I didn’t know whether to stop. I turned the corner and noticed you first, before I noticed the police cars and the flashing lights and your car crammed full of stuff. You were standing there, jeans and hoodie. Hands in pocket and hood over your head. It was cold and you did not have on a coat. I was in my warm car, and you were standing in the January cold.
I thought about not stopping. I can only imagine how many cars on that busy street passed you by and took in the sight: a young black man standing in the cold while police officers search his car. I knew that although you stood there tall and unbowed, there was humiliation and shame in it. As I slowly drove by, I could feel the burden of it all — this white college town; the early morning rush hour traffic; the looks from those driving and those walking along the street.
Everyone who passes is looking at you and I feel a warm rush of shame. I could see your face and knew that you weren’t one of my students. And yet, in that very moment, you were son, brother, student, nephew. You were my kin. And so I stopped and parked at the meter. I had no plan but to bear witness.
I am standing by my car, cell phone clenched in my hand. I am standing there for no reason and for every reason. In that moment, I am praying for you. I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that someone is watching; someone sees you. I want you to know that you are beautiful. I want you to know that I will not leave until they let you go. I stand at my car and I say nothing. But you see me and I hope that my face will tell the story. I hope that by standing there, I am not adding to your shame.
I see you on this cold January day; hoodie and jeans; maybe you are 19 or 20. Because you are my very own kin, I see the youth in your face. You are someone’s baby boy and wherever your own mama is, I cannot leave until I know that her son is safe. I notice the bumper sticker on your car with the name of the local college. And suddenly, there are tears I do not even know why I am shedding moving down my face as I wait.
During my freshman year of college, I made the trip home too many times, unable to break the connection between the world I once knew and the world I was entering. By senior year, I realized that I had not made the trip home often enough. Not even 60 miles separated the place I once called home from that Ivy League campus, but it might as well have been an ocean between those two points.
Every time I left home, they sent me back to school with pies, casseroles, and fried chicken. It did not matter how much I protested or how much I tried to explain the idea of a meal plan — sometimes I left home with crumpled $5 bills from Mother Johnson, who told me to obey God and keep my legs closed. Sometimes I left home with peppermints from Sister Kennedy, who told me I should become a lawyer since I used to talk so much in Sunday school. But I always left home with food.
“Grandma, please, I don’t need a whole sweet potato pie to take back to school.”
“You and your friends will get hungry.”
“Grandma, please, I’ll just take one slice. I already have so much stuff to carry back.”
“Take the whole pie, child.”
I am on the train, heavy laden with food from home. Food that my white roommates do not eat. They have no way of knowing that this food is love from my grandmother’s kitchen. They cannot know that every pie, every piece of chicken, every buttermilk biscuit, every brown paper bag she sends with me is her way of saying: I love you and you make us proud. She will never say those words out loud, but as she presses money she cannot afford into my hands, and food I do not need into my bags, her every action is a whisper of a blessing.
And so, when I see you on that street, with a car full of stuff as the police search through your belongings, I am seeing a memory made flesh. I think about that mama who didn’t want to send her son back to school without a new shirt; a grandmother who wanted her grandbaby to take some oxtails and beans and rice to school with him; the auntie who wants you to take the winter coat she bought you, even though you know you will never wear it. I feel your burdens, my burdens, of needing to succeed. The burden of knowing that so many people have their hopes and dreams invested in your success. But your success — having lived to this point, having gotten into the college of your dreams — doesn’t feel like it matters much as you are standing outside, clad only in a hoodie and jeans, while the police ask you questions.
You are the son I do not have. You are the son for whom my womb longs. You are the son I still dream about on restless nights. But I almost out of time and I am almost out hope that I will ever usher you into the world. And so I fiercely love the sons of my heart.
For a dozen years, I have stood in a classroom, or in a pulpit, or at a rally, and I have loved the black boys and men in my life. I have loved them as sister and friend, surrogate mother and mentor, partner and teacher. I have loved them and I have been loved in return. When I stand there, at my car, it is because I am heavy laden with the complexity of black love.
To love a black child is to be constantly on guard against the forces, structures, and principalities that do you want that black child to survive or to thrive or to have joy. Those forces see a 12-year-old boy and think he is twenty; those forces see a teenage girl and assume she is prey.
To love a black child, to send her to college, to send him to school each day, is an act of vulnerability. When will she encounter the structures that tell her she is not beautiful, despite a lifetime you have given her of black dolls and happy hair books? When will he encounter the forces that assume he is a criminal, despite a lifetime of the politics of respectability you have taught him? To love black children is to know that despite all your efforts and your love — despite teaching them they have to do more, know more, work harder, be better — they will likely face the cold of a January morning, vulnerable and naked to the world.
They hand you a piece of paper and they leave. Their cars and those flashing lights are gone. You get back in your own vehicle. I realize that I have no more reason to stay. I want to watch you drive away, thinking maybe this will bring closure to what I have witnessed. You continue to sit in your car and I know it is time for me to leave. I never say a word to you, which I now regret. But what words did I have? I have no illusion that this was your first encounter with police nor am I naïve enough to believe it will be your last. You said the right things and did the right things and you are safe…or as safe as this nation will let you be. All I know is that I lived a lifetime in those five minutes. As did you. Please know that my presence there was only meant to be a whisper of a blessing.
It is a bucolic college town. It would be unimaginable to most people that an act of brutality and violence could take place here. But life under racism robs you of the illusion that any place can be truly safe.
I live in fear. It is the fear that someone I know and love will become the next trending hashtag. It is the fear that I will not survive a benign encounter with authorities, despite knowing the written and unwritten rules of engagement. It is the fear that when I wake up in the morning and check the news, there will be another horrific picture of a brutalized black body on the front page of a major newspaper. It is the fear of living in a nation where black death is addictive porn for the masses who need to consume their daily fix. And I live in fear that nothing I can do will stop the tide of violence against the communities I love.
You are safe. You are back in your car. Just a routine traffic stop that everyone would say proves the “system” works when you comply. Life goes on. But I know why you don’t drive away right away. It is the burden of fear that sags like a heavy load. Where can the heavy laden find rest?