In recent weeks — amid a global pandemic and a historic national uprising against police brutality and systemic racism — a lifelong racial justice advocate sat down with his 9-year-old daughter to talk about the protesters marching in the streets. A retired New York City detective worried for the safety of his son, a police officer outside Atlanta. A city housing manager with a 3-year-old and a pregnant wife watched the national demonstrations unfold, fearful of the virus that might be moving among the crowds. The chief executive of a national nonprofit organization helped his 11-year-old boy make a protest sign. A civil engineer took his three young sons to downtown Washington to join the demonstrators demanding justice after the killing of George Floyd.
This Father’s Day, five black fathers shared their thoughts and experiences as they guide their children through this extraordinary moment and envision the future their sons and daughters will inherit. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Andrew Grant-Thomas, 54
Co-founder of EmbraceRace, a family-focused racial justice nonprofit in Amherst, Mass.
I was talking to our 9-year-old daughter about the protests, trying to see what she understands, what questions she might have. I was in her room — I’m sitting on the floor, she’s sitting on her bed — and she bursts into tears and comes over and sits in my lap and she says, “I’m afraid it will happen to someone I know.” And I said, “Are you afraid it’ll happen to you?” And she said, “No, I’m afraid it’s going to happen to someone I know.” She didn’t elaborate. Did she mean me, as a black man? That was so heartbreaking.
I was born in Jamaica. I came here when I was 7 years old, but I identify as a black American. I’m a dad to two girls, 9 and 12. I’m a partner to Melissa, and I very much consider myself a social justice worker.
Melissa and I had both done a lot of work around race, and even before we became parents, we realized that all these strong convictions we had, all that we thought we understood, meant relatively little when it came to questions like: How do we parent these girls? How do we support and protect them as brown-skinned girls, but how do we also nurture their power, their agency?
We launched EmbraceRace four years ago. Because we are in this work, we are in the fortunate place of being constantly reminded of the importance of doing it.
Our organization has been getting a lot of attention. Donations have gone up. We’re doing all this work, and a lot more people are looking for it. For our girls, the older one in particular, I think she understands our work, and she thinks it’s important, but it’s also a little embarrassing where it impinges on her life. We live next door to their public school. We know the teachers. EmbraceRace is sometimes asked to do things there. Her friends know about it. That’s sort of mortifying to her. They both certainly have complained that we talk about this stuff too much — “enough with the racial justice!” But with all the attention now, most of it positive, I think it’s validating what we do in their eyes.
Our kids are not natural-born activists. They don’t gravitate toward a protest march. But I think, for most people, if you’re troubled by the state of the world, doing something to express your agitation, your concern, your aspiration, is really helpful and healthy. We would love our girls to experience that.
Lamont Jones, 52
Retired New York City detective now in McDonough, Ga.
As a police officer, the riot that I remember very vividly was when Amadou Diallo held a wallet up and he wound up getting shot in his hallway vestibule in the Bronx. It was more than 40 shots the police fired. There were bullets in the bottom of his shoes. I was working at the time as an investigator. They had us right at the foot of City Hall as the protesters came over the bridge. I’ll never forget, another young black man held a wallet up to me, and said, “How can you protect them when they’re killing your own kind?” And that penetrated me. I didn’t have the words to express to my kids or my wife what I felt when I came home that day. At the time I couldn’t understand it or process it.
My wife and I have five adult children, four boys and one girl. My son Lamont is 25, and he always wanted to be a police officer. We’d been in Georgia a little over a year when he saw an ad in the paper that the Hapeville Police Department was hiring. He wound up joining the academy, and it was a proud moment to go to the ceremony where he wrote on one of the index cards that he always wanted to be a police officer to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
The George Floyd case has triggered a lot of hate toward police, so I’m afraid for my son. When they started rioting in Atlanta, I immediately called him and said, “Hey, are you okay?”
He said, “Yes, I’m okay, we’re on standby.”
No one in his department is applauding the behavior of those officers. Everyone is letting each other know that that is not the culture of the Hapeville Police Department. And I’m grateful for that.
I now have the language and the understanding to know that you have to work through those uncomfortable conversations. I’m explaining that what we’re seeing is years of oppression now on display. I’ve told him: Stay professional, stay loving. I just want to make sure my son comes home. I want to make sure he’s around to bury Dad, I don’t want to bury him. Lamont doesn’t live with me, but we text just about every day. We see each other at least once every week or once every other week. I want him to have that outlet that I didn’t have.
Two of our children are here in our house, and we’ve been talking about the protests, the police brutality. We’ve been talking about the racial divide just about every day. I tell them I understand, that it’s about time that the protests just didn’t stop after a week. They’re very conscious that the world has to be a better place, and what part can they play? And that’s what I want to leave with them: If I don’t get to see the change that is being fought for right now, you play your part to make sure my kids and my grandkids get to see it.
Nigel D. Greaves, 43
Senior program manager at the Office of Housing in Springfield, Mass.
I’ve been continuously reminding myself to remain thankful. My wife and I own a home and have a 3-year-old daughter, Lela Joy. We’ve got a tremendous amount of privilege, starting with the fact that my wife and I are both employed. We can still pay the mortgage. My wife is four months pregnant, her due date is in October.
The pandemic is a thing that touches my daughter on a daily basis now, and she understands there is a problem because school was canceled. So we’ve had to explain to her the reason for that. The thing we come back to is germs: “We have to stay away from the germs, and unfortunately the germs have now gotten everywhere.”
