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Celebrating Black Men and the Boys They Once Were (and Sometimes Forever Remain)

Today's post is a departure from my often light-hearted tone and brief word count.

Monday starts the month of June, in which fathers are acknowledged for their value to their families, their communities, and society. My love and appreciation for my dad, my grandfathers, uncles, male cousins, and other black men who are important to me have been at the forefront of my mind. Whether still living like my dad, two of my uncles, and my cousins or dead like my grandfathers and my dad's brother, all of their lives beat the odds that were, and still are, stacked against their existence.

My dad grew up in the Jim Crow South.

As a very young child he developed a heart condition, which doctors told his parents would likely kill him by his tenth birthday. My dad was ten years old when Emmett Till was murdered on August 28, 1955, a fact that makes me wonder if other potential external threats to his life ascended to the top of my grandparents' list of concerns for his health that summer.

When my dad reminisces about his childhood his words paint a mural filled with images of a working-class family united in faith and of modest financial resources as they confronted medical treatments, dire prognoses, the challenges of operating a small business, sibling loyalty and rivalry, love and joy, setbacks and triumphs. Because his parents owned a small downtown shop, my dad and his older brother were latch-key kids before that phrase was coined, and not entirely accurate for them since they rarely locked the door until the boys were old enough to be trusted not to lose the housekey. Close in age, my dad and his older brother were playmates, partners in mischief, confidants, each other's defender, and occasional adversary. Their segregated black neighborhood was surrounded by the larger, dominant Anglo/Caucasian/white population, which insulated them in some ways. Until he attended college all of my dad's friends, schoolmates, teachers, principals, mail carriers, doctors, nurses, clergy, and retail sales staff were black people. White people occupied the margins of his daily encounters during childhood.

Except for the time the bus let him off two blocks outside the safety of his community, and inside the Anglo/Caucasian/white residential neighborhood.

When a car filled with a group of teen boys spotted my dad walking by himself along the side of the road, they yelled slurs, warnings, and threats as they paced him. Angered by my dad's refusal to engage or to quake in fear, the driver gunned the engine and swerved toward my dad, who ran. Neither his heart nor his legs failed him. As he crossed into his black neighborhood, he sprinted onto the nearest footpath among the trees. “That's right, [slur]!” the teens yelled from the car windows as the vehicle squealed into a U-turn in search of a side street to cut off his escape. A long blaring of the horn punctuated the threat of their intentions before my gasping father collided with a friend and fell into his friend's arms. “Who you running from?”

“You're crazy!” my dad told his friend a few minutes later after he'd calmed and explained, while they both listened and watched for attack as they hunkered down in another friend's back yard. His friend made what seemed to my dad like a crazy plan. “They'll kill me if I go back!”

My dad's friend shook his head. “You're not going alone.”

Less than half an hour later my dad backtracked toward the invisible boundary that divided the two societies. When the teens saw him again, they chased him again, yelling slurs and threats; no more warnings as my dad ran back toward home. This time, when their car crossed deeper into the black community several of my dad's friends popped out of hiding to throw rocks, bricks, bottles, and cans at the moving vehicle, which jerked to a stop. “My daddy's gonna kill me!” the driver wailed at his stunned passengers before he shifted the newly dented car into reverse and started backing down the street as my dad and his friends yelled, “And don't come back!” 

Fortunately, no one had a conventional weapon. The police weren't called. And those teens stayed out of the black community. What if they hadn't? What if someone'd had a knife or a gun and the inclination to use it? What if the police had been called to teach my dad and his friends and their neighborhood a violent lesson about defying the unwritten rules of an entrenched racist hierarchy?

Those questions haunt me in the present because different answers to them in the past could have ended my dad's life, or at least altered its course away from high school graduation, college, a teaching career, grad school, marriage, parenthood, home ownership, community engagement. Different answers then could have pre- empted my existence. Why were my dad, his friends, and I saved when Emmett Till was not? Trayvon Martin was not saved. Ahmaud Arbery was not. Too many other beloved black children of God were not. Chris Cooper survived his encounter with the police. George Floyd did not. Archie Williams endured 37 years of incarceration for a crime he never committed. Neither his voice nor his heart faltered.

