I last wrote a public letter to you six years ago in BKNation. During that time, in 2014, we had just moved to the Phoenix area and I was a recently minted PhD.
The world at that time seemed in flux. It had been two years since Trayvon Martin was murdered at the hands of a vigilante who said he feared for his life.
During those days, and the preceding Occupy Movement, I took you to those rallies and marches, but you were too young to know much. You were around the same age as your sister is now. Now that you are almost 9 and your sister almost 3, I am having a hard time coming up with the words to tell you about the civil unrest going on now, in these streets, right near the house, in your world.
My mom, Grandma Myrtle, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama during the height of the era known as “Jim Crow.” Her family, our family, was not allowed to go to certain movie theaters, schools, or other places in town. They were not allowed to have friends of different races, or travel freely around the country, or world like you have been so fortunate to be able to do at such a young age.
Nonetheless, as you know, one of your great uncles went on to become an internationally known sculptor and has an entire exhibit space set to open in Philadelphia soon dedicated to his, and your great aunt’s artwork.
Another great uncle was a famous photographer for the Chicago Defender and owned his own photography business in a time when being a black person owning a business in Chicago was extremely difficult. Lastly, you know your grandma was the first person in her family to earn a PhD and I followed in her footsteps.
You come from black people who epitomize resilience, overcoming, and not backing down from the structural and institutional barriers that have existed since the founding of this country. I doubt any of your ancestors would ever think that here in 2020 we’d be experiencing not just the same actions; death by police, pervasive racism, biases in public schools, political denials that these inequalities exist, but almost exactly the same way they did.
I don’t want you to fall into the trap of believing we have not made any progress, we have. But to think of how far we could have come in the close to 100 years since your grandmother was born is to lament about thousands of not just opportunities for black people, all people, but also the thousands of lives lost.
I am going to be honest. I do not know what is going to happen in the next few months or years, but I am, and will forever be hopeful. As we have seen, the advent of cell phone cameras and video have begun to shine the light that Justice Brandeis spoke of when he said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
People who have been reticent in the past about believing what they were seeing, or simply ignoring it, can no longer ignore it. In not just one city, but rather every state and in multiple countries around the world, people are demanding change, and in many instances, thus far, are moving the needle towards actually making those changes happen.
When I was 22 years old and a senior in college, I experienced many of the events that are currently occurring around the country. Los Angeles was on fire. There were four days of civil unrest because a young man was beaten within an inch of death over a traffic stop and the four police officers who committed this heinous act were found “not guilty” for their conduct.
I remember feeling angry and confused. Angry because at the time, I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, and to see the evidence, the video and their testimony, it seemed like there was no way that anyone, much less 12 individuals tasked with duty to review the evidence impartially, would ever find any one of the four not guilty.
That all four of them were acquitted was just… I felt confused because at the time, I had spent four years in college majoring in politics and minoring in philosophy. All the knowledge and theory I had learned did not reconcile with what I saw taking place and had been taking place in the streets for decades. I struggled with how one intersects theory and practice, lived experiences and the experiential knowledge of elders?
How specifically can I contribute to a world that seemingly hasn’t changed in the decades since my mom was in college? How does one make sense of the senseless? How do I act when my very existence incites fear and trepidation in so many?
My words to you are this. You are both a light and will make your mark in the world. In fact, you already have. Your mere presence in your circle of friends has changed the way they view the world. As you continue to grow, I promise to always do my best to tell you both the truth, but also be honest when I don’t know. I don’t know how people will perceive us the next time we go to the mall together. I don’t know how it will feel once things open up again to go to a baseball game, or basketball game. I don’t know how other parents will feel as you get older, more mature and become a perceived “threat.”
At 9-years-old and 3 even though both of you are tall for your age, you are still innocent and cute. How much longer will that be the perception, I don’t know. What I do know is that you both are extremely intelligent, kind, loving and curious. Know your surroundings. Know your friends. But most importantly, know yourselves and know that you are deeply loved.
Editor’s note: Dr. Stuart Rhoden is a parent, community member, educator and Commissioner on the Scottsdale Human Relations Commission.