I’m wrestling with the events of these last two weeks, trying to make them bend towards comprehension and basic sense. And now one man’s last words, said 11 times — I can’t breathe — haunts me. The words, so apt for how unhinged I feel at this very moment.
(Photo by Russ Rowland, Radio City Music Hall in NYC, Dec. 3, 2014)
How is it that an un-graining, clear, daytime video of Eric Garner having the life literally choked out of him by a white police officer was not deemed adequate proof that a serious crime was committed? How can a jury see this video, this proof, and still decide that the homicide — as it was ruled by the NYC medical examiner — was not worthy of formal charges? What did we see that they couldn’t? As the New York Times said in its scathing Op-Ed about the no-indictment decision:
“What is clear is this was vicious policing and an innocent man is dead. ”
I’m wrestling with outrage and exasperation at the unending disrespect and disregard for Black Lives, trying to force the bitter taste that continues to rise up in my throat back down. Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Jordan Davis. Michael Brown. Each one, shoved into an early grave. Put down like animals.
How is it that we — Black citizens of this world — are still treated as something less than human? Three-fifths a person, and never anything more. Our young boys are instantly thugs. They are threats. They are dangerous demons and beefy Hulks charging at you. But white teenagers are allowed, almost expected, to act out, mess up, flout authority. The crucial difference is, the white kids are also let off easy and allowed to live to talk about it years or decades later.
I’m wrestling the overwhelming urge to give up, give in, consider this society a lost cause, forever stalled or — worse — rapidly moving in reverse.
How is it that a rookie police officer shots and kills — in mere seconds — a 12-year-old black boy wielding what turns out to be a BB gun, but this child’s innocence is shockingly still up for debate? “Why was he playing with a real looking gun,” someone had the audacity to write as a comment on my Facebook page.
This same Cleveland officer’s file from his firearm certification training two years ago was released after the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice. How is that there’s a memo in it saying the officer “seemed not mentally prepared” for the task? And, according to a story on Slate, the officer’s previous boss recommended that he be fired:
“He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal.”
I’m wrestling with a potent mix of despair and distress trying to rob me of my fight, pressing down on the cracks in my spirit.
But I know I have to keep wrestling. And I need to win. I need to find my words, my strength, my resolve, because the stakes are too high. Because I’m raising a brown boy in this country. Because, as I’ve said before, this erasure story — the one about the unarmed black boy dusted away like pesky lint — playing out over and again through decades like some hopeless movie trope, only with slightly different details, different faces, families, cities, and courtrooms, it cannot continue.
Because Black Lives are not conditional. We are real. We are whole. We are valuable.
Because Black Lives Matter.
Because I Matter.
Because WE MATTER.
Reposting this essay that ran on BlogHer in the summer after the heartbreaking, infuriating news out of Ferguson, Mo., this week: No indictment for the police officer who killed Mike Brown. I don’t know what to do next, friends. I just know that this cannot be our story repeated over and again. -NB
I learned a hard truth about mothering black boys long before I had one of my own.
It was November 11, 1987. I was a teenager living with my family in a quiet suburb in Montreal. We woke up that morning to news that a young man, just 19 years old, had been shot and killed by a constable in a police station parking lot. The teen, Anthony Griffin, was black and unarmed. The officer, white and middle aged, had a standard issue .38 revolver.
My father, a man always ready with an easy, squint-eyed smile, was grim as he told my older sister, brother and me about the killing. The familiar-sounding name of the dead man sent my father to the phones next: to make some calls, check in with friends, see if Anthony Griffin was one of ours, while holding his breath like my mother, praying that “no” would be the only reply. But my “cousin” (i.e., family without blood relation) Leo called and cut into their hopes: He knows Anthony Griffin. Knew him. They ran in the same, loose circle. Of course they did. Leo and Anthony were young black boys, hardly men, growing up in Montreal, still living at home with their long-ago naturalized Caribbean immigrant parents. They played basketball and hockey and went to clubs with their boys and called up girls on the basement telephone late, late at night. Leo was Anthony. They were the same guy.
Anthony Griffin’s last night on earth started as an argument with a cab driver in the city just before dawn. The cabbie claimed the kid was trying to jump the fare and called the police. Anthony was nervous, reported the newspapers, because of an outstanding warrant, and once the police cruiser he was in had reached the station, he bolted. The arresting officer, Constable Allan Gosset, said he yelled at Anthony’s back, twice ordering him to halt. And he did. Anthony stopped and turned around, with his hands up in surrender.
That’s when he was shot. One bullet to the forehead.
Officer Gosset, who had been on the force for 16 years, said he had only intended to scare the fleeing youth into surrendering and that the gun went off accidentally. Charged with criminal negligence, he was acquitted twice—for the initial charge and later homicide—by all-white juries. However, seven months after the shooting, a police commission found Gosset negligent and recommended his dismissal.
