Today is my birthday. Exactly nine years ago on this date my wife and I drove to Philadelphia to meet and bring home our adopted son, born just four days earlier, whose roots extend from the City of Brotherly Love to Guyana, Africa and India.
The three of us were in Florida last winter when the news of Trayvon Martin’s death broke. The story and discussions surrounding it were everywhere. A few weeks later President Obama – with whom I share a birthday; happy birthday, Mr. President – spoke for the first time about the incident, saying "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
Following George Zimmerman’s acquittal last month, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke before an NAACP convention and reflected on the need to have with his teenage son the same talk his father had had with him: the one about how young black men must behave in the face of authority because the combination of their sex, race and wardrobe equate, in many eyes, to an assumption of guilt or, at the very least, suspicion.
“I’m sure my father felt certain – at the time – that my parents’ generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children,” Holder said.
Alas, we’re a long way from realizing that hope. A new generation of black fathers know all about The Talk, and too many can speak of its necessity from experience.
For me, this talk takes on a different complexion: no matter how big I grew my Jewfro in high school, regardless of the music I listened to or the friends I had, I was never myself a young black man. I’m a middle aged white guy trying to raise his black son in a world that continually conspires against the concept of racial equality. Especially where young black men are concerned.
I have my own experiences of being ‘the other’. Our family moved from the Jewish and black neighborhood of East New York to Staten Island, where I first encountered anti-Semitism. It was shocking to me. Swastikas spray painted on the sides of synagogues and train platforms? Bullying on account of one’s religion? We weren’t in Brooklyn anymore. Though I encountered fights and harsh words and mean-spirited provocations, I never feared for my life. No policeman ever looked at me and decided preemptively that I’m trouble. I agonize over the possibility that one day we’ll get a call from some precinct station, and my whiteness will stand as my black son’s proof of innocence. After all, the thinking will go, ‘the kid’s got white parents, he’s okay. He's one of the good ones.’
Still, I don’t imagine our conversations are that much different from those of black fathers and their sons. Indeed, because race is so much a part of our family dynamic, because it is so often Topic A at our dinner table, a formal talk may well become superfluous. Delivered in smaller, bite size pieces digestible by a small boy, our talks are more of a serial conversation sometimes necessitated by front page events we could not shield him from, sometimes an extension of a civil rights lesson taught at school. I can’t imagine much will be news to him by the time he’s 15.
For me, the more difficult part of the discussion isn’t about how he should conduct himself should he be pulled over, it’s about the underlying factors that necessitate it. It’s about the disproportionate number of African American males in American prisons and how he may be viewed…judged…prejudged by someone with the authority to haul him in. It’s about the value that is placed on the lives of African American men in this country.
It would be one thing if the targeting of black men were a thing of the past. Then we could tell our son, well, that was then, it’s not something you have to worry about. The Martin/Zimmerman case is only the most recent to disabuse us of that notion. “Fruitvale Station” tells the heartbreaking story of Oscar Grant’s final hours leading to his shooting death by a white policeman in Oakland, CA in 2009. We took our son to see “42.” He already knew the Jackie Robinson story. It’s a difficult story but ends in uplift. He wants to go to UCLA because that’s where Jackie went. He won’t be seeing “Fruitvale Station” anytime soon.
As long as race is viewed through the lens of division, as long as we see each other as “the other” my son will need to be on alert. Because one day, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the New York Times, he may be “simply unlucky enough to be caught in the wrong skin.” Still, as parents, how much awareness should we impose on a young boy? Need his small body and developing mind be burdened by the weight of society's racial divide and, over time, how much of that input will ultimately shape his own self-perception, regardless of his education and the confidence and dignity we strive to instill in him?
But he’s a smart and sensitive kid. He picks up on random disparities without our help. Like coming home dejected because “I’m the only black kid in my Alvin Ailey class,” or recognizing how few baseball players look like him.
The deaths of innocent, unarmed black men are too common because profiling, in subtle and overt ways, is a fact. Stand Your Ground laws and Stop and Frisk policies don’t help. But neither do prison-glorifying sagging pants or the violence inherent in gangsta rap. At our dinner table, we talk about everything.
My birthday wish is that I am among the last generation of fathers who will have to have The Talk, whether it’s conducted over time or as a come-to-Jesus.
But this is now, and cautionary tales must still be taught. How does a father tell his son the world sees us differently? How will these warnings, coming from his white father, look to my black son? And how will he respond to them?
We’ll find out soon enough.