Letters to My Tweenage Son (Part II)
©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead
2. On Believing in Freedom & Making the Choice Not to Rest* (Or Life After the Zimmerman Verdict)
My favorite moments with you happened when you were a small child. I used to sit with you in your room and play music by Sweet Honey in the Rock. You used to sing with me as we danced around the room, shaking our heads, and clapping our hands. I remember one day when I was singing the words to “Ella’s Song” and I started to cry. We were sitting in your room and you came up to me and grabbed my hands and wanted to know why Mommy was crying and singing. I put you on my lap and just held you tight because I knew that in so many ways the words to that song had to be my rallying cry. I was the mother of a young African American warrior and if I believed in freedom and if I wanted the day to come when the “killing of black men (black mother’s sons) is as important as the killing of white men (white mother’s sons),” then I, as an activist and a mother, could not rest.* I had to use everything that I had (all of my talent, my time, and my energy) to help create a world where you could grow up and be free. Your father and I have done all that we can for you and your brother and yet, in so many of the ways that are important, we have failed you.
II. Trayvon Martin: Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow
I have spent the last few days thinking about Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, the four little girls, Yusef Hawkins, and the thousands of nameless faceless children who were the victims of the senseless violence that grew (and grows) from the roots of racism. I have cried and yelled, prayed and mediated, and then I did what I do best and that is simply grabbed my pen and wrote. I must admit that up until the moment that the Zimmerman verdict was read aloud, I still believed that justice would it be served. I followed the case as closely as I could and I did my best to explain it to you while trying to protect you from it. I read all of the articles and listened closely to the testimony. I tried to understand George Zimmerman’s version of the truth and tried to look past both the “Knock Knock” joke and the lack of diversity amongst the jurors. I defended the witnesses and even though I felt that some of them were not properly prepared, I believed that the jurors would be able to look past all of the “errors” and see the truth. I remember when I first heard about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman and about what had happened on that night. I was outraged to find that on the night that Zimmerman shot Martin, he was quickly released from custody. When he was finally arrested and charges were filed, I breathed a long sigh of relief. I called your grandfather and he reminded me about how black people over the years have been and are severely disappointed by the judicial system. He felt that justice would not be served and that we would find ourselves back at the beginning of the struggle, yet again. I heard him but I chose to believe. We are Americans and though this country has let us down so many times, I still believe in it. I still believe that we are going to get beyond race and become the country that I have always believed that we could be. We got through the Revolution, slavery, Jim Crow, and the suffrage movement, and someday we will get past this thing called race. I thought that we would get past it before you grew up but I was wrong.
III. A Mother and a Her Child
At this moment, I am writing to you because I am hurting and I am scared. In the past couple of months, our nation has changed and is changing so quickly that I feel that all I can do is just tread water. I write to you tonight because young men who look like you are dying at alarming rates, some at the hands of white vigilantes and some (too many really) at the hands of other black men. I write to you because I fear that I have not properly prepared to do the type of battle that you are going to have to do to make the world better for your children, my future grandchildren. I am writing to you because I am trying to find the words to apologize for being a part of the generation that has failed you. We have dropped the baton and have not done our part to make this world a better place.
Your generation, my son, has been coddled and spoiled and has probably never actually heard the word no. We made you believe that you were the center of the universe and have therefore not prepared you for battle. I remember the first time you swung the bat in T-ball and hit the ball out past second base. You were so excited that you ran around the bases, twice. I shouted and screamed and Daddy carried you on his shoulders. We celebrated your first homerun with milkshakes and a special dinner. We called everyone we knew and told them about your amazing homerun. We were so excited that we convinced you that every time you swung the bat, you would hit a homerun.
