Last week was your fifth birthday. We made carrot cake and sang you happy birthday just the once like you wanted and opened so many presents from family who love you fiercely despite being so far away. We bought you a bike and a raincoat and I cooked breakfast and lunch and dinner (and did I mention the cake?) just like you asked for and I marvelled at how very fast you are growing up.
There’s someone I’d like you to meet. I don’t know if you’d like him, or vice versa. He was born twelve years before you, which is too much of an age gap to be peers, but maybe he was the type to like kids. I don’t know, and we will never find out. I would like you to meet him, but you won’t, because eighteen days before your birthday, he was shot and killed by a man who looked at a black kid in a sweat shirt and saw a threat. He was killed by a man who is walking free still, nearly a month later — after your presents are losing their luster, after your bike is no longer quite so new — because of racist gun laws and racist police departments. He was killed by a man who mistook vigilantism for protection, violence for justice, and a kid walking with candy in his pocket for a no-good criminal.
Millions of parents across our country are holding their sons closer now, with this one thought echoing in their heads: that could have been my son.
You’ll forgive me I hope if I hold you tighter tonight, if I snuggle you just a little longer, kiss your hair just that bit stronger. But the thought in my head is: that will never be you.
You will never be seen as suspicious because of your skin color. You will never be coded as a violent criminal because of your race and your gender. You may one day know persecution, may one day be subject to epithets and violence simply walking down the street — you may be a fag or a tranny or a crip — but this, this will never be your fate.
But I am aware, I am so very, painfully aware that you might be on the other side of this. You might be the one wielding the gun1. You might be the one looking at the dead kid and seeing a corpse, a criminal, a cause for gunfire and “self-defense”. You might be the one letting the killer go without testing him for drugs or alcohol. You might be the one lobbying to pass laws that are disproportionately harmful to black and brown communities. You might be the one opining that it’s all so tragic but the kid did look like a thug after all and he shouldn’t have been out walking where he didn’t look like belonged.
When I hold you tight, I am thinking, praying, begging: don’t be them. Don’t be them, please, child, my beautiful boy: don’t be them. Don’t be the one that black mothers are afraid of tonight more than usual. Don’t be the one that lets this happen without trying to make it better. Don’t be the one that cracks a joke, that thinks of it as their problem, that doesn’t bother to care. Don’t. Be. Them.
You are, no matter how much I wish it otherwise or how much I work to prevent it, going to be infected by racism. It will — is, has already — pervert you, damage your ability to see others’ wholeness and humanity and (says your theist parent) holiness. You live in this society, in kyriarchy; it cannot not touch you and make you rougher.
But you don’t have to let it make you them. You don’t have to let it turn you into Trayvon’s murderer and his family’s misery. You have to not. You have to resist. You have to find a new way.
I’ll help you child, as much as I am able — how can I do else when there is a family without a son and without justice for their loss? — but as much as I want, I cannot shape you as I will, cannot fill your tabula with my anti-racist scripts (nor would I know the right things to write there, even if I could). I can only whisper in your hair, pray to whatever gods are there, write to a you I hope will be ready to listen: don’t be them. Don’t inflict this pain. Remember a boy you will never meet, and for him, for his family, for every family knowing it could be them: please, be better.
For Trayvon Martin. For so many others. Please.
- George Zimmerman — per Mother Jones — is Latino, but the point stands: white men might kill a black boy, but they will never be killed for being black. ↩