Martin case, another trial was beginning. A 76 year old man was on trial for the murder of his 13 year old neighbor. He thought that Darius Simmons, a young black boy, had broken into his home days earlier. He shot him in the chest and killed him.
Recently our national attention was tuned in to the “Loud Music” trial. Michael Dunn faces up to 60 years in prison for firing 10 rounds into a car of young black men, killing 17 year old Jordan Davis.
These are just the cases that make the news. How many cases are there that don’t result in an arrest, that never catch the fleeting attention of the media? Democracy Now reported that in a study of 2012 shootings, that “at least 136 unarmed African Americans were killed by police, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes in 2012.”
Becoming numb to these horrific stories, to these appalling tales, is not an option. You can’t be numb if you look at their faces.
The faces of these children who were murdered.
These sons who were loved and adored as much as you and I love and adore our own children.
These are children. And they are gone forever.
Because they went to buy Skittles.
Because they were taking out the trash.
Because they turned the radio up.
You can’t look at these faces and feel numb.
If you’re like me you feel kicked in the gut. Despair.
I see a little of my son in each of them. I feel pain for the parents of these boys. I feel sorrow for them because I know a little bit about what it’s like to lose someone you love at such a tender age.
And I feel enraged.
I feel pulse racing, heat inducing, hand trembling rage.
And I don’t know what to do with that.
But I will have The Talk with my son.
With my white,suburban dwelling, young son.
Not for the same reason and not the exact same talk. I will explain to my son that because he is growing up as a young white man in our country that this talk isn’t essential to his survival. But that he needs to know that it is essential for many boys his age.
I will explain that some of his friends are having The Talk with their parents because without it they may inadvertently put themselves, their very lives, at risk.
I will tell him that he needs to know that racism, which baffles a young innocent boy like him, is still present. That he needs to know that what goes on around him, even if it doesn’t affect him directly, is still worth his concern and attention. That even if by the time he has children The Talk isn’t necessary, that he can never forget it.
I will tell him that to forget our ugly sordid past with racism in this country is to ignore and deny a threat to our humanity.
That to forget allows it to fester and grow and continue.
Questlove’s story has stuck with me since I read it many months ago. It was heartbreaking. And it illustrates the magnitude of the problem. A noticeable famous figure, on t.v. five nights a week for the last five years, still encounters fear and racism.
Yes, racism is alive and well. And it’s ludicrous that anyone would need to be informed of that.
It’s not obvious to those of us who don’t feel the brutal brunt of it on a regular basis. Many people will scoff and point to our black president. Some will recite all of the ridiculous defenses and excuses that have been trotted out by lawyers and pundits in a lame attempt to explain how and why these children were killed.
But denying it is extremely dangerous.
Denying it or downplaying it allows it to continue.
Sticking our heads in the sand may seem comforting at first. Ignorance is bliss and all.
But eventually that sand becomes suffocating as will the cold reality of who we are- what kind of people we become if we can see the faces of these children who have been killed because of how they look, because of their race- and don’t at the very least acknowledge it. If we do that then we become no better than him:
We become the personification of self righteous indignation when we shrug off the realities that black families in our country still face.
Jordan Davis’ mom put it best,
“You can’t pretend anymore. The blinders are off now. If there is this level of racism, it can’t be under the table anymore. It has to be exposed so we can deal with it.”
I say that we can’t deny racism as long as parents are still having The Talk.
The conversation that’s been a necessity -a tool of survival in the African American community for 151 years- when that conversation is no longer needed, then we can declare victory. Then we can say that it was a part of our past, no longer plaguing our society.
When it’s no longer necessary to “hammer it into (the) DNA” of young black boys, then and only then, will we have justice for Trayvon… for Darius… for Jordan.
Update, August 22, 2014: And now for Michael Brown.