I wept on BART this morning. Reading the news on my phone as most people do, I read the story of Jon Ferrell, the former football player who was shot in North Carolina over the weekend. I am numb to these stories. Not to say they don’t register in me as deeply troubling examples of a twisted culture, but I have lived most of my life with news of black men being killed for one reason or another.
At that same moment, a black man came on to BART with his little boy. The man was dressed in a fashion that (per my previous post) would probably have women clutching their purses, had he not been accompanied by a 6 year old; he wore a football jersey, sagging jeans, baseball cap, many tattoos, etc. The man and his son sat down and the boy immediately began to read from Dr. Seuss to his dad. The man encouraged him to read it aloud to understand each word and if he had trouble, he didn’t just give the answer but gave him ways to figure it out. And when they finished that book, the man pulled a ‘grown up’ book out of his bag, opened it to a page and asked the boy to do the same thing. The boy struggled with the bigger words, but again, the man encouraged him. The entire time this went on, the man had his arm around his son.
I remembered a similar scene some 43 years ago, with my own dad on the New York City subway, reading Dr. Seuss and being encouraged to figure out the words and when I had questions being asked to think about the answers instead of just expecting to be given the answers. We were not rich and lived in the pre-fashionable Upper West Side. My dad, in those days attired himself in what would have been considered the 1970 equivalent of hoodlum gear: large afro, African chain, daishiki print shirt, black ankle boots, etc.
And then I thought back to Jon Ferrell, and Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till and I realized that this beautiful scene of a father lovingly nurturing his son in the art of thought and engaging his world could end with that same father standing by a grave wondering why someone would have assumed that this beautiful and gentle creature who he had so carefully filled with curiosity and knowledge…why someone would assume that because he was wrapped in brown packaging that he was less worthy of living.
Every morning I walk through the armies of broken and searching black men in downtown Oakland. They have narrowly escaped being targets of fatal gun violence, but they have not escaped being the target of our country’s institutionalized fear. They live on the periphery, bonding and surviving any way they can. Some are on drugs. Some are looking for the next person to take from what they don’t have the opportunity to earn. Some are genuinely angry. Some are just heartbroken. They didn’t start this way. I wonder how many of them sat with a parent embracing them as they learned to read, never knowing that they would end up reading about their brothers being gunned down just because someone was afraid of the color of their skin.