It’s summer time. My father has brought my younger brother and I to the park in town. He’s over on the basketball court playing a pickup game while my brother and I are on the swings competing to see who could go the highest. My dad is a good ball player. He moves well and even though he’s several years older than everyone else on the court, they can’t keep up with him. He wants one of us to pursue basketball but only my older brother, Antonio, has a serious interest in the major sports. My sister, Genevietta, has a great outside shot, but she’s boy crazy. My younger brother, Adam, is a free spirit. He loves to laugh and play. I’m reserved and serious. An over achiever. I love the performing arts.
I close my eyes listening to the wind playing in the leaves of a nearby tree. I hear Adam laugh. He loves being outdoors. His laugh makes me smile. The game ends, and my Dad comes over to the swings to play with us before we head home. He encourages us to swing as high as we can and to leap out of the swing at its apex. Adam gleefully accepts the challenge. He exits the swing landing safely in the grass. I attempt to follow, but my right hand refuses to release the chain. I land flat on my back in the sand. My shoulder aches, and my pride aches even more. Now Adam is laughing at me, which makes me angry. My dad makes his way over, holding back his own laughter. He lifts me from the ground, checks my shoulder then brushes the sand out of my hair. After a few minutes he begins to laugh. My dad has a jolly laugh. We seldom hear it but when we do, it is like being touched by an angel. His cheeks rise. His eyes sparkle.
As the sun sets, only the three of us remain in the park. We hop into our gray 70s Dodge Aspen to head home. As my Dad starts the engine, a police car enters park and proceeds towards us blocking our direct exit. Something doesn’t feel right. He shuts off the engine and quickly exits the car. The two officers approach telling him to place his hands on the hood. He refuses, asking why, but they offer no explanation. They try to subdue him, but he’s getting the best of them. Adam begins to cry. My heart is racing. I don’t know what to do. I think, “I can’t drive. How will we get home?” I just wanted to go home. The scuffle moves to the rear of the car. I’m frozen, but I find the courage to look back. As I stare through the defrost grid of the back window, the blonde-headed officer sees me. He steps back then calls off his dark-haired partner. Apparently, they think my dad is alone. They begin to lecture him, but he continues giving them tit for tat. They claim they stopped him because he was driving with no headlights. My Father shakes his head in disbelief. He had just started the engine; the car hadn’t moved an inch. He’s angry but for our sake he returns to the car, and we leave the park. The few miles home seem to take forever. The trip is silent except for the squeaking of the cracking, red, vinyl-covered seats. Usually my Dad, like most half-decent fathers, wants us to learn from every situation, but we never talk about it. I believe he knew we learned what we needed to. We learned, as black males, to fear the police.
Many of my peers share this same fear as a result of enduring, witnessing or being told about similar, negative experiences with law enforcement. There is a general unease that rushes over us when we see a police car in the rear-view mirror or when we are approached by an overly aggressive officer. It’s NOT because we believe all cops are bad, but it is because we know that some are. Positions of leadership, influence and authority tend attract the good and the bad. Since there is no way, at first, to distinguish a good cop from a bad cop, it is best to always proceed with caution if you are a Black man.
I’ve felt the sting of racism, but it’s error to rashly conclude that every instance of a black man being killed by a white police officer is motivated by racism. Yes, we need to investigate, properly protest and require action when injustices occur, but what about the injustices we are doing to each other? The leading cause of death in Black men, ages 15-34, is Black Men (homicide). Why are we not equally galvanized by this? Where are the cell phone videos capturing how we demoralize, demean and disregard each other? The internal destruction we are doing to ourselves is greater in volume and impact than the external damage we are reacting to.
Black men need to be taught about their dual reality. Yes, we are equal to our White counterparts, but some disagree. Therefore we must understand how to conduct ourselves in the presence of such individuals especially when the situation becomes a matter of life or death–poverty or prosperity. I believe fatherless homes are a, if not the, primary symptom leading to the misdirection and misbehavior of our Black sons. This is not to say that single, Black mothers cannot successfully raise their Black boys, but there are lessons and experiences best taught by one who is versus one who knows. I can tell a girl how to be a woman, but I cannot show her.
On that summer eve, in the park with my father, I learned to fear the police. Even though my Father made a poor choice by initially resisting, at the moment he saw us, realizing what was at risk, he righted himself. Even though he had been wronged, he took the wise option to exit. I wonder what would have happened if my brother and I had not been in the car. I wonder how my life would have been without my father.
After that day, my Dad took his fight to the polls. No matter how minor the election, my Dad made it a priority to cast his vote, and he took every opportunity to chastise those who would not shoulder their responsibility to do the same. He also did all he could teach his sons to be men. We were required to dress well, to speak well, to work hard and to conduct ourselves respectably everywhere we went. We were taught about God. The Black community has lost these and many of the core concepts that made us a people of true affluence.
At that young age, fear is the only word I could attribute to what I was feeling towards the police, but we should not teach our Black sons to fear. I now define that feeling of unease as awareness. We need to teach our Black sons to be aware. They must be aware of their dual reality. They must be aware that there are people who want to do them harm. This awareness will guide their interactions, self-presentation and decision making during traffic stops and board meetings.
At times we must transform ourselves to accomplish certain things. Is it fair that we must adapt? Perhaps not, but it is a reality of being a Black man or woman in America. Knowing how to turn on, turn off or abandon certain norms is not a betrayal of our culture. Some of the things we do as Black people have nothing to do with being Black. I know some will still call this transforming being an Uncle Tom and that’s okay. If being an Uncle Tom can carry a Black man to a place where he is now running Uncle Sam, I’ll keep “Uncle Tomming” right on.