Invariably, among the countless words and rants and tweets and think pieces and blogs and status messages and emails and texts generated whenever another news story breaks about a police-involved killing of a young black person, are the words from parents. Mothers and fathers of black babies, of black boys and girls, of black teenagers and of black men and women.
And their commentary tends to be especially poignant, because of the utter helplessness it conveys. Regardless of the level of education, opportunity and privilege that black parents are able to provide a black child, there’s nothing those parents can do to prevent their child from being another Jordan Davis. Or Trayvon Martin. Or Tamir Rice. There are, of course, things that can be done to minimize the chance of this happening. But nothing to erase it.
I am a parent now. My birthday is Dec. 30. That day will also make it a full month since my daughter’s birth. The news that Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland patrolman who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice while he was playing with a pellet gun in a park last year, would not face any charges marked the first time that I’ve heard this type of news while a parent.
I anticipated that this new status would give me a new perspective; that I’d see Tamir’s face and immediately think of my daughter and how it’ll be impossible to completely safeguard her from the effects of the type of American pathology that allows a policeman to perceive a 12-year-old playing in the park as a deadly threat and legally determines that the policeman is not responsible for that 12-year-old’s death. But that hasn’t happened yet.
Part of this is undoubtedly because I’m still a new parent. The idea of being a parent is still quite surreal to me. I’ve probably spent at least an hour a day over the past month just staring at her, like, “I can’t believe I just created a person! That is crazy as f–k, right?” Then there’s the recognition that this unfathomably tiny person will, barring any catastrophes, eventually grow into an actual, regular human-sized person. Who walks and talks and pays taxes and makes guacamole from scratch. That is insane. Perhaps it’ll be less insane a year from now. Or maybe even a month from now. But right now, it blows my mind.
But there’s another part of her current existence—of being a parent to an infant—that didn’t really resonate until I experienced it myself. For the first year or so of her life, our only parental duty is keeping her alive. Kids that age are so exaggeratingly helpless that feeding them, keeping them safe, keeping them healthy and keeping them clean—basically, doing what you can to make sure they continue breathing—is the only purpose of your being in their lives. Once they get older and progressively less helpless, things like “teaching them how to count” and “teaching them the first verse of Wu-Tang’s ‘Triumph’” become more prominent. Keeping them alive is still—and always—the primary objective. But (presumably) it’s not as conscious a concern.
Perhaps this “new perspective” hasn’t permeated because there is no new perspective. I already knew that because I am a black man existing in America, my body and my life could be taken from me and that this theft could be deemed legal. I already knew that my degrees, my occupation, my glasses, my education, my income, my name in the paper, my demeanor and my work would not insulate me from the possibility of that happening.
I knew, as a teen, that my basketball-playing ability (and subsequent college basketball scholarship) would (and did) protect me in my neighborhood, because the gang members and drug dealers knew that I hooped and wouldn’t mess with me. But I also knew, as a teen, that this basketball-playing ability would not protect me if the police happened to roll up on my block or roll up on me while I was walking home from the court. Because I knew that who I was in a micro sense (a bookish basketball player) would not matter. But who I was in a macro sense (a 6-foot-2-inch black male existing in a high-crime neighborhood) would. And today, when I walk my dog this evening, a police cruiser riding past won’t see Damon Young, the writer. They’ll see a black guy out at night with a dark hoodie.
And now, since I’m a parent (and husband), the perspective hasn’t changed as much as it has broadened. I see Tamir Rice’s face and I don’t see my daughter’s. I see my face, my wife’s face and my daughter’s face. I see the faces of three people whose continued existence is my responsibility. Of three black Americans whose lives could be ended through no fault of their own—or anyone else’s, apparently—if the state determines that it’s time for that to happen. I see three people I’d do anything for. And I wonder now—as I’ve always wondered—if that will be enough.