IV. Baseball as a Metaphor for Life
As life would have it, at the next game when you came up to bat, you kept swinging but you could not hit the ball. You were devastated and we had a hard time explaining to you that we were wrong because every swing was not going to result in a homerun. We were unable to convince you and for the rest of the season, you kept expecting to hit a home run and you were incredibly disappointed when you did not. As you have grown up over the years, we have tried so hard to teach you that life is not measured in home runs but in getting back up to bat again. We were talking about baseball but also about life. You will strike out and you have to learn how to move past it, put it behind you, and pick the bat up over and over again. I have shared all of my home runs with you but I have shielded you from my strikeouts. Today I wish I would have shown you every rejection letter rather than the published, polished articles or shared with you how disappointed I was when I was rejected rather than how elated I felt to be accepted. I told you all about how happy I was when I pledged Delta but never mentioned how hard it was when I was rejected the first time I applied and all of my friends pledged without me. You were there when I spoke at the White House for the Black History Month panel but I never told you how nervous I was every single moment of every single day that I would not say the “right” thing. You see me walk around with my head held high but you do not know how often your grandfather—when I was teenager—had to grab my chin, lift my head, look me in the eye and remind me of how special I was. You always smile when your Daddy tells me how much how much he loves me but you do not know how many times I have heard those words from men who did not love me or, in some cases, did not even like me. You attend an independent school but you are not aware (though I am and your grandfather is) of how long it took before schools like that accepted boys and girls who look like you. You are not prepared to do battle because I have tried so hard to convince you (and myself) that every battle had been fought and had been won.
V. Freedom’s Song
My son, I am a child of the Civil Rights Movement and I have had some incredible shoes to fill. I grew up listening to the stories and benefitting from the work, but I (and those who grew up with me) never experienced separate water fountains or being forced to sit in the back of the bus. I grew up seeing people who looked like me in positions of power. Your grandfather committed his whole life to helping to create a world where despite the color of my skin, my gender, or my economic standing, no door would ever be closed to me. He was part of the nameless faceless masses who marched behind King and sat down at lunch counters, boycotted public transportation, sang and prayed and hoped for changed, was arrested and held overnight in prison cells, and was called the n-word more times than they would like to remember. And despite all of the odds against him, he helped to change the world. He was born in Lexington, South Carolina on a farm with an outhouse, miles of land, and a lake that set at the bottom of the hill at the edge of their property. He picked cotton over the summer, taking long rest breaks to read his book, one chapter at a time. He had one suit, white. When his mother, my dear sweet grandmother Marie, bought it for him on sale, it was too long and too big so they rolled both the pant legs and the sleeves up. Every year, he would roll it down until the year that he was able to see both his ankles and his wrists. He remembers having to walk past three schools to get to his one room schoolhouse. He used to tell us how in the winter the students would crowd around the big black stove that sat in the middle of the classroom and how in the afternoons, everyone would move closer to the window to capture the light so that they could finish their work. He loved going to school because the teachers (all of them black and female) would tell him that the only way that the world was going to change was by him choosing to be a change agent. He had big dreams and he knew that the only way to make those dreams come true was to fight and sacrifice over and over again. He made a vow that his children would never have to experience life like he did, and we did not.
We vacationed in a RV every summer. My father would pick a city on the map and we would drive there and park in the parking lot of a fancy hotel. We would eat in the hotel’s restaurant and swim in the pool without having a care in the world. I was sent abroad for the first time when I was in the sixth grade. I attended an advanced academics school (they called it a “school without walls”) and our class trip was to Canada to see Niagara Falls. I remember sitting in class one day when my classmates who sat by the window yelled out that my daddy was there and was getting out of a white car wearing a white suit. They said he looked like a pimp, to me he looked like my knight in shining armor. He came upstairs and paid for my $600 trip in cash. I remember because he paid in five and ten dollar bills. Your grandfather used to own a gas station and used to work the night shift so instead of going to the bank to make his morning deposit, he came to my school to pay for my trip. I have never believed that any door was ever closed to me. I was my father’s daughter and I understood that I was benefitting from his work. I was able to live the life that he had always dreamed about. I knew that he struggled. I knew that he sacrificed. I knew that I was not entitled to these rewards but that my father had earned them for me and was giving them to me.
VI. Going Forward From Here
When you were growing up, I did not share these stories with you on a regular basis. I never made you learn the words to “We Shall Overcome,” though I had to sing it everyday when I was in school. I never made the struggle real to you although I did talk to you about it. You have been raised in a privileged environment, have traveled extensively, and have met people from all over the world. You have no idea of what it means to struggle. You have never been made to feel invisible and have never felt profiled or threatened. I have tried to protect you when I should have prepared you. Beloved, you are strong and smart, brilliant and funny. You are the next generation and the blood of every one of our brave and courageous ancestors flows through you. Now that the jury has spoken, your father and I will turn our attention to speaking to you and your brother everyday about what you need to know and what you need to do to navigate your way through this world. It will be a better place but you will create it and where I (and those of my generation) have failed, you will succeed. I look forward to being there on that day and to celebrating with you…
*Sweet Honey in the Rock, “Ella’s Song,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6Uus–gFrc