I thought of you when I saw the son of Alton Sterling weeping at a press conference. It was the latest of a string of haunting public rituals of grief. The police had killed another black person. His cries made me think of you. It seems, ever since the murder of Trayvon Martin—and you were only fifteen then—that you have had to come to terms with this pressing fact: that police can wantonly kill us, and there seems to be little or no protection. That even I can’t protect you.
I remembered that day when the grand jury in Cleveland declined to indict the police officers who killed Tamir Rice. We were in an airport, traveling home. You cursed out loud and paced liked a trapped animal. I didn’t know how to speak to your rage. It was familiar to me, but I didn’t know what to say. How could I keep it from seeping in and coloring your soul a deep shade of blue? And when I read your Facebook posts in response to the death of Sterling and Philando Castile, I felt the sting of your anger. It too was familiar. You are your grandfather’s and father’s child.
James Baldwin wrote—and you know how much I love Baldwin—in “The Uses of the Blues” that “in every generation, ever since Negroes have been here, every Negro mother and father has had to face that child and try to create in that child some way of surviving this particular world, some way to make the child who will be despised not despise himself.” He wrote that in 1964, and here we are in 2016, and I am worried about the state of your spirit—worried that the ugliness of this world and the nastiness of some of the white people who inhabit it might dirty you on the inside. Might take away your infectious smile and replace it with a permanent scowl.
I find myself more often than not, and upon reflection this is an astonishing thing to say no less think, wishing you were seven years old again. You were adorable at seven. The vexations of the teenage years were far off, and you still liked me. But I say this not because I find having an empty nest unbearable, although at times I do, or that I long to raise a teenager again—and eventually you would be that maddening teenager again. I just say it because I feel that you would be safer at home, with us.
Those tears, son, shook me. Diamond Reynolds’s four-year-old baby consoling her mother made me tremble. I love you, and I don’t know what I would do if anything ever happened to you. But I am proud to see your radical rage—your refusal to believe what this world says about you. Keep fighting. And remember, as your grandmother reminds me with all of the wisdom that Mississippi living can muster, that I won’t stop worrying about you until I die.
When I saw those videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I thought of you and mom. I thought of Michael Brown’s mother and the emotions she felt when they stole her son from her, and I wondered about the pain and anguish you both would feel if that was me in those videos. Then I, too, saw the video of Alton Sterling’s son, and I thought about if it had been one of you in those videos, stolen from me by a trigger-happy policeman. The thought alone triggered emotions inside me that I didn’t know existed. I wept.
I remember when I first really started getting into activism. You were always checking up on me, making sure I was safe and that I was being careful about what I said and who I said it to. I thought you were being your typical dad self, over-protective of your little boy. I also remember when I started getting death threats on Facebook and Twitter. A neo-Nazi group had put my picture up on their Twitter page. I was terrified. I ran to you.
You may not have known it then, but your presence at the time was perhaps one of the most important things that could have happened to me. On the outside I appeared to be able to keep my composure, but on the inside I was scared. With a single tweet, my confidence and feeling of safety was shattered. To be honest, I almost didn’t want to go outside. The world seemed like it was doing everything in its power to destroy me. I was overwhelmed. And despite your parental instincts, which I know were screaming to pull me off social media, you pushed me to reach higher, to stand by the right, and to rise above the ugliness I was experiencing. You taught me that fear is natural, but it’s what we do in the face of fear that determines what kind of person we want to be. I will never forget those words. They motivated me. It was exactly what I needed to hear.
In these times of injustice, great anger and grief, I find myself consistently asking, “What would my father do?” Crazy, right? I’m actually listening to your advice for once. But it’s your advice that keeps me going. It’s what you taught me that keeps me pushing for justice. It’s knowing that you love and support me that gives me some sense of safety in this cruel world. And that is everything I need.
Funny, I too find myself wishing that I were a kid again. The world seemed so much simpler back then. But then I remember Tamir Rice. I remember Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Aiyana Jones. I look at the faces of countless black bodies piling up in our streets. And I remember my own experiences with police officers as a kid. The struggle must continue, for our future’s sake.
I love you, Dad.