By then it didn’t matter. The outrage was already loose; years of patent discrimination and racial profiling by the police had mangled any trust and left Montreal’s black community breathing fire. This murder of an unarmed teen was the last sliver of disregard, the last dribble of spit to the face of a people consistently benched despite playing by the rules. They took their fury to the streets in organized, nonviolent protests holding placards that screamed out for justice. I should say we, because I was there, along with my family, chanting and marching and drawing hard, permanent lines in the cracked mosaic that spelled out: NO MORE.
I yelled and roared with the crowd as we coursed the downtown streets. I was partly caught up in the drink of adult anger and exasperation, but after the heat in my own pumping fists had simmered, I felt scared again, edging up to panic. The reality of it rushed around me and gripped my throat: I was wrong about my parents. They weren’t exaggerating about the Way Things Are in This World.
It took my Barbados-born father 20 years of living in Canada to see that even though the prejudice wasn’t in-your-face, it was still there, rubbing on your thick skin, wearing it down, slow and sure. He started to see the racism was institutionalized; it said yes, you may have a job and a house with a basement and yard, and a comfortable life, but there were limits for you as a black person. He started to see blatant bigotry as a beast running toward you in daylight, attacking you from the front—a far less lethal option than encountering the snake in the grass at night. Then Anthony Griffin was killed, and the alarm sounded even louder for my father. In his mind, this young boy’s execution was the clearest example of how assumptions and racism—even disguised—broil into something truly horrible: his own son could one day be killed simply for being black.
Anthony Griffin stayed with me.
He stayed with me until he didn’t. Until I grew older and a little colder and simply tired of seeing this erasure story—the one about the unarmed black boy dusted away like pesky lint—play out over and again through decades like some hopeless movie trope, only with slightly different details, different faces, families, cities, and courtrooms. It’s the same verdict, though, the same tragedy with no real change in sight. Black boys were less than; that was their worth. Instead of growing angrier, I accepted this, begrudgingly, as fact.
But then Oscar Grant.
Then Trayvon Martin.
In between Oscar Grant’s killing by a BART police officer in Oakland, California, and Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting by a neighborhood watch captain in Sandford, Florida, something changed. I became a mother—a mother to a baby boy.
Heartsick and angry, I watched the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story roll out. This was Anthony Griffin all over again, 26 years later. I felt raw, breathless, sad, and ultimately helpless. And seeing Trayvon’s mother—numb and broken, a grayness seeping out through her eyes—it buckled my knees. This story cannot be our thing, on loop. Our brown-faced children cannot continue to be shoved into early graves. This hunt must be called off. Mothers, fathers, and like-figures must infuse a newer message and reaffirm it so these endangered children believe it deep in their bones: You are worthy. You belong here. You matter.
I’ve told myself that I have time. My son is only five years old now. Soon—not tomorrow, but soon—I will have to have The Talk about what others assume about him, about his life, about his intentions as he browses through a store or strides down the night’s sidewalk. It won’t matter if he’s wearing a three-piece suit or hoodie and jeans as he walks fresh into the lives of certain strangers, he’ll still get the double-take: that long side look soaked in suspicion and dread, because he’s laughing too loud (and black), walking too slow (and black), driving too fast (and black). His being here (and black) will be a problem for some, and they will see it as their right to bring forth a solution, set a course correction to protect the lives that really matter. And, no, that does not include yours, black boy.
Still, I don’t want to fill him with dread and fatalism. Even though he’ll be inundated with countervailing messages about his lack of worth, I want this child to find his way to becoming a fully realized man—the husks of resentment and bitterness tumbling in the trail behind him, sloughed off like useless, old skin. Like my folks did for me, I want to show my son that while there are people who will likely see him as a threat, there are also others who will be ready to embrace him, revere him, and come prepared to wholly love him.
But I’m not ready for all of that. I’m not ready to blow stinging dust into this kid’s bright, kind eyes. Not yet.
I want our brown boys to have the space and time to be hopeful and undaunted, counting forward not down to the days to come when they can play basketball and hockey and go to the club with their boys and call up girls late, late in their parents’ basements.
I want them to have the passport to be black, and just be.
Back when he was the man I married and not the father of our son, I used to greet my husband with deep kisses and long hugs as he stepped through our door. Now, nearly 10 years together, it takes real energy for me to muster anything more than an honest smile and brow raise.
What changed? We became parents five-and-half years ago. And, more specifically, I became someone’s mother.
I still love this man with everything I have. I like him as much, too. It’s just that something shifted once this tiny person entered the picture, forcing me to splinter off into other beings: mother, wife, me. It’s a challenge moving through these different selves, trying to preserve them as whole and real. Too often, one version of me absorbs everything — all the time, all the attention, all the dedication, love and tenderness — while the others sit at low simmer on the backburner, dwindling.