At the beginning of his life my dad had a weak heart that grew stronger every day. Despite medical professionals and tests predicting his early demise, he survived and eventually thrived because his family fought to save his life. They did not stop until they'd won.

We, the human family, the coalition of antiracist beings, need to fight to save the lives of black boys and men. Their existence, their presence, their contributions are essential to the integrity of humanity. We rob ourselves when we steal their lives or allow their lives to be taken without significant judicial consequences for the murderous thieves. (Duh!!! Implied from every civil rights and criminal justice reform activist on the planet.)

During an early May episode of “Wendy @Home" D.L. Hughley said, “A black man is always the prime suspect in his own murder.” It's a fact that is long overdue for repudiation. It's not self-defense for an armed bully who hunts for an unarmed person to torment, then kill when their targeted victim fights to protect himself from assault; that's short-sightedness on the part of the dishonorable bully. Exonerating them is indefensible.

Motivations behind this stalking of black men in the United States reek of sour grapes. Now that the law of the land (at least) states that Americans of African descent are full-fledged citizens and five-fifths human, and entitled to being paid equitable living wages (in theory) for their labors, there's a dangerous, disgruntled, delusional minority (hopefully, minuscule) who believe exploiting, imprisoning, and stamping out humanity enrobed in blackness wherever it is flourishing in body, mind, and spirit is the solution to all their problems, disappointments, and failures. It's the ultimate scapegoating.

So please, let us as ethical beings, mobilize to cull the dangerous minority of trigger-happy, self-appointed Neighborhood Negro Watch vigilantes from the herd of responsible law enforcement and civilian owners of firearms.

The convictions of the former Dallas, Texas police officer who trespassed, then killed Botham Jean in his own home, and the convenience store parking lot troll who killed Markeis McGlockton in Florida are indicators that the arc of legal proceedings and verdicts that involve executions of unarmed black men is finally leaning toward justice.* They're overdue first steps on what is (but shouldn't be, should never have been) a very long path toward fair and equitable representation for all in the courts of law and public opinion.

Like my dad, the United States began its existence with a potentially fatal condition. This country's origins of enslaving human beings and justifying it by legally stripping those enslaved people of their inalienable rights and protections of being recognized as humans or citizens while singing its own praises as the land of the free is the source of its greatest hypocrisy and its weakness. My dad's family invested their time, efforts, intentions, and dynamic actions into conquering his illness and getting him healthy enough to thrive.

Their example challenges me to ask, “What will I do as a citizen of the judicially ailing United States?”

When my dad registered to vote for the first time, his parents paid the poll tax Negroes (commonly used term during his youth) were required to pay in order to access their implied (before the Voting Rights Act of 1965) right to vote. Although that fee is gone, other impediments have replaced it over the years. For those of us who love the United States enough to work to heal it even as we recognize its significant ethical frailties, continuous dynamic action is required. Registering to vote, informing oneself about the candidates, their voting records, and their campaign platforms, then actually voting generate engagement and declare people's intentions on moving forward toward—or backward away from—expanded safety, stability, and prosperity that lift our society from the bottom up to meet and exceed basic benchmarks of good health, food security, residency, education, opportunities, wages, and judicial equity that support our constant claims of being the best country in the world. Let's make that claim apply to everyone who resides here.

Please vote.

Why We Can't Wait by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sybrina Fulton
“For Life” series based on the real-life experiences of Isaac Wright, Jr.
How Not to Get Shot by D.L. Hughley
The Chiffon Trenches by Andre Leon Talley
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
The Double V by Rawn James, Jr.

*The majority of this post was written before the disturbing events in Central Park, New York City, New York and Minneapolis, Minnesota occurred.


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