We have to find things to do, so we often go out in the car. And I have a 3-year-old back seat driver, so we try to teach her what things mean, what signs mean, that a red light means “stop.” So recently I was quizzing her: “What do you do when you have a yellow light?” “You slow down.” “What do you do when you have a green light.” “You go!” And I said, “Hey, you’ve got it.” And then she said, “Daddy, what do you do when you see a blue light?” And I was speechless for a couple of minutes. I was literally speechless. I don’t know that I actually ever responded to her question. She was just going through the color spectrum, but what came up in my mind was that a blue light corresponds with the police. I just, I didn’t want to get into all that with her. But I also didn’t feel like lying to her. And I didn’t feel creative enough in the moment to tell her something different. That’s a big conversation.
This fight for racial justice is so necessary and so overdue. I think folks are being heard in a way that they never have been before, and that is coming at great, great risk to our national health. And particularly to the health of oppressed people, black and brown people who feel as though they need to be out there fighting for their rights in the street. There are demonstrations that are inclusive of young people, children — babies even might be out there. I haven’t yet gotten to a place where I feel I can take that risk with my health, my child’s health and with my wife being pregnant.
Looking ahead, I often feel confused. I don’t know what to expect any longer. As far as my kids go, I just want to be dedicated to making sure they are confident and careful about how they move through spaces and conscious of the world around them. I want them to remember that we’re all connected. I hope my children dedicate themselves to making spaces better than they found them. And I hope they fight. Because people in power don’t give up power willingly. It has to be fought for.
Kenneth Braswell, 58
Chief executive of Fathers Incorporated, a national nonprofit organization that supports fathers and their families in Atlanta
I am a father of five: four grown girls and an 11-year-old boy. My work can be overwhelming in the sense that — it’s almost like, you’ve got to make sure that the shoemaker’s children don’t have holes in their shoes. You’re out here trying to save the world, you’re trying to make sure children aren’t impacted by father absence and as you’re doing that work you can feel guilty sometimes because you feel like you’re not present enough in the lives of your own children. As a result, I put a lot more pressure on myself as a father.
In addition to everything else, I am a children’s book author. My first book, “Daddy, There’s a Noise Outside,” was written in 2015, during the Freddie Gray indictments in Baltimore. While I was in Baltimore, my son and my wife happened to see me on CNN, standing next to a friend who was being interviewed. My son was 6 years old. When I came home, I wasn’t in the door two seconds before he was like, “Daddy, why were you there with all those police?”
I had that conversation with my son at 6 years old. So what’s going on now, he already understands it. He sees it. He articulates it. He’s clear about who he is as an 11-year-old black boy. He’s aware of how the world sees him and how the world will see him.
A friend of mine organized a kid’s protest in Buckhead the other weekend, and my son and my wife and I were going to do some signs, and he said, “I know what sign I want.” He said, “I want my sign to have a stop sign on it, and around it I want it to say Black Lives Matter.”
And I said, “Okay, what does that mean?”
And he said, “I want people to stop killing black people, and I want them to know that black lives matter!”
After the protest, I took that sign and I put it in the closet. When he turns 18, or gets a little older, I want to frame it and give it to him, to let him know: This was your thought at 11 years old. You should be mindful that this is something you should always be thinking. This wasn’t me talking to you. This was you talking to me.
Raymond Butler III, 48
Civil engineer in Waldorf, Md.
My wife and I have three kids, all boys. One turned 16 in May, the middle one is getting ready to turn 14 and the youngest is turning 9 in a week or two. They’ve protested in D.C. before, but they may not have understood it then. We went to the Million Man March reunion when they were much younger.
This time, everybody charged their phone, and the rule was we all stay together. Stephen, my youngest, we debated whether we should bring him or not. He’s smaller. If the crowd started running, if there was a stampede — he doesn’t win. My 13-year-old said, “If something happens, we’re gone,” and I was like, “Exactly — but if we decide to leave, the concentration has to be on Stephen. Pick him up, carry him, make sure he stays with us.”
The protests, the racism — that’s not a new thing. We’ve been having those conversations since they could talk, since they could understand. My oldest is on the autism spectrum, and with him it’s more repetition, repeating what you do, what your reactions are if a police officer ever stops you: “Do not move fast. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Be very respectful. When it’s you and the officer, it’s going to be your word against his, and you will lose. Your job is to survive that moment. Your job is to think slowly and move slowly.” I tell him, “You’re going to be startled, you may get nervous, your first reaction may be to reach into your pocket for your phone to call me or your mom. But in that moment, that can get you killed.”
I grew up going to the White House quite often. My family is from North Carolina, and every time they came to visit, they wanted to tour the White House. Maybe five years ago, the topic of going to the White House came up — back when they were still doing tours — and my oldest son, he has one of those armbands that goes from his wrist up past his elbow with the autism symbol on it. And he said, “Dad, I need to put this on my arm if we go to the White House, because I don’t want to get shot.” For him to say that, it made me think, “Wow, he is listening.”
My oldest, he’s bigger than me now. He’s losing the child look in his face. On one hand, I’m scared. He says, “Why don’t people accept me for who I am?” The younger children, they say the same thing. “Why does it have to be like that? Just because I’m darker than somebody, they’re going to think a lot of negative things?” You have to get it through their heads that it’s not everybody out there who thinks like that. But you still have to be on guard.
The protest was definitely encouraging. I thought it was a beautiful thing. You’ve got people passing out water and snacks, chanting all together. My sons could see: There are other people who do not look like you who feel the same as you do.
When they keep asking, “Why does it have to be like this?” I hope they know that they do have a voice, and they can be an agent of change. They can be part of making our world better.