My only son turned five years old last week. He is a handsome, articulate, energetic, intelligent, fun-loving and gentle young man. He is the apple of my eye!
There’s only one problem: he is Black.
And as his father, I am challenged to do for him what generations of African American fathers have had to do for their sons for far too long in this country; I must inform him that because of his unique blend of gender and pigmentation, there are a different set of rules with which he must contend while growing up.
Nineteen years ago, on a frigid December night in Waco, Texas, what was intended to be a quick stop at the convenience store turned into a two-hour lesson on the racial history of America. A teenager, I was wearing a large jacket with a hood. As I readied myself to exit the car, my grandfather, with whom we were visiting for the holidays, proclaimed, “Take that hood off your head before you go in that store or they will blow your brains out!” Such sudden outbursts were uncharacteristic for my rather mild-mannered grandfather. I found his proclamation of the possibility of my abrupt and violent demise rather upsetting. And it was difficult for me to comprehend. I was simply going to buy some sodas, a rather non-hostile action in my opinion.
For what felt more like an eternity than two hours, my grandfather, grandmother, mother, and uncle awakened me to some troubling realities: 1) That my dark skin, then embracing a 5-foot-10-inch, 13-year-old frame, was a considerable threat for some people, and 2) that some people would not be patient enough to judge me based on the content of my character but rather would be fixated on the color of my skin, and that the color of my skin, viewed through the lens of their own prejudices, meant that I was the physical embodiment of their greatest fear (a big, Black man), fears reinforced daily by mass media. Ever since that fateful December night, I have lived life in full view of these realities.
Having added over five inches and one hundred pounds to that 13-year-old frame over the years, when riding in elevators, I have learned to give quick and easy smiles to disarm my fellow passengers and to ensure them that they are not in any imminent danger. I am mindful of my tone and the inflection of my voice when in conversation in mixed groups as I have learned that I am not afforded the same terms of conversation as others. For if I slightly raise my voice, instead of describing me as passionate, some will label me an angry Black man. Like countless generations of Black men, I have been followed in stores and stopped by police so many times without cause that I am pleasantly surprised when it does not happen.
Now, I, a latter generation Gen-Xer, must pass down to my post-Millennial son some of the rules of engagement for a Black man in this society: 1) If the police stop you make sure you stop in a well-lit area and don’t make any sudden moves. In fact, verbally broadcast your actions (i.e., Officer, I am now reaching into the glove compartment for my registration). 2) Always get the receipt after making a purchase, no matter how small, so no one can falsely accuse you of theft later. 3) It doesn’t matter if the white kids are doing it. Your punishment will always be much more severe if you are caught doing the same. This is also true for adulthood.
I must inform my son that even if he were blessed to graduate from an Ivy League law school with high honors, having served as the editor of that prestigious school’s law review, and go on to be elected the President of the United States of America, even then, some people will consider him to be unqualified for the job and question whether he is a “true” American on account of his Blackness. I will tell him about James Byrd, Jr., the fake drug scandal of Dallas, the Tulia drug busts, and other contemporary instances of societal racism in our home State of Texas, even as previous generations of Black fathers have spoken to their sons of Emmett Till, the Tuskegee
Experiment, and COINTELPRO.
And yes, I will tell him about Troy Anthony Davis. I will tell him that even in the face of compelling doubt surrounding his conviction, the cries of other nations, or the pleas of former U.S. Presidents and Nobel Laureates to spare his life, poison can be injected into his veins, for in the eyes of some, he is considered to be an animal that must be put down at all costs.
I will take part in this familiar, yet painful, ritual, for as the Apostle Paul articulated to his sons and daughters in the faith, I would not want my son to be “uninformed…about the troubles we [have] experienced” in this country (2 Corinthians 1:8).
Then I will tell my son, “Go and change the world!”