60 Years of “The Blues”
Last night, my father called me sobbing; the muffled sounds of snot and tears dancing through the phone and into my ears. I sat there and listened in silence as my dad mentioned Trayvon Martin.
“I’m afraid of the world I left you to inhabit.” He said.
“I should have done more, son. I should have done more to combat the insistent perception that black boys are a threat. Instead of attending more marches, I should have talked to that young man hanging on the corner, pants sagging, and hat turned backwards. I should have told him he had better options and that I was willing to help him succeed. I should have sung a song of praise to those young men who came out of prison and remained undefeated. I should have taught those young men in gangs how to build a house, or pour cement or fix a car. I should have been a better role model and offered an alternative to the gun wielding, tattoo covered rappers on TV.”
My dad sounded tired and spent; exhausted from years of regret.
I don’t disagree with my father. I think in some ways, black men are culpable in how larger America perceives us. Too many of us are content representing the crack selling, misogynistic, violent images that find frequent expression in our songs and music videos. And too many fathers are absent; either locked up or posted up on the stoop. Such images help contribute that lingering notion that all young black men are dangerous and need to be feared.
Even still, I also recognize that just because a young man wears his hat backwards or sags his pants, doesn’t mean he’s violent and is up to no good. Such thinking fails to consider the impact institutional and systemic discrimination has had on the African American community. Historically, young black boys were prohibited from joining clubs like “The Boy Scouts of America”. And so, they started their own clubs. It was a way to feel accepted and included. That these clubs eventually turned into violent gangs shouldn’t surprise anyone. With many of the role models of the civil rights era either assassinated or the subjects of relentless FBI investigations, young black men turned to the drug dealers and pimps for guidance. Outdated books in inner-city schools and discriminatory questions on college applications and fathers not being able to find well-paying jobs to provide for their families all helped to shape the economic and educational predicament in many African American communities.
All of this helps explain the cycle of poverty and violence that persists in the neighborhoods across America. To make a judgment about blacks, without understanding the history is both ignorant and lazy.
“I need a smoke” my father said. He only smoked when he was stressed. I could hear him take a drag from the cigarette, his breathing steady, his nerves seemingly at ease.
He told me about the time he found my grandfather weeping on the bathroom floor. The radio was on and he could hear a deep baritone voice announce that Malcolm X had been shot. He was dead. “I was 4 years old and it was the first time I’d seen my dad cry.” He said. And a few years later he watched tears fall again from his dad’s eyes when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. My grandfather pulled him to the side and explained that it was ok for a man to cry.
“I saw my dad cry” my grandfather chimed. “It was 13 years ago, when Emmett Till was killed.” “I watched him lament how little value a young black life had.”
My great grandfather told my grandfather the same thing that my own father told me. That he was afraid for the world he had left him to inhabit and that he wished he would have done more.
I think that all black men want to leave a better world for their sons. They hope the next generation has less discrimination and more tolerance. No father wants his son to be followed in a store like he was, or have a woman clutch her purse a little tighter when they get onto an elevator.
As evidenced by three generations of men in my family, in hindsight, a lot of dads wish they would have done more for racial relations. They wish they would have done more to offer a better world for their kids.
I want to learn from their regret. If I can, I want to help change perceptions. Fifty years from now, I don’t want to call my son sobbing about another tragedy.