The Conversation

I am fairly sure that most parents have some sort of conversation with their teenagers when they get their driver’s licenses and start driving. Charlotte’s dad and I gave advice we felt, from our  personal experience, was good: when you’re pulled over don’t sass the cop, because that only makes it worse. This is the time it pays to show a good, Southern upbringing and use your nicest manners and Yes Sir, Yes Ma’am. It never occurred to us to tell her to fear cops, that being respectful, unassuming, and non-threatening, might make the difference between life and death. I worried only about bogeymen like the fake cop in the ’90’s who, using a car that looked like an unmarked police car, a blue flashing light, and some sort of uniform, pulled women over at night and raped them.

As our parents had told us,we told our daughter from her childhood that police were the good guys, the ones to find if she was ever lost, hurt, or scared. I told her, as my mother once told me, when you’re working nights make sure you know where the local police station is so, if you’re followed, you can drive there instead of driving home. (Yes, I actually had to do this once while I was waiting tables.)

It was only after Trayvon Martin died I became aware that African American parents have an entirely different conversation with their children, especially their boys.

Last Thursday, Bob Ray Sanders of the Fort Worth Star Telegram came to my parish as part of our dinner & speaker series. He threw out this question for us to ponder, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” All being good Christians we knew the correct answer is “Yes!” and some even seemed a bit indignant, started calling out the various outreach ministries we support, lest Mr. Sanders find us wanting.

But I don’t think Mr. Sanders meant to criticize, I believe, in the light of the tragic shooting of Michael Brown, he was posing a purely philosophical question: Am I my brother’s keeper,,,  even when he doesn’t look like me? What about if he doesn’t live in my country? Speak my language? Call God by the same name? Do I have the option of choosing who is my brother?

In bringing this question to us, Mr. Sanders recalled one of his personal heroes, the great poet Langston Hughes, who sincerely thought he would live to see a day when black folk didn’t have to have the conversation with their sons. Mr. Sanders grew up under Jim Crow and though in his lifetime he has seen much positive change in the South – his very presence in our church for one – he seemed doubtful that he, not yet an old man, would live to see a day when the conversation would not be necessary. A day when African American parents would have essentially the same conversation with their children that I had with Charlotte: don’t sass the cop when you’re pulled over because it only makes the ticket worse. He had to have  the conversation with his son about being respectful because it could keep him alive. Because he couldn’t count on the police to protect him; police might be the most immediate threat to his life.

All of this leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that, if I am truly practicing my Christian faith, once enlightened, how can I possibly tolerate this dichotomy? And I have no idea what to do with that.

But I can tell you that watching the coverage about Michael Brown has been breaking my heart. On my highly diverse high school campus, I see boys like him every day. To me, they’re kids, even the 6′ 4″, 300 pound football players, like the one who came immediately to my mind when the story broke, the one with the quick smile, a twinkle in his eye, and a tendency to wander the halls instead of being in class. The thought of him or even the most troublesome of my frequent fliers being gunned down in the street is almost more than I can bear, because one thing my education in Education has taught me is that kids are kids, and all kids make bone-headed decisions. Kids don’t think about the repercussions of their actions, they act first and think later. But I hadn’t thought we executed them; I didn’t think we gunned them down in the street, because even a 6′ 4″, 300 pound kid,  unarmed, is no match for a gun in the hands of someone trained to use it. I hope all the parents of all the black boys on my campus are having the conversation with their sons, even as I rail at the necessity of it.

Bob Ray Sanders quoted Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred to explain the rage in Ferguson, Missouri.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

– Langston Hughes –

I will close with this one, praying I never have to think of it in connection with any of the African American boys I’ve come to know and love, and hoping my prayers can somehow ease the intolerable grief of Michael Brown’s parents, as they bury a son who will never  have to have the conversation with his own son,  because he’ll never have a son.

Night funeral
In Harlem:

Where did they get
Them two fine cars?

Insurance man, he did not pay–
His insurance lapsed the other day–
Yet they got a satin box
for his head to lay.

Night funeral
In Harlem:

Who was it sent
That wreath of flowers?

Them flowers came
from that poor boy’s friends–
They’ll want flowers, too,
When they meet their ends.

Night funeral
in Harlem:

Who preached that
Black boy to his grave?

Old preacher man
Preached that boy away–
Charged Five Dollars
His girl friend had to pay.

Night funeral
In Harlem:

When it was all over
And the lid shut on his head
and the organ had done played
and the last prayers been said
and six pallbearers
Carried him out for dead
And off down Lenox Avenue
That long black hearse done sped,
The street light
At his corner
Shined just like a tear–
That boy that they was mournin’
Was so dear, so dear
To them folks that brought the flowers,
To that girl who paid the preacher man–
It was all their tears that made
That poor boy’s
Funeral grand.

Night funeral
In Harlem.

Langston Hughes

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