A boy playing in the water being sprayed from a DC Fire Department firetruck on a hot summer day. © The Q Speaks | Flickr
A boy playing in the water being sprayed from a DC Fire Department firetruck on a hot summer day. © The Q Speaks | Flickr

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.

A protestor at a rally in Ferguson on Aug. 17, 2014 © Erinmiran | Wikimedia Commons
A protestor at a rally in Ferguson on Aug. 17, 2014 © Erinmiran | Wikimedia Commons

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.

Protestor in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 17, 2014 © Loavesofbread | Wikimedia Commons
Protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 17, 2014 © Loavesofbread | Wikimedia Commons

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.

Facing the SWAT team in Ferguson, Aug.15, 2014 © Loavesofbread | Wikimedia Commons
Facing the SWAT team in Ferguson, Aug.15, 2014 © Loavesofbread | Wikimedia Commons

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.

33 thoughts on “Ferguson and Fatherhood: My Turn to Give The Talk

  1. Thank you for writing this inspirational and insightful piece. Just reading it sheds light on this multifaceted issue. The historical content helped me to understand that this is not a ‘last week’ or ‘last year’ thing. This pursuit/mistrust/hatred/undervaluing/killing of our black men is deeply rooted in slavery; and as it took centuries build this monster, it will take centuries to fully emancipate ourselves from its clutches.

    1. That was my takeaway too. And probably for the first time, I understand the need to identify as “African American” — like survivors of the Holocaust: never again.

  2. Thank you for your sharing your insights. Few historians manage to wrest from the destruction of now a hymn of honesty, anguish, anger even, and yet so much understanding and compassion. Without preaching, you demonstrate hope. Afoot thoroughly in it all. I only wish that all people in this benighted nation could have the chance to learn our real history and thus not to remain so aloof and judgmental about what is going on not simply in Ferguson but so, so many of our communities. How much we need honest, compassionate history tellers now! I pray that your son and all our sons and daughters can grow up and thrive and live beyond, way beyond–maybe even outlast!–these struggles.

  3. Although I can empathize one point clearly overlooked is the subculture American Blacks have created. I have travelled the world and only in the US have the black created a anti-establishment, thug, gangster style lifestyle to aspire too. Many blacks here are very proud of the “Thug” life and try in every way to emulate it. You talk about being afraid of every cop out there. What about the rest of us who have to be afraid of almost every black man, especially those that appear angry and are dressed for intimidation? Do blacks fear getting knocked from behind in a knock out game? Do blacks fear getting robbed just because they are black, because of where they live or what they drive. When you see a group of white boys do you start thinking of an exit strategy, if you are going to get mugged or simply beat up? It so racist to think that blacks have this special fear that no one else has. Blacks created the situation and whites are simply reacting. If blacks would just pull up their pants, stop talking like hoodlums, act respectable, apply themselves especially within their own community then in a generation this would all change. Blacks constantly talk about white cops and fearing them, then become the cops. Blacks talk about discrimination and not being able to get hired, then start businesses and hire other blacks. All I hear from blacks is the same thing of blaming and excuses. Blacks are not the only ones that are poor or have issues. Blacks make up 13% of the US population, 50% of murders which are committed by 90% blacks. The biggest obstacle for blacks is other blacks. Black attitude, black dress, black speech – loose the negative black subculture – Black on Black crime is your biggest problem not whites. Look at Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Compton…. same issues in all those cities. You can correlate the % of blacks to crime rate in any city. So you need to take a good look in the mirror, tell your son to loose the white t-shirt and jersey, pull up his pants, talk and act with respect and he will get in return.


    1. Side note: I do believe that cops everywhere are out of control, they are too quick to shoot, believe they are above the law or they are the law vs enforcing the law. They are arrogant and most are uneducated testosterone baboons….. but it is not white problem.

    2. This response is troubling, revealing the depth of the problem of racism in America. It is especially disturbing given the quality of the article to which it responds. Why not try to understand, instead of “knowing” the truth?

      Baptist writes as a father concerned for his son and his country, based on knowledge of American history. His pain is clearly expressed, as is his appreciation for the persistent struggles against American racism. In the face of that history Navarro asserts: “Blacks created the situation and whites are simply reacting.” Really?

