The book was poetry. Black man writes to black son. About America. About where we have been made to stand. Today. Every day. It was poetry. This letter: The kind that destroys. And illuminates. And somehow makes you feel empty, and entirely weighed down. In the very same moment. I read it at my favorite coffee house in St. Louis. And I was struck by how his words stripped me bare in that public space. Forcing me to consciously attend to my tears. Forcing me to respond.
I want you to read this book. But, first, I wanted to write you a letter. It strikes me as a fairly ordinary act for a parent to write a letter to his child, as Ta-Nehisi did. Ordinary, even if powerful. This attempt to make sense of life in the spaces we have been made to occupy. But Ta-Nehisi’s letter resonates as a message we all need to hear. About courage. And love. And pain. And fear. And the struggle. The message transcends parenthood. And its necessity transcends adolescence.
I guess it made me wonder about Ta-Nehisi. And those who look like him. Black men. Black fathers. You.
Who is conveying this message of love to you? Vowing to stand by you, and to struggle through it all?
I write this letter, because that is the space I hope to occupy with you. Because grown black men – regardless of the portrait that our world tries to paint, or the veil that covers the truth – have hearts that break in the very same ways as the rest of us. The world forgets that. And my hope is that one day the veil will be lifted, and that this truth will be recognized by this world. Until then…
I went to a conference a few months back: One discussion was about these six-word “race cards.” What six words convey your understanding of race? She yelled to me, “Come back!” It was the story of a black student. As a child. And his mother asked him to run into CVS for something. So he did what children do: hopped out of the car, and ran. And she yelled at him. To come back. Telling him, in a mix of hysteria and panic, never to run. That running would get him killed. And that moment became his understanding of race. Of being black: Running incites fear. And to incite fear, unintentionally or otherwise, will get you killed.
I’ve thought a lot about race over these last few months. About what it would look like for me to raise a black son. About the fear. The panic. The hysteria. These thoughts often bring me back to you. To moments of tenderness and vulnerability. Because you are my dad. And I know you. In a way the world refuses to see when they look at a black man’s body. I could spend hours writing a letter to my unborn son, saying all of the things he wouldn’t be able to comprehend. About how his complexion will incite fear. Unintentionally or otherwise. And the body that incites fear – however unwarranted – must be extinguished. But, for now, instead, I have things to say to you. Because I don’t know if you will ever hear them, or see them, if I don’t put them on paper.
I am sorry. For what you have had to endure, as a black man. Things I couldn’t even begin to understand until recently. I am sorry for the time you were pulled over, a few miles from home, for “being on your phone.” Only for the officer to come up to the window and see your phone sitting in the cup holder. You hadn’t touched it. I am sorry for each time you were chosen, “at random,” for a second, more thorough, search by airport security. Seemingly every time the four of us went on a family vacation. And I’m sorry that, as a black man, you must extinguish the rage before it reaches your chest, your throat. Because to let it reach your throat would be to risk the provocation of fear. And to do so would be to risk your life. I am sorry for the things your colleagues said about Rodney King over two decades ago. The day after he was beaten. And I’m sorry for the rage that coursed through you. For the fact that you had to leave work that day, or risk losing your job. I am sorry that you have always found yourself the only black man in the room. I am sorry for the ways that pressure sits upon your chest, in a way so many of your colleagues could never understand. I am sorry for the ceiling and the shackles and the hurdles that exist all around you, or upon you, or lurk beyond the next corner. I am sorry for the fear. For the struggle. And for any moment that you felt as if you were walking through this world alone.
I am sorry. Yes. But, more than anything – every time I see you, or hear your voice – I am grateful for you. Dad, you did not have to say yes to fatherhood. You did not have to be an anomaly. You did not have to break the cycle that your father created. A cycle that so many black children are swept up in. I cannot express my gratitude for the fact that you did. That you held my hand, walked with me, every step of the way. Black fathers are made to be something like the antiheroes in our world. For being absent. For walking away. I am, in no way, excusing every single black man who has ever walked away from his child. I do, however, firmly believe that the load that you all carry is often much greater than so many around you could even fathom. And I cannot imagine what it would feel like to bring a child into the space you occupy while carrying that load.
But I am so grateful for you; and for the fact that, somehow, you have managed to walk beside me, and before me, and behind me – wherever you were needed – as you carried your own load. You are weaved through so many memories: Lifting me from the middle of the street, in front of my childhood home, when I flipped over the handlebars of my bike. (I have, thankfully, become slightly more coordinated.) The horrified look on your face when you read the premise of A Series of Unfortunate Events: A father wishing his child could remain ignorant of evil, of fear, for just a little bit longer. Rapping to Eminem on our way to school. Or basketball practice. Or Souplantation after Sunday Mass. Hugging you as I returned to my seat following my high school baccalaureate address. Losing our minds when Reggie pushed Leinart into the end zone against Notre Dame. The Bush Push. I imagine our neighbors could hear us screaming, as if we were there on the field with that team. Comforting me after my first heart break. And my second. And every hurt or injury that followed. The grilled cheeses. The tomato soups. The phone calls about Kobe. And Sissie winning a $1 lottery ticket. And writing. Backyard ball handling drills. Free throws. Pep talks. Each time my confidence wavered. The conversation about choosing a college; and your patience, despite my rage, when you suggested that I not go to USC. The laughter. All of it. Every cadence. Every inflection. The rhythm of it all. All of these moments. I could not ask for a dad who was more fully present.
So I am in awe of you. Of who you are. And how you are. And I am grateful. For your presence. I am who I am, in so many ways, because of who you are.
Perhaps words cannot fully convey the message that so many black men deserve to hear. But, however inadequate, I hope that you know that I love you. That I am proud to be your daughter. Proud to be a black woman. That I am energized by you. By the way you move in the world. By the truth about you – and so many black men – that the world fails to see. Refuses to see. The tenderness. The resilience. And power. And grace. The world will not be wholly illuminated until it can lift the veil and recognize the light that you carry. Of that I can be sure. And by that, and the struggle to lift the veil, I am energized.
Thank you, Dad.
In light and gratitude and love,