The Husband convinced me to get out on the Fourth and take two little boys for their first fireworks. I had a bad attitude about it all damn day, too. “It’s gonna be hot,” I said. “There is a good breeze,” he countered. “You’ve mowed the lawn and done other physical labor today,” I stated. “So it will be even better to sit and enjoy the show,” he observed with a smile. “Well, it’s gonna be hella crowded and stuff,” I whined. “You’ll make some friends! You make friends wherever we go!” He chuckled.
I grumbled at him for the rest of the day.
We packed up the Blackmobile at the right time and drove her to the right place. There was a nice breeze. There was a band playing funk and other good music (not well, but not poorly). We sat in a high school field not far from another interracial couple. People crowded in close. I knitted, little boys played.
There weren’t a lot of Black people there, but I did notice that those few who walked past me all had the same looks on their faces. We exchanged pleasant smiles, but there was sort of this wide eye, a knowing exchange of glances: What are we celebrating? Did we have that great of a year? Is next year gonna be any be any better? Probably not. Do you feel the danger? Does it ever go away?
As the fireworks went off, two teenaged white boys broke out large American flags and went running up and down the aisles, screaming “YEAH! AMERICA! GREATEST COUNTRY ON EARTH! YEAH! YEEEEEEAAAAAH! ‘MERICA!!! GET ‘EM! YEAH!”
It made me feel a little gross. Mostly because that was just obnoxious. But I understood. I’ve written on multiple occasions about the love I have for my country. This is the only country I know and I consider it to be the greatest one on Earth. I’ve gone so far as to call it “exceptional,” and I firmly believe it to be true. I’m a history teacher and a civics nerd. This is my country and I love it above all others.
The weight of that love, though, and the extent of it, has been tested time and again in these last few summers (and longer. I’m just sayin’). The strain that I feel is only amplified by my supreme love for my two little boys. Brown boys. Brown American boys. When I have to watch yet another video chronicling the murder of another Black man at the hands of police officers, I shed my tears and I hug my children and I wonder, “what the hell am I going to tell these two children some day?”
About all of it? All of it. And there is so much of it. So much history. So much bloodshed. So much brutality. So many taken from us for no reason other than “because I can. Because I’m in power here. Because you are other and I am power here.” What the hell would you have me tell them, my two boys who you pop in to see a few times a week? What shall I tell them about their relationship with their government? About their relationship with law enforcement? About their relationship with their neighbors? About their relationship with their larger communities? What the hell would you have me tell them about this life that they are going to have to walk into? How shall I tell them that they are, without a doubt, members of an unprotected class? That their bodies, strong and beautiful, curse them, even doom them?
These two boys who you are watching grow up. Will you feel the same way about them when they grow up into full adults? Will you fear them? Loathe them? Cross the street when you see them walking in your direction? Will you speak up for their protection? Advocate for their humanity? Will you call them thugs because someone on tv tells you they are?
How shall I teach them to stand tall and proud, strong and beautiful, powerfully in a world that respects only power while, at the same time, teaching them to protect themselves? Would you have me teach them to cower before the man in blue who considers himself judge and jury (would Alpha and Omega be more fitting?)? No, right? How could I even consider such a thing?
Because every time officers of the state (and by “state,” I mean “government” in general, not just the individual states where these incidents happen) choose to play judge, jury and executioner, we all die a little. Maybe a lot. And when I say “we,” I mean all of us. All of us who are part of this republic, this body politic. We all sign the social contract. We’re all supposed to be in it together. Some of us were dragged into it. Others, by treatise, willed it and made it so. So many others walked up to it and begged for entrance. It doesn’t matter how you got your pen, you’re still a signed participant of the social contract. You give a little of your life, I give a little of mine, and when the state (or actors thereof) choose to abuse it, we all die, just a little. Actually, a lot. Because as the trust erodes, as misgivings rise, it’s to the determent of us all. And I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention, but we need all the help we can get right now.
So here it is, July 6th, and we’re all sobered up from our July 4th jubilation. The video runs over and over again. What will you have me tell my boys about Alton Sterling? What of the next Black man? What of the 557 other people killed by police in this country so far this year?
I just don’t know. Tell me. Somebody tell me. I just don’t know anymore.
What I do know is I can’t watch another video. I can’t watch that video again. While I thank God for these videos, that people don’t just die alone and unknown, officers able to spin the tale however they please, I can’t stand these videos. Black death as infotainment. Black death as numbing newsreel. Black death as par for the course, twenty minutes of useless commentary in the 24 hours news cycle by talking heads far removed and without care. I know there won’t be justice. I know those officers will get their money and walk another beat to walk before we know it. I know that the more this happens, the angrier we get, the less likelihood the cooler heads and reasonable arguments will prevail. I know that even I am running out of arguments and good ideas and well-crafted sentences to explain and re-explain. To calm myself. Why should I even have to do that?
I know that I’m going to have to tell my sons something. I know there will be bitterness and anger, and that I’ll have to scare the hell out of them. And how the hell is that fair, Dear Reader? And what the hell are we going to do about it? You and me, co-signers on that social contract?