Thursday, May 28, 2020

Some Birthdays Bring Cheers, Others Bring Fear

Image Source: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005). Adapted: Ellen Tuzzolo (2016); Mary Julia Cooksey Cordero (@jewelspewels) (2019).

My nephew celebrated his fourteenth birthday this week. It came on the heels of the “liberal” white woman in Central Park who called the cops on a Black man when he asked her to leash her dog in an area of the park where leashing dogs is required. She donned her best frantic voice and lied to the dispatcher about him attacking her as he calmly recorded her antics. That same week, four police officers in Minneapolis used undue force to asphyxiate a Black man accused of writing a bad check. Both instances were not only blatantly racist but showcased how remarkably dangerous this country is for Black men. Every time an instance such as this one, or the list of other times innocent Black and Brown men have been murdered with no consequences for their killer, my mind immediately goes to my nephew.

He is a beautiful deep brown with curious dark eyes, wonderfully curly hair, a deepening voice and is most likely on the cusp of a growth spurt. Like other boys his age, he loves sports, spending time with his friends, and asserting his independence. All of these qualities are perfectly normal for kids his age. The difference is that the more he grows, the deeper his voice, the more of a menace he becomes even if he isn’t doing anything menacing. With every year we celebrate his life, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll get to celebrate another one. That fear often overshadows the milestones he looks forward to, as all kids do. Will he get to play a sport on his high school team? Will I see him all dressed up for a homecoming dance? Will he get to rent a tux and take awkward photos that we’ll laugh about as we reminisce about his prom? I hate to admit that I don’t like to think about those moments for fear they’ll be ripped away if he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But these days, what exactly is the wrong place at the wrong time when Black and Brown people have been murdered by law enforcement in their own homes — their own beds while they slept? Of course our family has talked to him about all the factors we hope will help him survive an encounter with the police or angry white people: don’t talk back; keep your hands where they can see them at all times; don’t raise your voice; never make any sudden moves; and never ever run. I wonder how many of my friends who love and raise white boys have had those same conversations. How many of them fear their sons and nephews might be stopped on the street by a cop or citizen vigilante for no reason and be buried three days later. Do their hearts speed up at every headline of a young male murdered for doing mundane things like going for a run, playing with friends in a park, or walking down the street with iced tea and Skittles the way I do? Have they ever hugged them goodbye and taken a mental photo of their skin and tried to memorize their smell in case that is their last hug? Have they ever hesitated to talk about their sons’ or nephews’ futures for fear of painting a picture they are afraid may never happen?

These were the thoughts I had when thinking about his fourteenth birthday. I also remembered the day he was born. He was the first baby born to our family in a few decades. I lived two blocks from the hospital so I walked there on a beautiful spring day. I felt nervous to meet the first little person who would call me their aunt. Having had a close relationship with my aunts, I didn’t take the role lightly. I felt a strong responsibility to protect him the moment I saw his tiny body swaddled in the hospital baby blanket. I wanted to be his friend, ally and confidant as my aunts had been to me. My aunts influenced my childhood in so many ways and I wanted to do the same for him. I envisioned sleepovers where I spoiled him with too many treats, and birthdays and holidays where I gifted him elaborate, over-the-top-totally-unnecessary gifts. I wanted to see him marvel at the world and have experiences I never had. I looked forward to having the types of conversations I had with my aunts, where I looked for advice or asked them to help me figure out how to approach my mom about something important to me. More than anything, I looked at his tiny face and wanted everyone who met him to love him instantly, the way that I did. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could purposely hurt this perfectly made little human.

While I love to see the man he is becoming, with his natural inclination to help others and keen eye for business, there are people out there who could and would willingly snuff out his life and then go home and enjoy a roast with their families as if nothing happened.

It infuriates me that the loss of his chubby cheeks and toothless smile means that others view him as a threat simply for existing. He is guilty until proven innocent, even if innocence comes post-mortem, as many other Black and Brown boys who came before him — from Emmett Till to Treyvon Martin, and Antonio Arce. When I look at him, I see an ambitious entrepreneur who likes to tell jokes and is fiercely protective of his younger cousins. In his smile I see my sister, my dad and myself. In his eyes I envision all the things a young man should see in his lifetime — a life lived in freedom that spans decades. Yet, I am reminded every day that the likelihood of his future playing out as I imagine — as he deserves, will be a struggle he will battle every day.

The reality of his life’s trajectory is that he is highly likely to be stopped and suspected of a crime and be punished a lot more harshly for whatever discretion he is accused of. In the simplest of acts he will be judged as hazardous and whether guilty or innocent, will face harsher-than-necessary consequences, including wrongful death at the hands of people who do not value his life. While I love to see the man he is becoming, with his natural inclination to help others and keen eye for business, there are people out there who could and would willingly snuff out his life and then go home and enjoy a roast with their families as if nothing happened. It not only worries me into anxious fits, it disgusts me to my core.

Seeing videos and reading about the incessant inhumane treatment of Black and Brown people is poisonous to my soul. It pervades the very fabric of everything around me. Like a venom, it travels through me and leaves me tired, hurt and dumbfounded. How do humans dare decide that other humans are not as fit as they to inhabit this earth? How do they justify creating systems across all spectrums of life that unabashedly hurt others? Where do they find the heartlessness to inflict pain on others who have not hurt them in any way?

As these questions swirl in my head and I struggle to carry the heaviness of hopelessness it brings, I am asked to give guidance to those who want to help. I am expected to be forgiving and to accept excuses ranging from, “If only he would have done what the cop/angry white person demanded of him, none of that would have happened,” to, “Black on Black crime is bad, too.” I am expected to be comforted with thoughts and prayers from people who could not inconvenience themselves to work for a change to the systems and lifestyles that fed into the violence to begin with. I am invited to participate in vigil after vigil, protest after protest when what is really needed is for people who do not look like me or my nephew to make changes that go beyond posts on social media and prayer-hand emojis.

And please don’t ask me what you can do as a white person to help this situation. Google that shit like you would a sourdough bread recipe and do what countless people of color have been asking of you for ages. Follow the advice and recommendations of the scholars and advocates who have devoted their lives to fighting injustice and bigotry and do the things that seem the most radical and uncomfortable to you because what is happening to kids like my nephew is some of the most radical and uncomfortable and deadly shit you can imagine.

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