Conversations about race are common in our house. We are a black family living in America.
My heart breaks each time I talk to my son about the importance of “acting right” to be safe in the streets of America. I know my son to be a loving and caring person who enjoys playing his trumpet, swimming, and riding roller coasters at the amusement park. But I fear that when other people see my young son, all they see is a black man.
We talk to my daughter about race as well. I sat in the audience, between my teenage son and daughter, listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates talk about his book Between the World and Me. My daughter had recently witnessed students at her school dressed in blackface. When she saw the advertisement for this talk, she suggested our whole family attend.
Yes, conversations about race are common in our house. We are a black family living in America.
These conversations make it difficult to sleep. When I watched Ava Duvernay’s When They See Us describing the account of the Central Park Five, the reality of this situation cut deep. One of the black boys accused of raping the white female jogger was only fourteen years old, and he enjoyed playing the trumpet. This kid could have been my fifteen-year-old, trumpet-playing son. I went to bed sad that night. I felt overwhelmed by the tragedy that befell the young white female jogger and the subsequent incarceration of five innocent black and brown teenage boys. I closed my eyes and tears began to form at the corners. I reached out to God for help, to have another conversation with him about race. Then, as I slept, I dreamed about God, my Father, speaking to America.
My Father had heard the sounds of colliding galaxies and dying red giants, but the sound that pierced his heart was a sharp cry from his blue planet. Sounds from earth have always been a mixture of laughter and cries. He had taught his children that life would be a mixture of joy and pain. He felt happy hearing the laughter, but as time went on, he became more and more concerned about the cries.
Voices of sadness originated from the jungles of Africa—black women on their knees wailing as black sons and daughters lay trapped in nets. Their white captors placed shackles around their feet and iron collars around their necks. The women’s anguished wails followed their captured children. Their tear-filled eyes landed on giant sea monsters, with large white wings floating on deep waters. After swallowing the children, the large sea monsters floated away and disappeared beyond the horizon.
The cries carried through the centuries as his dark-skinned children worked on cotton and sugar cane plantations. They were on their hands and knees, exhausted, hungry, and bleeding from their masters’ whips. A civil war ended with an amendment in the founders’ documents to outlaw the enslavement of the Father’s children. Yet, from the signing of that law to the present day his children still strive for freedom promised by that pen. His sons and daughters from Africa and other people of color are overrepresented in American prisons, seen as a threat as they walk the streets, and live within systems that have held them back instead of ushered then forward. All the while suppression of the voices of his dark-skinned children prevails
Even though Father saw hope in some of the intentions, he could see that America still did not grasp the significance of the atrocities. I watched as he addressed the American heart directly.
America, hundreds of years have passed since the cries in Africa, yet I continue to hear the sound of gunfire and falling black bodies in a city across your Great Lakes. The cries from heart-broken parents are constant as they wrap their arms around the bullet-ridden bodies of their black sons and daughters. I have shed many tears seeing mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, looking helplessly at black bodies pressed against the ground. America, one of my sons was just a kid walking home from the convenience store—he didn’t deserve to die because of a biased-eye. I am heart-broken that another son, just a twelve-year old playing with a water gun, would have to feel a bullet tear through his heart just because someone might have seen him as “probable danger to society.” America, another one of my sons was just selling cigarettes on the streets. He did not deserve to die. My daughter was in her home playing video games with her nephew. She did not deserve to die. Too many souls from my black sons and daughters have come home too soon. Although you embrace the Thirteenth Amendment, black men and women are more likely to end up in your prisons compared to their white brothers and sisters.
I had hoped you would learn that each life is precious to me. However, you criminalize my children from your neighboring countries for their effort to save their children from violent gangs. My heart broke once again to witness children snatched from their parents and placed in detention camps. Imagine, America, you as a little child separated from your mother—the fear, the anguish, the trauma. America, are you aware that many of my children from Africa and Latin America remain the poorest in your wealthy country? Did you know that your cities made decisions to create zones that hindered growth and prosperity in places occupied by the poor? These decisions trap my children in a cycle of poverty and hopelessness. With poverty, comes despair, and with despair comes the likelihood that one of my poor children might end up on the wrong side of the law. I am hurt to see homes surrounded by liquor and gun stores. All families feel the ripple effect across America, all the way to your heartland.
America, I remember the moment each of you was preparing to enter the world through your mothers. Each one welcomed to the world carried within themselves the possibility to stand up against bullies to protect that child with a strange accent, sitting alone at the corner, isolated from the fun and joy on the playground. Each with a voice ready to be utilized to speak up against racial profiling so your brothers and sisters from the other side of town do not die at the hands of your law. Each with eyes to see and hands to care for the poor and help them gain access to food, shelter, and health care. You came with a heart that could be convinced that brothers and sisters shouldn’t remain swallowed by prisons, and a strength to fight for their freedom in the face of injustice. America, each of you should always remember that you are all children of the same family, interconnected with one another on earth because you carry the image of your creator.
Have you forgotten? Have you forgotten that in spite of the difficult times, there is still hope? Love and pain bind you together in humanity and as a nation. America, do you remember that your creator has endowed each of you with unalienable rights? I ask you to wake-up. Advocate for the oppressed so they may enjoy those rights. I challenge you to reach deep into your souls so you may see that the one you perceive as your enemy has a heart, feels pain, and love, and wishes to be free, just like you.
Cover image by Carles Rabada.