Recently, I took my son to the doctor for his 13-year old checkup. “He’s 5’8”, she told me, “and he hasn’t even begun his growth spurt yet.” I was also a late bloomer. 6’1” now, at his age, I was 5’2”. Looking at the chart, I could see there was an even chance he’d hit 6’4” in the next few years.
I knew it was time for The Talk.
My son doesn’t get out so much. Like most middle-class kids his age, the problem isn’t getting him off the corner, it is getting him off the computer. My son, however, is African-American.
I’m not. But I’m not stupid. I know that in this country, a large, young, African-American man is at risk every time he goes out in the world. And even if his personality and my middle-class resources can keep him away from many of the dangerous situations that other young people might create, there is another danger. That’s the one I can’t do anything to control.
So we talked.
I explained to him that he must understand that some cops will see him as a danger no matter what he is or isn’t doing. No matter how he dresses or talks or what grades he gets. That he must not expect, if he should be stopped or questioned, that the police officer he encounters is rational. He should see the cop as a dangerous, terrified animal, halfway eager to resolve his fear by attacking. Thus: no sudden moves. Do nothing but follow explicit instructions. Do not struggle or argue. Do not give any information about any other person except your parents. Do not believe any promises the police make. If they take you into custody, continue to repeat “I want to call my dad,” and when you are older, “I want to call my lawyer.”
This was four days before Michael Brown was shot.
Once, while hiking, my son and I saw a black bear. It was medium-sized, so, in other words, as big as the two of us combined. But we knew what to do. No sudden moves. We kept our distance. We protected ourselves.
The bear didn’t have a semi-automatic Glock, and Mike Brown wasn’t allowed to keep his distance. Darren Wilson pursued him, shot him repeatedly even while Brown’s hands were raised high in surrender.
There’s nothing new about the talk I gave my son. The parents of young African-American men have had to give versions of that talk for centuries. As a historian of slavery, I’ve read the testimonies of men and women who survived slavery. They told of how their elders tried to tell them what they could and couldn’t do if they hoped to live: how to bear torture, how to make a day’s quota of cotton picking, how to evade violence. Sometimes, even how to run away.
There’s nothing special about me having to give The Talk, either. I might be the first white male Cornell professor father to have to give this talk to his African-American son, but I doubt even that uniqueness. Meanwhile, women — mothers and others, not always black — have given the talk, countless times.
Perhaps women who give the talk don’t understand the tumultuous interior experience of adolescent masculinity. And if I can do that, I on the other hand — while I can listen to my friends explaining their experience of rage at the suspicion, violence, and humiliation that was regularly directed at them by the police, I can’t fully experience it.
I’m lucky for that privilege. I’m not sure I would’ve survived. And yet, at the moment when it starts, every adult who has to give The Talk is in the same dilemma. We love this young man, more than we love our own lives. We have worked for years to bring him to this point. We don’t want to see the fear of white racism take his brilliant joy from him. Yet now we must tell him that we cannot protect him from the people who are officially supposed to protect him. We cannot even honestly guarantee that the information we give him will enable him to protect himself from them.
Four days later, I heard about Michael Brown.
I had wild thoughts. I would equip my son with a GoPro camera that would automatically livestream any possible encounters with the law back to a secure server. But even though I think cameras attached to cops on the job are one of the few good ideas to come out of this disaster, we can’t attach cameras to our adolescent children 24/7. Nor should we.
My most frightening feeling, however, said this: No one out there values my son’s life. And that’s true. When the chips are down, law enforcement agencies and legislatures and the broad white public identify more with the fear and aggression of the police than with the terror and rage that young black people and their parents have to experience. History justifies the parents’ fear: from slavery to Reconstruction night riders, to Jim Crow lynchers, to the massive increase in policing and incarceration that has shaped the United States so powerfully over the course of my lifetime.
Then, over the last week, I saw the Ferguson protestors.
I was struck by the young men who dressed like corner guys from back where I grew up. By the young women who marched, wearing respectable clothes or the kind of clothes that the vast babble of social media tries to mock as ratchet. Together they marched in the face of lines of cops playing stormtrooper. They refused to run. They threw tear gas canisters back. They stared down men with machine guns. They help each other stagger out of billowing chemical clouds. They weren’t afraid to break into a McDonald’s to get milk to pour on the weeping faces of their friends, and they weren’t afraid to stand in front of another store to protect it from looters.
I also noticed the older people, too, including the community leaders who helped temper the edge of the anger. This was “The Talk,” too, in the break of a set of actions so improvisational that no one knew what was coming next. This was the elders loving the young people.
What was in the young men and women that made my feelings change from fear to righteous anger? Was it their love? In the moment of facing the militarized police, it looked to me like they loved each other. Like they loved Michael Brown, even if they never knew him. And they loved themselves enough to get out there and take the risk of protest — not a suicidal one, for that isn’t self-love — but a risk that allowed them to save their own joy in being alive. Their own joy in defying the world that sometimes can only desire them but can’t seem to love them. Their own joy in loving themselves enough to stand up for their own infinite value.
They also showed knowledge, the knowledge of exactly how to confront. Here’s a middle finger for you, stormtroopers, they say. Here’s two. Don’t act like you don’t see them through your gas mask visor. Yes, you can find Mike Brown walking down the street on an August day. You can make him beg for his life and kill him anyway. You can leave his body baking on the street for four hours. But you can’t kill all of us out here together, they seemed to be saying. You can run us off the streets tonight, but we will be back tomorrow.
You’re so afraid of us that you come here by the hundred, in armor. You can lock us up and twist the system of representative government so that white cops and mayors rule a black town, gerrymander the districts to cripple the President. But we will keep coming, generation after generation. Three hundred and ninety-five years in, and just by doing this, we are winning and you are losing. So their courage said.
That’s what I thought I saw, anyway. What I think I’m hearing on Twitter. And it made me sad, and it made me angry, and it also buoyed me up, for the story here runs from generation to generation. It made me remember a young enslaved man named John, beaten by a Georgia overseer whose booted kicks shattered John’s eye socket. An older man named Glasgow went to John, held John’s head between his arm and chest, and with the other hand applied a splint of wax and cloth to hold the bones in place. And he whispered to John something he’d learned: there was a place outside of slavery.
John didn’t lose the eye. One day, after the bone healed, he hid on a cotton ship, and found his way out of the slave South. He published his story. His words helped mobilize the confrontation that led to the U.S. Civil War. That in turn brought slavery to an end. And that reminds me that if he learns from the deep, continually renewed tradition of resistance how to protect his joy while also learning to protect his life, my son will find his way to strike a blow in his time as well.