The first year of motherhood, I was completely consumed by trying to do my best for this child. I was pressed for time all the time, juggling everything and putting the Mom part of me at the top of the list. Through it all, I kept hearing assurances by many (doctors, elders, other mom friends) that this was completely normal and to be expected. My husband and I became more like teammates, tackling this overwhelming thing called new parenthood, and less like crazy-in-love idealists determined to straighten out this tilted world. We laughed and learned and poured love all over our new family of three. Still, something felt off, something was missing. My husband and I stayed very close, but not in the way we used to be, not like those kid-free days. Although my husband was ever thoughtful and kind, there seemed to be sorrow there as well. He was pining for his wife. Truth told, I missed The Wife too. But I didn’t know how to bring that part of me to the forefront. Trying to find my way back to how it once was — husband and wife vs. everyone else — required a level of energy that most days I simply didn’t have.
It’s just that something shifted once this tiny person entered the picture, forcing me to splinter off into other beings: mother, wife, me.
I started talking about this drift apart, about this internal struggle — Mom vs. Wife — with other women. Instead of assurances that it’s normal and to be expected, I was met with deep nods, “Amens” and sometimes tears. These other women, some who were five, six, nine years into motherhood, were in the midst of the same battle. They, too, understood the importance of shining some of that dedicated focus on raising healthy, happy kids onto the other vital relationship in the house: the one with their spouse. And they were looking, in earnest, for ways to turn things around.
For me, being aware means taking action, making changes to help us move from being two ships passing into sailing together on the Love Boat. It starts small, but it’s sure and must be steady to be effective. So now, when this man I chose to marry steps through the front door, I’m making every effort to pause from building LEGOs, look up from my laptop and into his eyes to say, “hello.”
Originally posted on Mom.me.
The message was clear. It was bold and underlined and in no uncertain terms: Toy weapons of any kind would not be permitted at the elementary school’s annual Halloween parade. This means the non-battery operated light saber for my son’s Darth Vader costume would have to stay at home Friday. I explained this to him, as did his teachers, and he was fine about it. Now, if only there was a way to keep that “no toy weapons” message running through the other days of the year.
The thing is, I’m firmly anti-gun. I don’t believe the average citizen should have them in their homes. I grew up in Canada where gun control laws are strict and meaningful, and there’s no debate or contention around any of it. However, living in the U.S. and raising a family here, I pay very close attention to this country’s gun sense or, moreover, the lack thereof. I don’t want my child around guns. Period. This firearm ban includes the toy versions too.
Over the last five years, I’ve been able to maintain this no-guns policy without issue. Even my son can tell you my stance regarding these killing machines. “Mom, that LEGO guy has something in his hand that you really don’t like,” he’ll say, when we’re flipping through a catalog or zipping by (because moseying is a mistake, friends!) the toy aisle at Target.
But over the last five months, things have begun to tilt a little. It started with a blue water pistol given to him in the loot bag from a summer birthday party. He was more into the other cheap trinkets than the gun, so I was able to slip the plastic thing into a cabinet in the mudroom. Then one day, as if to taunt me, that damn squirt gun fell out of the cabinet and landed by his feet. He asked if he could fill it up and play with it in the yard. I said yes, but only for a short while. I told him he wasn’t allowed to point it directly at anyone. He still had fun spraying the water at flowers, the grass and into the air.
He’s a kid — there’s always fun to be discovered.
A few weeks later, he went to a buddy’s house for a playdate. Of course they ended up playing with the boy’s toy laser guns. “But just for a little bit of time, Mom.”
I figured this moment would come, the one where I need to recognize and reconcile the fact that my reach as a parent and guide has a limit.
And then Kindergarten happened. Everyday this kid would come home talking about some new character or superhero or ninja that a schoolmate was talking about at recess, nearly all of them in fighting mode, all carrying a weapon of some sort. My son has never once watched a show or seen a movie featuring any of these characters. (Even his latest interest in Star Wars sprang forth from LEGO.) But there he was explaining all the details of the Ninja Turtles and Batman.
I figured this moment would come, the one where I need to recognize and reconcile the fact that my reach as a parent and guide has a limit. I can’t (and don’t want to) hover over my son at every playdate, trying to dissuade him from picking up a toy gun. I can only hope that my thought-through opinions about the real dangers of guns and gunplay will take root with his young mind and instill a sensibility that he can continue to develop as he grows.
Maybe it’s one that makes him pause and wonder: “Hmm. What would Mom do?” Listen, I don’t have the bubble. Let me have a little slither of wishful thinking.
Photograph by: Getty Images
Original post on Mom.me.