Being a parent is tough enough: Our children cry when we need them to be quiet and they listen less than we would hope, but those things can change over time — we can more or less control them. What parents of black children cannot change is how their child’s skin might be darker than that of their classmate or how broad their nose is or how kinky their hair. We cannot change how we look, and no matter how hard we try, the differences will still be there.
It was with these feelings that I spent most of this week in a comatose state, my focus pulled to social media as what happened to Alton Sterling erupted in a lava stream of images, videos and hashtags that were ash by the end of the day. And then the world watched the aftermath on Facebook as another man, Philando Castile, was killed and added to our collective litany of names.
But this time, I didn’t watch. The quick image of a man in a bloodied shirt slumped over was enough. I had not even meant to see that and had earlier broken one of my unspoken rules by watching the Sterling video. I angled my phone away from my daughter who was near me, watching Disney’s “Brave,” but she heard the screams and the gunshots. I didn’t know how to explain it to her. She didn’t ask. I said nothing.
She’s 4; we’ve not spoken of gun violence. I am at a loss for words because, well, she is 4 years old. If she were only a couple years older, she might have more access to these images without me. She is, however, the same age as Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds’s daughter, who was in the backseat of the car when Castile was shot. So I think about that child, that baby. Her experience reminiscent of the horrors enslaved families endured. While not her father, Castile was probably a father figure because of his relationship with her mother, and he was torn away from her. “My daughter will be forever scarred by what the police of Falcon Heights did to us,” Reynolds sobbed during a news conference Thursday in front of the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion.
We are watching live as history repeats itself. As parents are torn from children, families dispersed. Imagine Reynolds’s daughter. Four years old watching her mother’s fiance murdered, blood pooling in the front seat as her mother screamed.
With this scene live for all to witness, how do we protect our children in a time when everything is so explicitly available? Christopher Shinn tweeted: “I don’t mean this rhetorically: If no one expressed protest and grief about cultural outrages on social media, would the world be different?”
Social media has given us a closer look at what has never stopped happening to African Americans. Scenes of brutality against black men and women in America are nothing new. It is the history of the existence of Africans in America. Their humanity stripped as they rotted away on ships. If the images of the recent “Roots” remake weren’t graphic enough, all one needs to do is review their social media feeds to see the similar happenings of “free people.” Four hundred years later, black people, those of the African diaspora are still being murdered in America — families are still being separated and a system built upon inferiority is still aiding our demise.
No matter how we have evolved as a freed people in this country, the horror remains. And these are images that I cannot prevent my child from experiencing one day. These are the images Sterling’s son saw over and over again following his father’s murder. His sobs crescendoing as his “facade fell away,” The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan wrote. ” … In an instant, he became a child bawling for his ‘daddy.'”
Even before this piece was finalized, more murders were taking place and more children were exposed to the horror. In videos from what began as a peaceful protest in Dallas, shots rang out, and the scurry of people began. A woman running past a parking garage pushing her stroller caught my attention. The infant inside could have been asleep; the infant inside could have been screaming among the chorus of adults, whose cacophony grew increasingly more dissonant as fear set in.
How are we to involve our children in the peaceful protests when even those spaces are demolished by violence? How are we to encourage them to stand up for what is right? We have the answers as to how we can shield them all worked out, and then those answers dissolve as quickly as a sniper’s shot into the night air.
Lawrence Otis Graham wrote of his naivite in teaching his children that a privileged upbringing would make a difference, I wrote about not wanting my son to wear hoodies or clothing that we are told symbolizes negative attention for young black men and empowering my daughter to embrace her dark skin in flesh-colored tights, instead of the classic pink in ballet.
We try our best to help our children be empowered, to believe that they will thrive in this world. Yet as a parent, I am left feeling helpless and numb. Black children are being born into a world where the color of their skin puts them at the bottom. What has really changed in all these years? We rally after the murders happen and help the families. We know how to be a community: actor, director and producer Issa Rae began an #AltonSterlingFamilyScholarship raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his five children and their education. This is a step toward change for them.
But what of the change for Sterling and Castile? What of the value of their life? Or the next ones? So many of us are speechless or repeating ourselves: still wondering what to tell our children. What to shield them from, what to show them, what to use as a lesson without making them fear the beauty of a full life? And when to just let them keep watching “Brave’s” Merida fight for her future.
Many look toward joy, because the sorrow is too great. And to question when this will end is like questioning if the sun will rise and set again. For our children, like Reynolds’s 4-year-old, or 15-year-old Cameron Sterling and the four other Sterling children, it is only the beginning of their slave narrative. The events of the past few days have marked their lives forever. How can we make sure that narrative doesn’t happen to the rest of our children?
Jones-Ly is a mother of two, a freelance writer, playwright and Obie Award-winning theater producer. Follow her on twitter @garliacornelia.
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