I am free.
I am a black man.
Perhaps the biggest challenge a father raising a black child in America will ever face is conveying the difference between those two things. It is hard to explain the oxymoron of making sure a person believes that the world provides them with limitless opportunity while ensuring that they understand the limiting reality of being black in America.
It is a precipitously thin wire that black people must walk every day. The path between life and liberty is a dank, cramped, unending alleyway in which we are forced to spend our entire existence. The borders are unmarked, but stepping outside the boundaries can often mean death.
My daughter is free.
She is an unpredictable ball of creativity and intelligence who believes that she can do anything she has ever seen anyone else do. It is my job to facilitate that. When she saw a fencing competition in the 2008 Summer Olympics, I was forced to sit in fencing classes for four hours every week until she became a world-ranked saber fencer at 11 years old.
That was before she watched a few skating videos, gave up fencing and started dragging me to skate parks every weekend so she could become a skater. The skating thing was before she decided to teach herself to play the guitar from watching YouTube videos, which was before she became obsessed with woodworking and making her own guitars from scratch.
Anytime she sees a person doing something interesting, she figures she can, too, which means I have spent time taking her to do a lot of “white things,” including Pokémon competitions, comic book stores, graffiti lessons, chess tournaments, Ultimate Frisbee games, hiking, rock climbing and lacrosse leagues.
One day she was going to some cosplay nerd convention thing (that may have been the official title; in fact, I’m pretty sure it was Cosplay NerdThingCon), and I asked her if she had her ID. She insisted that she didn’t need it because she wasn’t driving. “Yes, you do,” I responded. “Just in case someone asks you for your ID.”
“People can’t get in trouble for not having identification if they aren’t driving,” she said, explaining how she had seen someone (probably some white person) on YouTube explain how it is unconstitutional to force anyone to give their identification. “I know my rights. You don’t need ID.”
“You’re right,” I said, probably not calmly. “People don’t need ID. You do.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because you’re black.”
On Tuesday the artist formerly known as Kanye West went on a media blitz explaining his allegiance to President Donald Trump, his nonsensical Twitter rants and—most importantly—the concept of “free thought.”
Stopping by TMZ’s studios with the conservative sentient talking point, Candace Owens, Kanye explained: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years?! That sounds like a choice.”
Kanye and conservatives have embraced the term “free thought” as a way to explain that black people aren’t required to all think alike. That blackness is not bound by the Democratic Party, progressivism and perpetual victimhood. Kanye and his conservative clansmen contend that unless black people dispossess themselves of this insipid Negro hive mind, we will never be free.
Part of privilege is the freedom to ignore history, data and proven facts to embrace the possibility of the universal oneness of all mankind. Black people don’t get to do that because we live in a brick-and-mortar world that constantly reassures us of one fact:
Free thought is for white people.
Kanye is a multimillionaire whose celebrity, bank account and white wife slightly distance him from the reality of blackness. But only slightly.
He gets to enjoy the privilege of having his accomplishments and his talent be tethered to his face. When the world sees him, they immediately recognize him as Grammy-winning rapper and music producer Kanye West, and not as a random black man.
White people get to enjoy that privilege, too.
White people can use their “free thought” to ignore the historical ramifications of 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow because it never affected them. A white man telling me to overcome the effects of slavery is like a zoologist telling me where to find a unicorn.
Every society is built on the precedent of the past. It’s how laws, politics and the economy work. School funding, wage inequality, the racial makeup of neighborhoods, drug laws, college exams and every aspect of the criminal-justice system are still wet with the remnants of slavery and Jim Crow.
Conservative blowhards are quick to tell black people that slavery was something a few white men did centuries ago. Then, with the same lipless mouths, they advocate for gun rights, Confederate monuments and Christian ideals based on some shit that a few white men did centuries ago.
“Free thought” means “white thought.”
Donald Trump and the people at Turning Points USA don’t have to think about their children being seen as older and less innocent simply because of the color of their skin. White men aren’t thought of as larger and more threatening, as black men are. White adults think that black girls are less innocent than girls like Kim, Khloé and the other white Kardashians. (I forget the rest of their names. I usually just abbreviate it “KKK.”)
Ask Trayvon Martin’s mother if thinking would have made a bullet bounce off her son’s chest. Ask Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez how he freed Philando Castile’s brain matter from his skull. Ask the black men who get 20 percent more time in jail for committing the same crimes as white men how free they feel.
The most racist part in all of this discussion is conservatives’ assumption that most black people are feebleminded lemmings whose dunderheaded thoughts must be the result of low IQ and brainwashing because, according to their logic, conservative white people know best. Apparently, they believe that all the idling Negro minds put together don’t equate to one brain cell of a free thinker like Donald Trump.
The fucked-up part is that Kanye believes this, too. The rest of us are too dumb to free ourselves, or too lazy to work ourselves out of our black misery. But he thinks “freely” now.
Like the smart people.
Like the successful people.
Like the white people.
To truly think freely is to truly understand both sides. I try not to pound a defeated version of blackness into my daughter, and I’m pretty sure she knows she is black. I want her to be able to think for herself, form her own opinions and believe that her possibilities are limitless.
But more than that, I want her to be alive.
A few weeks ago, after the national gun-violence walkout, I asked her if her school participated. She told me that the school set a time for the walkout and allowed students to exit the classrooms in an orderly fashion and go outside. But she told me that she refused to participate and stayed inside.
When I asked her why, she explained to me that the administration had organized everything and made sure instructors wouldn’t penalize students who walked out. “I didn’t do it because—to me—it wasn’t really a protest,” she said.
My daughter is black.
My daughter is free.