The first reason I can give for why black lives matter to me starts with one word: Christopher.Christopher is the 15-year-old son of a good friend of mine, Kenya, who lives in North Carolina. …
The first reason I can give for why black lives matter to me starts with one word: Christopher.
Christopher is the 15-year-old son of a good friend of mine, Kenya, who lives in North Carolina. He’s an excellent student and a good athlete, with a dad who’s a professional photographer and mom who’s a writer and a web designer.
Christopher is black, and Kenya fears the day when he gets his driver’s license and can go out on his own. I’m not sure if she’s already had “the talk” with him about what to say and do to hopefully avoid harm if he’s ever stopped by police, but if not I expect it will be coming soon. It makes me mad as hell that a friend of mine should have to do that and feel that way. Never did I have such worries raising my daughter.
But what’s a mother to feel when discrimination and racism have been a part of her life for decades? In a recent blog column written at the request of a white friend, Kenya described a shopping trip with Christopher when he was nine during which the pair were followed all around a store by white clerks, while none of the other customers, all white, were being attended to at all. It was obvious they were being watched closely because they were black, and it was so disturbing that they’ve never been back to that store.
Christopher is almost the same age that Trayvon Martin was when he left the home he was visiting eight years ago to walk to a convenience store for snacks. He never made it back, killed in a scuffle with a vigilante who followed him because he was black and wearing a hoodie and the attacker thought he looked suspicious. When George Zimmerman was acquitted of any crime in Trayvon’s tragic death, by a predominantly white jury, Black Lives Matter was born.
It happened to Trayvon – could it happen to Christopher? Fear of black men in our society is real. Racism is real. My friend Kenya has to live with the truth that her tall, handsome black son could be perceived by some people as threatening, and the fact that she does just rips my heart out. Her family’s lives matter to me, as do the lives of all the other black families who can’t ever just walk away from the realities of racism in America.
The second reason black lives matter to me is that for most of my adult life my life has mattered to them.
When folks here in the north lands of Minnesota ask me where I came from, my standard response has been that I moved here from Montana and am a small-town Kansas native. Both are true, but they omit a huge swath of my adult life that was spent working in large metropolitan areas.
Over a span of about 25 years, my professional life in early childhood education included years spent in Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, south Los Angeles, and Spokane, Wash. All of those jobs brought me into treasured relationships with people and communities of color and provided experiences both sobering and enriching. I’ve been warmly invited into the lives of so many black colleagues, families, and friends that the injustices I’ve seen firsthand continue to pain me greatly, even as I make a new home for myself in very white northern Minnesota.
As a professor at St. Louis Community College, I worked for five years at the Ferguson campus. If Ferguson rings a bell, it’s likely because of the police shooting there of Michael Brown and the ensuing riots. I’d left Ferguson by then, but problems with racism in area police departments were openly acknowledged and longstanding when I was there. It took less than a semester of being at SLCC to learn what a mess the Ferguson police department was when it came to policing the black community. Meanwhile, I was sickened nearly every spring after graduation when invariably some of my associate-degreed black students were passed over by programs in predominantly white neighborhoods who preferred hiring white staff with no degrees over far more qualified black candidates. I know that happened because those programs would then send some of those unqualified staff to my program to take classes.
When I moved from SLCC to the St. Louis County, Mo., Head Start program, one of my friends and colleagues had an experience that feeds my present-day concern for Christopher’s future.
I came to work one day to find the office abuzz about what had happened the night before to our Fatherhood Initiative coordinator, Wendell. He had been stopped by the police for “driving while black.” After proceeding from a stop light on a street near Forest Park, he was pulled over by officers who told him that there had been some “trouble” in the area and that they needed to check him out. Wendell and his buddy were told to get out of the car, whereupon they were frisked from head to toe by one officer while the other searched the car. Finding nothing, the officers sent them on their way without any apology for the unjustified and illegal invasive search. Here was a man of exceptional integrity, a master’s-degreed social worker, a friend and colleague of mine, who was reduced to tears as he retold the horrific story. He reluctantly filed a complaint, knowing that nothing would ever come of it, and nothing did. That’s the way it worked back then, and for the most part still does unless someone is standing nearby with a camera. Would there be such uproar over the death of George Floyd if it hadn’t been captured on video? We all know the answer is a resounding “NO.”
Driving while black, walking while black, swimming while black, and as we’ve seen recently, even bird watching while black can be dangerous for even the most educated, well-established black men in America, and often those dangers come in unprovoked encounters with police. Frankly, the best thing whites could do for police instead of dismissing the problems as a few bad apples is to demand that the police weed those bad apples out of the system so that their actions don’t make the work of good officers harder and more dangerous. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened, but perhaps the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s abhorrent and tragic death will bring change.
Black lives matter to me. For those of you inclined to respond with “all lives matter,” of course they do, but you’re sadly missing the point. We’re not saying “only black lives matter” or “black lives matter more.” Parents love all their children, but we all know sometimes one needs more attention than the others. Black lives matter to me because it’s long past time to address the issues that keep my black friends, colleagues, and children and families I’ve worked with and care about from fully reaping the benefits of being Americans.
And frankly, black lives matter to me because I’m tired as all get out of seeing my friends have to worry over things white people never give a second thought to, tired of seeing them having to be more qualified than whites to compete successfully for the same job, tired of worrying about the fate of the Christophers of America and the world. I’d like to experience a life free from the angst of seeing people I care about suffer injustice in their lives. Striving to clear the hurdles in the paths of the black people I care about isn’t nearly as hard as having to deal with the hurdles myself, but it’s my responsibility to tackle if I ever hope to experience the peace and equality I wish to see in the world.