Is It Safe for a Black Male to Dial 911?

Watch this: In "Cuz He's Black," a 4-year-old black boy in fear for his life learns to hide from police.

Javon Johnson (screenshot from "Cuz He's Black" YouTube video)
Javon Johnson (screenshot from "Cuz He's Black" YouTube video)

(The Root) —

Editor’s note: We were reminded again yesterday that in America, color may still matter as much as character when you’re black and male and you have an encounter with police. And we ask this question: When is coincidence more than coincidence? As The Root reported on Tuesday, Jack Lamar Roberson of Waycross, Ga., somehow died while in police custody after his fiancee called 911 for help, saying that Roberson was suicidal.

In September, Jonathan Ferrell staggered away from a crushing car crash, only to be gunned down by North Carolina police officers who didn’t recognize him as a victim but who saw him as a threat. We hear stories from our friends and loved ones who tell us they would be afraid to call 911 if they needed help. They must calculate what might occur when the blue light shows up.

So we are left to wonder, how is a black man supposed to seek the emergency assistance he might deserve when he is seen as a predator, an ominous figure or a criminal?

Then we remembered the story told by Javon Johnson in his brilliant poem “Cuz He’s Black.” It’s about the chilling conversation Johnson had with his 4-year-old nephew and the little boy’s fear of police. Watch the video below. Then read what Johnson has to say about what he learned when his video went viral.

Cuz He’s (and She’s) Black, Too, and Sometimes Queer

During a semifinals bout at the National Poetry Slam in August 2013, I performed my poem “Cuz He’s Black,” which is about a true dialogic exchange between my then-4-year-old nephew and me after he hid from, in his words, “5-0.” Ending without simple answers, without neat tie-ups and with my nephew heartbreakingly asking, “Uncle, what happens if the cop is really mean?” the poem discusses black males and our troubling relationships with the law.

Though written a couple of years ago, that particular performance was captured by the good folks of Button Poetry, who, after uploading it on their YouTube channel, were approached by my now good friends at UpWorthy, who asked for permission to post it on their website. Between Button Poetry, UpWorthy, Facebook, Twitter and now Worldstarhiphop, the video went viral, amassing millions of hits in the span of three weeks and sparking dialogues about raising black boys, black males, institutionalized racism, state-sanctioned violence, so-called black-on-black crime and, as expected, some less-than-informed conversations on all sorts of racial topics.