      1. Jeffrey Goldfarb, he’s a troll who doesn’t read closely. Otherwise he’d realize he’d proved my point about the belief of many whites that underneath every black honors student is secretly that worst of things, a pants-sagging gangster, who is therefore worthy of death. Nice performance art, “John Navarro.” I like how this stage reveals your truest, innermost self.

        1. I struggled with the Navarro’s comments. As editor of Public Seminar, I had three choices: to delete it, as abusive, as uncivil racism, to just ignore them, or to respond. Deleting them would confirm the notion that we at PS are close minded intellectuals, or as he later put it “liberals with white guilt.” So I felt I had to respond, because to let them stand would somehow suggest that they were normal comments, expressing a legitimate view. I thought his words demonstrated his racism, but this had to be highlighted. With his closing of his last comment, he breached the bounds.

          Yes, Edward Baptist, John Navarro’s comments reveal who he is: a part of the problem that you so eloquently analyze

          1. “I like how this stage reveals your truest, innermost self.” Shame on both Jeffery and Edward for judging Navarro as a racist. Who are YOU to judge anyone? His feelings sounded very legitimate to me. Dismissing his comments as shallow and racist is part of the problem. And why none of you are capable of helping to fix the problem. The ONE thing that I would disagree with is Navarro saying that “blacks created this”. The fact is that this has been co-created by both blacks and whites. I grew up and was raised NOT to be racist. To treat ALL humans as equals. But years of constantly being verbally assaulted by black men and women in upstate New York for simply being a white male taught me over time to start hating certain types of African Americans. That is a very important conditioning. I was not taught by whites. I was taught by blacks who treated me badly. Like a poison, I learned what it was like to start fearing people of color because of the way they acted towards me. Had they treated me as an equal and refrained from racist comments, I would never have developed this attitude. And I, like Navarro have also lived in many parts of the world and you WILL not get this mentality from other people of color when living abroad. This is specifically an African-American phenomenon that exists in specific regions within the United States. This is resulting from lack of integration, discrimination and and slavery within America the WE the whites created. Slave owners treated African Americans as subhuman. Like animals even. And you can’t abuse a dog badly and expect it not to eventually become so mean spirited that it might bite your neighbor’s 5 year old daughter in the face. We created the problem and now decent people on both sides have to suffer. And if you are unwilling to consider other people’s opinions as valid, especially those who have actually lived many years in other countries, then you come off sounding nothing more than elitist and morally condescending. And I would also add, ignorant. I applaud Navarro for the courage to speak his mind. There are two sides to this issue. Quite frankly I am sick and tired of white privileged intellects who have grown up in a bubble, who refuse to see the issue from both perspectives. I have many black friends who I respect and treat as my brothers and as equals. The nice young man that the author speaks of sounds like a fine human being who will do well in this world because he was raised with love and compassion. But not all African Americans are raised like that. There are a subgroup out there that apparently whites aren’t allowed to acknowledge without being labeled as racist. Meanwhile people in the African American community DO acknowledge and even fight against this barbaric mentality that exists within their own people. The ones that are protecting the stores from looters are a prime example of the rift that exists between the two types of African Americans. Unfortunately, media focuses on the looters, the rioters and African Americans who shot other protesters during the demonstrations. When White people see looting and rioting, the elephant in the room that no one is allowed to talk about is the fact that this happens almost every single time their is white on black crime. Whether it be George Zimmerman, Rodney King or this latest scenario. In almost EVERY instance, the response to a white on black crime results in rioting and often followed by a few unreported assaults on a few innocent white people the angriest of the mob. Can you tell me how this type of reaction does not perpetuate racism? To deny that reality is part of living in that bubble of yours. If you want change the world’s view on racism, you have to be willing to hear both sides. It’s time for you to get your head out of the sand and acknowledge ALL the facts rather than focus only on the positive side of African Americans while demonizing ALL white people.

