When My Black Son Asked Me 'Am I Going To Be Killed By A Policeman One Day?'
All his life, Lennon thought that racism was something that only existed in history books. A bonkers idea from a bonkers time, that was somehow deactivated with the stroke of a pen in 1964. Last year, while doing a homework assignment about Martin Luther King Jr., he looked at me, smiled, and said, “I’m so glad it’s not like that anymore, Mom.” I smiled back and nodded.
Early on, my husband Danny and I made the subconscious choice to shield him, if only for a while, from the disturbing reality of the world around him. I say subconscious because, good or bad, we never actually talked about what we were doing. We just forged forward and taught him about our values and ideals as if they existed in both our home and the world alike. We taught him that differences should be embraced and celebrated, and we taught him to be tolerant of contrasting ideas. We encouraged him to ask questions and seek to understand, even when he doesn’t agree. We preserved his innocence and protected his peace, for just a bit, because we knew it wouldn’t last. We guarded his heart and fostered his optimism because we knew he had his whole life ahead of him to feel the struggle. He had his whole life ahead of him to feel the defeat of discrimination.
Cat’s out of the bag.
Last Friday, Lennon overheard a conversation about George Floyd while playing a video game. A few minutes later, he walked into my bedroom, sat on my bed, and asked me what happened.
I was caught off guard. My first instinct was to nod. I fixated on his big, curious, brown eyes and just nodded my head, over and over. It was as if my body was acknowledging the moment before my mind had a chance to process it. As if my entire being nodded in admission that a sad, sad juncture had arrived. Ready or not.
I pursed my lips and wrestled with the part of me that wanted to say that Floyd’s death was just the unfortunate result of a bad guy killing someone. A sad story, but a story that I knew Lennon could understand. He knew about good guys and bad guys. He knew they came in all shapes, colors and sizes. And he knew that bad things just happen sometimes. It would have made sense to him.
That same part of me kept nagging me to wait. Just wait until he’s a little bit older. Wait until he’s a little more seasoned, a little less sensitive. Wait until he’s a little more capable of dealing with the troubled truth that will change the way he sees the world.
But as I looked at my eight-year-old, who looks like a thirteen-year-old, I knew I couldn’t wait.
We spent the next few minutes talking about what happened to George Floyd. There were a lot of hugs and a lot of “I’m sorrys.” There were a lot of questions and a lot of tears.
My child asked me if he is going to be killed by a policeman one day. I put my hand on his heart and I swore to God that he wouldn’t. I’m not sure he believed me.
I had always thought that having that conversation with him would be one of the lowest and most dejected hours of my life…and I was right.
There are no words to express how painful it is to watch the cruel world dim the bright light in your child’s eyes. No words to explain the helplessness that fills a mother’s heart when she sees her child, see her fear. We stopped talking for a bit and Lennon leaned his head on my shoulder.
I couldn’t help but notice that he looked a little bit older. He looked a little bit older and a little less like the boy we’d been trying to protect. He looked a little less like the boy we’d been trying to protect and a little more like the man he would need to become.
He wiped his eyes and stood up. I took a deep breath as he started walking towards the door. He stopped, turned around, and with the purest heart said, “Mom, does Dad know that there’s still racism?” I laughed and wiped my cheeks. Does his 275-pound, dark skinned, Black dad, know that there’s racism. “He knows,” I said, nodding again. “He knows.”
Black lives matter.
Black lives matter. Whether you capitalize the words or not, Black lives matter means that Black lives matter. And yet it’s a statement that has become heavy and bogged down with political implications. A statement that has become so complex and loaded, that many people who aren’t Black can’t bring themselves to say it. As if saying it betrays their own culture or background in some way. As if saying it is pledging some kind of allegiance to a group of people who they are not connected to. As if we are not all human. As if this is not about humanity.
“Black lives matter” is a statement that triggers people. One that triggers people who assume that when you say “Black lives matter,” you are saying that other lives don’t.
If you need to hear it, every life, of course, matters. No one ever said they didn’t. But only one has been under attack for centuries. Only one is being suffocated and only one is yelling “Mama!” while gasping for air. Yelling “Mama!” while gasping for air. Only one suffers insurmountably at the hands of systemic racism. Only one is a constant casualty of the injustices that are so deeply rooted in our country that some wonder if they can ever be undone.
So only one needs to actually say, out loud, that their life matters. Only one life is actually in danger.
When Danny and I created our living trust a few years back, we had to think long and hard about things we had never wanted to think about. We filled out lots of depressing questionnaires and talked through all kinds of terrible scenarios in which one or both of us died young. We talked about what we would want our kids to have, what we would want them to know and who we would want them to be with. There was a little back and forth about a couple of topics, a few things we disagreed on and then came around to. But the easiest decision that we made, was choosing Lennon’s Uncle EJ to be his father figure and guardian, should something ever happen to Danny.
Uncle EJ is the best guy we know. He truly, truly is. He’s the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back and then send you a second one in the mail. He’s the guy who gives you a hug before you know you need one and makes you laugh at his own expense. He’s funny and fun, but also deep and profound. He wears his heart on his sleeve and gives everything he’s got to everything he does, every day of his life. He’s a dad, and a doting husband, who loves his family fiercely. He gives his kids baths, he smokes ribs. He YouTubes house projects and shiplaps walls and fixes toilets. And since Lennon was born, he has loved him like his own son. Uncle EJ is a white cop.
Uncle EJ is a white cop who sees people for who they are and what they do rather than what they look like. He puts his life on the line every single day to serve and protect the people in his community, no matter their color, no matter their background.
Uncle EJ is how I know, without a doubt, that there are good police officers out there. He is how I know that there are good men and women who truly do serve and protect. Men and women who saw police officer as peacekeeper when they read the job description and signed up to make the world a better place.
Police brutality is real. But Uncle EJ is the reason that I have hope and he is the reason that I know that things can change.
He is also the reason that I know that saying “Black lives matter” doesn’t mean that other lives don’t. Because I scream “Black lives matter,” and all the while, Uncle EJ’s life damn sure matters to me too.
Thank you to everyone who has checked in this last week. Thank you to those who haven’t been afraid to have uncomfortable conversations and made a commitment to learn and reflect. Thank you to those who simply acknowledged the injustices that exist by acknowledging their privilege. It’s a start. No matter how big or how small your platform, people are listening.
Thank you to those of you who have said, out loud, “Black lives matter.” You said it and I cried. Every. Single. Time. I never knew that little Black squares on Instagram could make me feel less alone. But they did.
When I lie in bed tonight and talk to my ceiling about how scary the division in our country is right now, and when I stop to think about what that division means for my children, you and your activism are my silver lining. You and your activism make me feel like we’re all going to make it out of this alive. Each and every one of us.
We all have to make it. I swore to God.
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