When Parenting Feels Like a Fool’s Errand: On the Death of Michael Brown.

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I don’t want to talk about the boy and the sneakers peeking out from the sheet crudely draped over his corpse in the street, because I have been happy this month and it is so rare that I’m happy and that you, at age 4, don’t have to touch my knee or shoulder or face and say, “What’s wrong, Mama? You sad?”

I don’t want to think of who will go out on her hands and knees to scrub what’s left of the boy’s blood from the concrete. It will probably be a loved one, her hands idle after hours of clenching them into fists, watching what used to be her breathing boy lie lifeless, as she waited and waited and waited for the police and the coroner and the county to get their stories straight and their shit together and their privilege, sitting crooked as a ten-dollar wig, readjusted till it was firmly intact. All that time they spent, just primping, just holding their whiteness and authority up as mirrors for one another, tuning out the cries of a mourning community — or garbling them, rather. Did they say, “Kill the police?!” As long as that’s the way you heard it, they did. And that is what AP will wire out to every mainstream news outlet who can be bothered to report the death of another unarmed black son on a Saturday night.

Their truth is not our truth.

Daughter, I said I didn’t have it in me to sit with the murder of Michael Brown last night and comb my social media accounts for first-hand anecdotes that would likely be more accurate than anything the news stations would report. I didn’t want to watch the Vines or read the Instagram messages under a photo collage of police presence at the crime scene, wailing friends and neighbors, the boy’s father holding up a scrap of cardboard scrawled with, “Ferguson Police just executed my unarmed son,” and the barely covered body of the boy himself.

But I stayed up anyway, because his neighbors had not gone home. They had held vigil and recorded and tweeted and planted their feet as a helicopter shone floodlight into their faces and a tank rolled into their apartment complex and barely restrained dogs bared their teeth and growled like they were hoping to be sicced.

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They could not be intimidated into returning to their homes. They knew too well the coldness that would await them there, the absence of Michael’s laughter and light, the sounds and images of his final moments filling every too-quiet corner.

No. They would cling to each other instead, and I cannot blame them. I know the alternative. There is no honor in bearing death alone, no solace in silent suffering, nothing noble about walking away empty-handed. The community cried and crooked its arms, mobilized and marched. In the dark they headed to the murderers’ doorstep: the police department, demanding accountability for the alleged ten gunshots one of their cops had leveled at an unarmed teen in broad daylight.

They were told they could expect a press conference at ten the next morning. The department needs time, I suppose, to omit and tamper and vilify, time to label the shooting as anything but misconduct, as “manslaughter” and not “entirely preventable murder.”

I logged off when the community received that most minimal sense of closure: a cover-up conference at 10 AM. But I slept fitfully and woke with too many empty words. I always want to write the boys back, always want to revive the little girls. But writing feels like a fool’s errand at times like these.

And so does parenting.

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The boys who live are so scarred. I have looked inside more than a few; they are hiding bullets in each quadrant of heart and brain. There are shells lodged in their arteries. Memory, not metal, ticks within them. When they laugh you can hear it rattling like real tin. One false move and their minds or their wills or their ability to feel at all will be gone.

And they will tell you: when I was five, a man nodded at me as he strolled past my house and by the time he reached the end of the block all I saw was his blood. And they will tell you: my brother, my cousin, my best friend, my little sister, my first crush was killed, and the cluster of stuffed bears and balloons we left at the scene was gone within the week. They will tell you: I am not sure how long I will live. 

The truth is: you are not sure, either, and there will be very little left to say in the face of that actuality. Besides, it is all the things they won’t say, all the numbness and fatalism and resignation they are too afraid to acknowledge — and the ulcerous pain underneath it — that are the real sites of worry.

I do not want to talk about this anymore because I was happy this month and you just turned four on the first and all I can think about is the promise I see in you. I think about how well you’re hearing these days with the tiny aids that screech when you hug me and hiss when the batteries are weak. I think about how much easier it’s become for you to simply say, “Help, please” instead of throwing a frustrated fit for the language you cannot find. I think about how often I keep you near me and how many people take umbrage with that. She has to learn, they say, how to live in this world.

But how can you learn at 4 to do what still makes me flail and falter at 34? And how can I let you go when a girl a year younger than you was gunned down in our city last week and a boy who would’ve headed off to college for the first time on Monday was executed within steps of his Ferguson, MO home on Saturday?

I’ve no more access to the language for this than you do.

What I have is you and the God who gave you and the God who just may take you away. And I have the resilience of a race who has survived every previous effort to exterminate it (and to compel it to exterminate itself). I have eyes and a watchful heart; they are both weary. I have hope that if the time comes, my community will be like Michael Brown’s, immovable and resolutely together. And what I also have are words that I’m meant to use when I least want to, in hopes that they will reach beyond my grasp and be a reckoning for those who, in the face of immense loss, would just rather we all returned to our homes and kept quiet.