          2. I didn’t actually call the previous racist author of the previous racist comment a “racist” even though he made racist claims about my son, as well as African Americans in general, and then justified rampant institutional racism and repeated police killings of young African-American men like my son because they have allegedly committed the alleged crime of allegedly having “sagging pants.” But he does indeed appear to be one. Your claims about me growing up in a bubble are predictable, but ludicrously false, and made from a position of complete ignorance about me as a person. Your claims about African Americans rioting “in almost every instance” in response to a “white on black crime” are statistically false. Finally, if you want to engage with African Americans, “hear both sides,” and not be “demonized,” I strongly advise you to stop ranting about African Americans having a “barbaric mentality” and being “rabid dogs.” Thanks. I won’t engage with any more of these rants, although I will post them on Twitter so that everyone can see the kind of rhetoric that gets spewed at people who are trying to engage with the horrific aftermath of the death of an unarmed young man. I’d just like to suggest that if you plan to rant, you use your real name, as I did in my posting. Have the courage to stop hiding behind cowardly anonymity. That won’t be one percent of the courage my son has in just walking down the street after the shooting of Michael Brown, but at least it will be one step toward a more productive and transformative discourse.

          3. Mr. Baptist, I do empathize with your struggle as I had stated. My point was to identify the struggles that whites also have to endure. The fact that Jeffery had to “struggle” with my comments purely shows that to a Liberal any decent is racist, it just must me. It is okay to debate shades of one color, but if another person talks about an opposite idea they are immediately called names so as to discredit anything they say. The most asinine comment stated so far was when he said its not know the truth but understanding it. Which i interpret as excusing their behaviour. I am done with this conversation, I am sorry that I happened upon this article. Delete all my posts and I will return, but know this people like Jeffery are part of the problem. Get over your guilt, appeasement to bad behavior and poor circumstance will only empower and embolden more bad behavior and entrench their status as poor. Stay poor vote Democrat. I will leave you with this. The following will never be reported because of the liberal mainstream media, but the truth is the truth


            7/18- Jimmie Norman, white male murdered by black male. No national news.
            7/18- Terry Taylor, white male murdered by black male. No national news.
            7/17- Cindy Raygoza, white female murdered by black male. No national news.
            7/11- Luis Aguilar, 91 year old hispanic male murdered by black male. No national news.
            7/10- Brittany Simpson, white female murdered by black male. No national news.
            7/6- Sarah Goode, white female murdered by black male. No national news.
            7/6- Jeffrey Westerfield, white male murdered by black male. No national news.
            7/5- Perry Renn, white male murdered by black male. No national news.
            7/3- Laurey Kennedy, white female still in coma from beating by black male. No national news
            7/3 Eric Mollet, white male murdered by black male. No national news.
            7/2 Rupert Anderson, white male murdered by black male. No national news.
            7/2 Jennifer Kingeter, white female murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/30 Jim Brennan, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/29 Paul Shephard, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/27 Shirley Barone, white female, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/27 Penelope Spencer, white female, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/27 Inga Evans, white female, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/26 Jake Rameau, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/25 Gina Burger, white female, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/24 Nathan Dasher, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/22 Jonathan Price, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/20 John Whitmore, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/18 John Yingling,white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/17 Allyn Reeves, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/15 Michael Beaver, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/11 Angela Cook, white female, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/11 Nathan Hall, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/7 Harry Briggs, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/5 Laura Bachman, white female, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/2 Robert Mohler, white male, murdered by black male. No national news.
            6/1 William Headley, white male, murdered by black male. No national news

          4. Are you trying to suggest that over the summer, no blacks were killed by any whites? Surely you recognize that simply not the case. And what about white men murdering white women? That is by far the most likely murder scenario in this country. If you want to assign “barbaric mentalities” indiscriminately to particular populations, start there.

          5. Where in the world are you coming from, I no where near implied that, nor did I say barbaric mentalities and bringing women into the equation? Sure, ok let’s do that …. 78% of black families are single mothers with children from multiple men. This is not a discussion on white on white crime, male or female. Infact your whole comment is just a diversion, a distraction from the real issue at hand.
            So to your first point, blacks killed by whites this summer …. Self defense not murder.

