Photo Credit: Mashable.com
By: Dr. Danielle Moss Lee
Like many patriotic Americans, I am aching right now in the wake of the death of Mike Brown, the Ferguson, Missouri young man who was gunned down by police, and the ensuing unrest among community members seeking answers and the militaristic response of local authorities.
I can scarcely imagine the loathing that fuels the mind of an adult who has been imbued with responsibility for preserving peace and who shoots an unarmed teenager, fills his young body with six lead bullets, and regroups quickly enough to create a rationalization for an act of vitriol that can only be viewed as illogical. But, this death is about more than violence. It’s about broken promises and institutionalized second-class citizenship that spans across decades. It reflects our sordid racial history, shapes our current American identity, and offers up the specter of a dismal future if we’re not careful.
Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, and Renisha McBride all died of unrequited love for America. Even in the face of systemic barriers to opportunity and equality, most Black Americans hold onto a tiny thread of hope woven out of that iconic phrase in the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
We have a patriotism most will never comprehend. Even in our most desperate moments of disappointment, we go about our daily lives with an expectation that an American future is possible. Like generations of Black folks before us, we are not blind to pay inequality, the disproportionality of our prison sentencing, the pervasive inequality of our educational system, or of our shorter life expectancy rates. We understand the odds, but we’ve internalized an American narrative which tells us that hard work pays off. So, we hope for a future anyway.
We internalize glimpses of an American dreamscape that more often that not doesn’t mirror our everyday lives, and we believe that at some point during our lifetime it will be our reality. We hope that people and institutions and systems will look past the color of our skin and recognize our basic right to exist.
We view the “exceptional folks” who “make it” from our communities as proof of our own humanity and inherent possibility. We hope forward. We hope that when we ask for help after a car wreck and we are not risking our lives. We hope that a minor encounter with authorities over the sale of cigarettes will not lead to our being choked to death. We hope we can go to the store for candy and not be shot to death.
Black skepticism isn’t born of generational cynicism. Our value and worth and the very extent of our humanity have been a big question mark for some in this country since the founding of this nation. But, Maya said we should rise anyway – so we march on. We have fought in wars to defend this country when our own liberty at home was questionable. We have used civil disobedience to combat inequality with mixed results. We have leveraged the American judicial system in our quest for equal treatment with mixed results. We have tried to use a faith-based, moral imperative in the face of systemic racism with mixed results. We have made lasting contributions to the sciences, to art, to music, to literature, to the political system, and to medicine – in fact, we’ve had an impact on every aspect of life in America – with mixed results.
So, when Mike Brown’s mother cries out about her struggle to keep him focused and grounded, it is no small achievement. I know from experience that sometimes when we are trying to psych our kids up before battle – we are barely convinced ourselves. Like all mothers, we tell our children they are beautiful, that the future is bright, and that everything is possible from the time they are in the cradle. But, even as the affirmations pass over our lips, we are struggling to convince ourselves that the world will be kind to them.
If you have any idea what it takes to convince a young Black man in America that a beautiful, productive life is possible… then you will understand his mother’s pain. If you know what it’s like to talk ‘police encounter safety’ with a ten year old boy…if you know what it’s like to help him deconstruct the negative stereotypes in the media…to make the case as to why shortcuts won’t cut it….to comfort him when his friends fall before their lives begin…to fight the school for him when they say he doesn’t behave or that he isn’t college material….to tell a teacher you know in your heart that your son is capable of learning…to keep him in church until late at night to keep him safe…to keep him in the house when it’s hot outside so he doesn’t get into trouble…to send him to visit distant relatives to keep him off the block…if you have any idea what it takes to convince a young Black man in America that his life is worth something, even in the wake of another life snuffed out by police, that his effort and hard work will pay off – even when the data say otherwise – then you understand his mother’s pain, then you know she gave all she had against everything that was out there, and she still lost the battle.
She made herself a force in his life, and she kept her boy in the game because she is a patriot. Because Langston said, ‘I, too, sing America’. But, still, in the end, there was that unrequited love. #MikeBrown