72 thoughts on “When Parenting Feels Like a Fool’s Errand: On the Death of Michael Brown.

  1. Thank you for this difficult piece, to write and to read. The compassionate heart that beats out it’s flow, is the compassion of the true spirit of all humanity. The color of that is clear.

    1. as of 2013, there are more minority children being born in the US than white children, the tide will turn, not that we have to wait for these kids to grow up, but it can’t stay the status quo much longer.

  2. Your story touched me deeply. Though I am a 54 year old white man, I once held a 4 year old daughter who had just been fitted with her first hearing aids. We were fortunate that we did not live in as risky a place as you; that former 4-year old will be 30 soon. She is living a happy, apparently fulfilling life.

    I don’t know what else to say other than I am very sorry and wish there was something I could do.

    1. Rod, thank you for commenting. I’m glad to hear that your daughter is well and thriving in her adult life. It’s a heartening story to hear as the mother just starting her journey with a hearing impaired daughter.

      Abigail’s right that I didn’t mean to imply that my daughter and I live in a particularly dangerous area. We live in a suburb. Just like Michael Brown did. Just like the suburb Trayvon Martin was visiting when he was shot. Just like the suburb Jordan Davis lived in before he was killed.

      America — every part — is dangerous for black children. As parents, there is no community in this country where we could move and feel entirely safe.

  3. I’ve read many blogs, articles by you detailing your displeasure with the world and the love that is non-existent for our people, but this one gives me chills. I cannot begin even fathom what it must feel like raising a child in a world that no longer understands how important living is. Our very potential is threatened daily & no one of authority blinks an eye. Thank you writing this.

    1. And often, the authorities *are* the threat, which is even more unnerving. Raising a child right now makes me hypersensitive to… everything, and it can be hard to remain hopeful. But I owe but to her to try and I owe it to God to trust that He sees and knows far, far more than I do. And writing helps. Thanks for reading it all. <3

  4. As a Blackfoot Indian woman mother grandmother I thank you for words I could not access for tears I haven’t cried for writing that heals with honesty. It breaks my heart every time an innocent is executed in the “Land of the Free”. that is my ancestors homeland that has never been free since my people were nearly wiped off the earth and your people brought here by force in chains to build this monstrosity know as America.

  5. Reblogged this on Gina Vergel and commented:
    There was another police shooting of an unarmed teenager (18) last night. This time it was St. Louis, Missouri. Details about the incident are very sketchy, but this blog post about this shooting, and so many others like it, is very moving. Read on…

  6. I possess nearly zero personal understanding of the emotions which drove you to write so elequently about such an incredible tragedy. The closest I’ve been to relating was the death of a former student in East St. Louis, who I struggled desperately to connect with for the ~5 months I knew him. Having zero appreciable skills to do so as a young white educator of relative privilige, it was the last time we spoke that I sensed a corner beginning to turn, while the still closely held secret that I was leaving tore me up inside. Fast forward 11 months and I read that JF was gone, not at the hands of the police but equally incomprehensibly at the hands of two misguided young men, whose race I share, over a damn bike. JF’s loved ones, their struggle to comprehend why he’s gone, and my guilt that I wasn’t skilled enough to make the only difference that mattered, that which would have have kept him from his early passing (as if i were somehow capable), have left me entering my office daily, seeing his picture on my bulletin board and silently wondering “why?” in every imaginable way. Yours is without any doubt the best, most powerful writing of any kind that I’ve read in years and after doing so I now clearly understand that it is beyond my ability to comprehend what Mike’s and JF’s families have, are currently, and will experience. Thank you for helping me to understand tonight that I can never truly understand. Your writing is incredibly beautiful, the emotion which you’ve conveyed is powerful beyond words, and my heart has finally reached a complete understanding that any measure of my own sorrow and guilt barely registers when compared to those who truly live these incomprehensible tragedies as an every day reality.

    1. Dear Tony,

      There’s nothing you could’ve done. Try to let go of any guilt you’re carrying. You taught JF for under five months and knew very little about how to access his reality. He wouldn’t likely have confided in you in a meaningful way in that short a time, nor would he have expected you to save him from anything. What he would’ve wanted, if he spoke to you about his personal life at all, would simply have been for you to listen to him and to allow what you heard to impact your interaction with boys like him going forward. Now that you feel an even stronger compulsion to do that, I hope you’ll be able to have even stronger authentic relationships with students who may share similar challenges. I’m honored you read my work and I commend you for pursuing a life as an educator and retaining a genuine desire to make a difference. That idealism is more important than society gives idealists credit for.