          6. @john Navarro and John the Baptist as we say here in the south “Bless your heart”

          7. This list is irrelevant. If you posted a list with instances of black POLICE OFFICERS (or other government agents) killing unarmed white people, then you might have an argument. Otherwise you’re just demonstrating that you’ve failed to understand why people are angry in Ferguson. It’s not because an unarmed black man was killed; it’s because he was killed by a representative of the law. Is it really too much to ask that they be held to a higher standard?

          8. I was waiting for someone to ask that. So here: http://www.wnd.com/2014/08/black-cop-kills-white-man-media-hide-race/

            This just happened a day ago. But my point was not about the cop, if you read the reply I made to my post immediately right after I stated

            “Side note: I do believe that cops everywhere are out of control, they are too quick to shoot, believe they are above the law or they are the law vs enforcing the law. They are arrogant and most are uneducated testosterone baboons….. but it is not white problem.”

            I am 100% for video cameras to be worn by all officers, not only for our protection but theirs. It is no where near what blacks may face, but I get targeted by Hwy Patrol all the time because of what I drive. The reason I did not use this instance is because I was speaking of black on white crime and black on black crime in general.

            I am totally over this discussion, everyone here is a bleeding heart liberal…. you all think you have intellect, but are completely void intelligence and any discussion that goes against your narrative is simply mocked and messenger ridiculed.

            You Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes types can go right along thinking you are having an intellectual discussion, but what is really going is a lot of agreeing and back patting.

      2. Racism runs extremely deep in black community but the liberals with white guilt excuse it. No where else in the world do you see this. Your comment shows your ignorance with reality. It’s so easy for an academic with zero race relations to make such a comment. Pointing out facts is not racist. I served along side minorities of every type for over 25 years with out issue. Why? Because they, like I, were integrated. We all dressed the same and spoke the same. We treated each other with respect and dignity. On base I did not have to worry about my girls or wife.
        And YES Blacks DID create their subculture, but what I’m supposed to turn a blind eye and tell my children it’s ok because blacks were slaves 150 years ago, or civil rights movement 50 years ago. YOU need to stop giving them excuses. What other minority in America is so socio and economically depressed as blacks. The biggest enemy to blacks is other blacks. Chew on that you pompous ass.

        1. I’m not African-American so I don’t have any basis upon which I can decide what that community’s “real problem” is. I do think white America should/can provide that community the courtesy of allowing that community to speak for itself, and to listen.

          1. That being said, if one wishes to bring ‘black-on-black’ issues into the discussion, we cannot lose sight of larger structural issues/forces — mass incarceration, gerrymandering, forms of de facto segregation, etc. etc. — which so powerfully and so destructively impact the lives of African-Americans in this country. And the African-American community simply cannot be held responsible for these kind of structural factors.

          2. There you go, typical liberal brain washed white guilt….. They can not be held responsible? You become a victim and let me know if you feel the same. Keep on making excuses for these criminals and they will continue to feel justified.

            Why is it that it’s soooo racist to blame the black community for criminal behavior in form of stereotyping, but it’s totally OK to call all conservatives racist bigots a blame the entire white race for issues 150+ years ago?

          3. I’m not white and you don’t need to be black to see that the subculture of American Blacks is the root cause of most of their problems. You don’t see this in the UK, France, Canada, or Australia. No one is preventing the black community a voice. They have many advocates, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, MSNBC and mainstream media…. Let’s not forget an activist AG Holder and a Black President.
            I also don’t need to be a mechanic to know if my car shuts down and steam is coming from engine that it over heated.
            The black leadership profit from type of situations and it keeps democrats in power.

  4. I actually have a question, Ed, about the instructions you gave your son about dealing with the cops. If one is stopped by the cops and asked about another person (or any question for that matter), does the person questioned have the right not to answer? What is the safe response?

    1. You’re not required to answer those kinds of questions. If you’re taken downtown and formally questioned, you have the right to say nothing.

      1. But if the cops ask you questions on the street and you don’t respond, that gives them justification to take you downtown, right?

  5. Also wondering about the rationale behind this advice. Because you don’t want him to get caught up in anything, his words used to go after another young black man?

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