I have an old acquaintance who types all of his emails in capital letters. They all begin, GREETINGS, and they are annoying.
On the other hand, my two-year-old grandson, Tommie, speaks his greetings in capital letters that sound as if they should be bold, under-lined and painted a vivid ORANGE.
I can hear his voice running through my head–musical, joyful and loud. He made me realize the lack of expression and diminished nature of my greetings to people. I exist on the cool side even when I feel warm and bubbly although a few years ago I began to hug people regularly upon seeing them. All of a sudden, one day, it didn’t feel right to say hello to friends and not hug them.
Howareyou? Tommie asks running the words together. When asked the same question, he responds, “Good!” pronounced “gud” as though he was German.
I saw Tommie most recently at my mother’s 80th birthday celebration in St. Louis. During the time the family was celebrating this momentous occasion, Michael Brown was murdered by a policeman in Ferguson, a short distance away. Many of my family members live in Florissant, adjacent to Ferguson. My brother-in-law teaches in Ferguson (although the start of school has continued to be delayed because of the shooting and its aftermath).
My sister, brother-in-law, Mom, and I watched the news obsessively while I was there, about what was going on in Ferguson and decided to go to the march/demonstration on West Florissant Blvd. on Thursday of the first week when Captain Ron Johnson of the State Police, himself a Ferguson native and Black man, took over from the local Police Chief. There were thousands of people walking and standing on both sides of the boulevard as cars in both directions honked their horns. It was night of peace and camaraderie. There was even a guy riding his horse.
That same night, we decided to drive a couple of blocks away to the historic district in Ferguson. It was peaceful, filled with quaint shops and restaurants. There was a gathering there in a large parking lot. We joined it, exhorted by a local, female D.J. (whose name I didn’t get) to pray together. Everyone did as asked and she invited clergy present (there were several) to lead us in prayer. In both gatherings, there were people of all ages bearing witness and making protests; greeting each other – “Hello, Sister, Lady, Brother, Gentlemen…Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
I wonder if Tommie will be part of a demonstration when he gets older. I pray that he will not be the reason for a demonstration.
I would preserve his innocence and enthusiasm if I could. The village of our extended family and friends will guide him and protect him as much as we can. We will train him on how to interact with police and other officials. (I gave my son the Little Black Book that Carol Taylor of Brooklyn published many years ago in response to the shootings of Black men by policemen. I will see if he still has it.) We will instruct Tommie not to steal or lie and will discipline him swiftly when he steps out of line. We will teach him to choose his friends carefully and avoid certain situations.
Will this be enough to keep him safe?
We will educate him about African-American history and about how he will be viewed by some people while trying to help him not absorb or believe the negative expectations society has for him.
Will this be enough to keep him safe and sane?
Will this allow him to pursue his dreams?
Will this keep him alive?
For Tommie and all the men in my family, my network, the world, I say a constant prayer – be safe, be safe, because:
Walking as a black man, sitting as a black man, relaxing as a black man, vacationing as a black man, going to school as a black man, shopping as a black man, driving as a black man, hailing a cab as a black man, jogging as a black man, selling as a black man, just living as a black man is precarious.
You can live normally and peacefully until that one encounter that changes everything – that, too often, ends your life.
The people who stereotype you don’t stop to ask your purpose, credentials, personality or your value. Instead they automatically decide that because you are a black male* you are up to no good, don’t belong, and should be intimidated (at best) or eliminated (too frequently).
Greetings, Tommie, welcome to the world.
- I am sorry, son, for the time the Northeastern University police made you and your friend who were walking across campus (where you were students) lay down on the snowy ground as they questioned your right to be there.
- I am sorry, husband, for the time in your young adulthood, when you and your friend were made to lay down on the street by police looking for a stolen car that wasn’t even the same make you were driving and were taken to the police station.
- I am sorry, former student, for the time an armed security guard came into the dorm where you were staying during the summer program I directed and pointed a gun at you and made you lay prone as he shouted questions at you.
I worry that in teaching Tommie his rights as a citizen and to stand up for those rights might cause him to be hurt – psychologically or mortally – when he stands up for those rights.
(*Black women’s and children’s lives aren’t valued much more either.)