Saturday, August 16, 2014

I Know A Boy



I know a boy who told me about the nights, some 12 years ago, when he would sit up 'til morning on the couch with a loaded gun on the table beside him. He was scared, all alone while his dad worked the graveyard shift, his younger sister asleep down the hall. He was the Man of the House, he was told, tasked with protecting them if the wrong dude came knocking. The deadbolt was turned. He had the gun.

He was 8 years old, and he didn't want that gun.

That boy relived those nights on my couch. He laughed about it, downplayed the whole deal, like it wasn't any more than nothing. It's just the way it was.

So we asked him the obvious question, "If you needed help, couldn't you have just called the police?"

He was done laughing then. Dumbstruck, disbelieving we had the gall to wonder. "My dad said to never call the cops. The cops wasn't safe for us. Still ain't."

I chalked it up to the sort of misinformation that percolates around the streets and projects and on the White-bread road where I grew up, urban legends about birth control and home remedies and what to put in a colicky baby's bottle.

This was group-think gone amiss. That's what I settled on. That's what felt safest. It was a rumor that had careened off the rails but gained momentum anyway. If you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about. That's what I told myself. And him.

He just shook his head and laughed again.

I was out to convince him he was wrong, and I wondered about all the dark-skinned 3rd graders. The brothers I passed walking to school that day - do they feel this way? Is this a sweeping belief of the urban African American culture? Is it tied more to class than race? Is it real?

I picked at the knot without unraveling a single loose thread.
In between yanks and tugs, I let it fade. I lived my life. My life.

But there was Trayvon and Jordan and I worried about that boy on my couch, the one with the good heart and the occasionally-faulty instincts (read "unsupervised-teenager instincts"). He didn't seem as safe anymore, not because every officer is out to get him, but because he believes they might be.

And if he wasn't safe, then neither was I.
Because if he wasn't safe, it meant I had been so wrong, for so long.

If he wasn't safe, people like me were partly to blame, nice folks minding our own business, ignorant by choice about little boys sitting home alone at night feeling safer with a loaded gun than a cell phone. Rules set to govern and protect us were failing in ways, at times wrecking lives, and lacking the humbling, ulcerating work dealt when hindsight lands and repentance follows.

I started to see that "real" is relative. What might be truth to me could be lived and breathed differently in him. He believes he isn't safe. And so it is.

Tuesday morning, I read the headlines about the growing rage in Ferguson, following the gunning-down of 18-year old Michael Brown and dread dropped into my soul like a millstone.

I thought of that boy I know, the one who clowns around and loves the best he can, even when it costs him. I thought about his jobs and his children and his prison ID number. For him, justice is being served, but I knew all over again that I would have never served prison time for committing his crime.

I stacked his mistakes up against my own, and found them even.

But if trouble knocked here, I wouldn't hesitate to pick up my phone. I know the police force is here for me, and I teach my children the same. I know most officers are here for that boy on my couch, and I've seen their support in action (even if he can't.) The men and women who roll down our streets and visit our schools are at our service, here to help and protect. They are good and decent, but he doesn't believe or trust that, and it scares me.

Of course each of us must be held responsible for our actions and our choices. Yes, sometimes men of all shades and hairdos pose a real threat. But how did we get here, really? How have we met this divide without understanding we helped shovel the dirt?

There are so many sides to every story and we may never know for sure what happened in those moments where time stood still and a new line of a mangled history was inked. It's too hard to wade through, the water too murky, and we don't want to be wrong. So we turn and walk away, back to our tidy corners and our predominantly-white churches where things make sense and everyone believes the same version of the story.

I sat in Bible study at my church down the block not even one hour after reading the newest headlines and read this, "The council then threatened them [Peter and John] further, but they finally let them go because they didn't know how to punish them without starting a riot. For everyone was praising God..." (Acts 4:21)

The government stood to silence truth, and the people of God were poised to riot.

Friends, it is time for a Holy riot.
Not against specific people or specific groups, not against the police force or black men with their jeans slung low. We need to start railing against injustice, wherever we find it. We need to wig out over the prejudices ground so deeply into our own hearts that they feel like dust instead of splinters. We don't even recognize they're there. 

We have got to do better and demand more from ourselves and each other. Our knees need to meet the floorboards while we beg for God to show us where we've tossed brick and beam on this problem, or even where we've lit the match.

We have to talk to each other. Really know each other. We've got to create safe places to love and learn. We've got to be friends with communities we don't fully understand. We need to risk our pride and sacrifice our "good Christian"-ness on the altar of truth, and we need to take a hard look at what we find. We're probably not as "good" as we think.

I still don't know how to unravel this knot, and because I lack tangible, studied answers, I've told myself it wasn't my place to speak.

But I know a boy who showed up yesterday after his factory shift for no reason other than to kiss my  cheek, raid the candy cabinet, and hug his brothers and sister. I know there was a time I'd have assumed things about him that capped my capacity to love him.

I know his humanity is as raw as the rest of ours, but I also know his worth is every bit our equal.

I want him to be free - really free.
And I want you to want the same for him and all the boys on all the couches.


After writing my own words, to ensure they remained my own, I went to some trusted sources and I loved what they have to say:
Why We've Got to Go There by Deidra Riggs
Reframing by Becca Stanley at The Stanley Clan

Black Bodies White Souls by Austin Channing Brown (Found via Becca Stanley)