  7. What a moving, well-written piece. Unfortunately, I feel like there are very few places in this world where any child – regardless of race – is safe anymore. This is a tragedy and I hope sincerely that justice is served.

  8. Thank you for writing this post. It’s opened my eyes more to what’s happening in my own back yard. It’s not as bad here, in Ontario, but it shouldn’t be happening anywhere.

  9. Thank you for bearing your heart and and sharing your light. You are not alone, as I often wonder when my Public Defender coworkers talk about the young black boys’ criminal activities that our office service, you can never comprehend the fear I’ve felt when my brother became a teenager. He’s a good guy, never got into trouble, but he’s black you see and bad things happen to young black boys. I was only 22yrs old myself and those thoughts are so heavy. At 33yrs old I have 2 nephews, one is about to be 5 and sometimes I grieve for him and what this world wants to offer him. I have been deliberately not watching and keeping up with this story. But I felt compelled to read your post and I’m so glad I did. It is up to us to create a place that our children our safe. If this doesn’t wake people up, I don’t know what will.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and to share your experiences working with an at-risk black male population and to share your concerns for your brother and nephews. It’s so important for us to have space to admit our fears for the black men (and women) in our lives and the limitations on our ability to protect, shelter or shield them. It’s a lot to be expected I simply internalize. And we need to know that other people share our concern and care. I care about your family and I’ll be thinking of and praying for the young ones in it.

  10. This is an extraordinary piece… one that should NEVER have to get written. After all is said and done from every possible angle, it’s about a child taken away from his parents far too soon… however you spell it, it comes up tragic…

  11. I’m so terribly sorry that the ignorant are given guns and badges and the right to kill innocent people. May God be with the family and friends of this wonderful young man and protect others who may get in the way of the idiots who did this terrible injustice.

  12. My God you can write and with such an incredible gift as this to communicate you could never fail your child. This post is powerful and has moved me to tears. I feel as if I have stepped into your shoes and I feel your anguish and the pain of your community. Keep speaking the truth.

  13. I can’t like your post. I may well shed a tear over your post, my heart may ache, my mind may feel benumbed to the tragedies coming at people from those who are supposed to protect.

    We cannot undo, but I will stand next to you. And maybe another and another and another. It has to stop.

  14. I’d venture out even further and say that this disregard for the importance of life threatens the lives of all children growing up in this generation. It’s chilling to know that at all times someone may feel entitled or angry enough to end a life at the drop of a hat and no parent ever knows how close their child may be to such people. All you can do is just love your children and pray for their well being. I’m sorry for the tragic loss of this young man and bless you for being such a resilient community and fighting for justice.

  15. I live in a different country to you, yet your words and what brought them about still ring true.

    Truly beautifully written. Thank you.

  16. You have expressed so clearly and deeply the truth that our world is far from perfect and bad things do happen to good people. This often leads us to wonder “why?”

    Let us grieve for those we have lost and still retain the idealism and determination to make the world a better place for all. This is a challenge for everyone, but for parents and families who have lost a child it is especially difficult.

    Working together for peace and tolerance and holding those intentions in our hearts is an important step in this process. For some people losing Michael will be the catalyst to create a better world. Your powerful words may serve the same purpose for others not directly affected by his death.

  17. They say the heaviest load on the soul for a parent, is the sight of a child’s casket. I am so sorry for your loss. Prejudice against someone, just because they don’t look like you is a sign that all the illusions of human moral superiority are bogus. We still have a long way to go.. RIP!

  18. You have words, beautiful and truthful words. We all must use our words to speak out against racial injustice, so our children will grow to know a different reality. Thank you for your essay.

  19. Wow. I got chills reading this because you write so passionately, so effectively. Your emotions flowed through every word, and that made this post very powerful. I wish I could say or do more than I have to help with the situation in Ferguson, but from where I am, word-of-mouth is my only weapon. I wrote a post on this situation in Ferguson as well. It’s not on the same track as yours, but I would appreciate your feedback. Please take a look, if you get the chance: http://annalieseblog.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/ferguson/. Thanks for sharing this post…

  20. Beautifully said, thank you for sharing what’s in your heart. It helps all of us heal and see a different perspective from what the media wants us to believe. I know God is Love and love never fails. The media is working for a hidden beast that wants to divide and conquer all Gods children. We must unite! Red, black, yellow and white. In the end, God wins. May God be with you and all our nation.
    Sincerely, Dawnasong

  21. Reblogged this on Something has to give and commented:
    My history teacher said how the media showed a picture of Michael dressed up as a “thug” her being a white woman she said “well if you dont want people to think of you certain way you shouldn’t portray yourself that way.” How was the police office portrayed with blood on his shirt, an american hero.

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