My boy is currently having a playdate with his best buddy. The two boys are sprawled out on the floor, making up stories with Lego mini-figures. The cuteness is almost overwhelming. Just two friends having fun, whittling the afternoon way, with no care in the world. I am taken by their cuteness and their innocence. There’s something so entirely pure and beautiful about what’s happening on the floor in front of me.
As I watch the boys play, I have a clear line of sight to my son, who has been growing his hair out now for several months. He’s keeping it short around the sides and back, and then letting it grow up top. So much hair! It’s adorable, honestly, although it’s making this almost nine-year-old look a few years older than that. Not sure I like that…
His decision to grow his hair out was inspired by the blockbuster Marvel movie, Black Panther. He was, like me, enthralled by the antagonist of the story, Erik Killmonger. After watching Michael B. Jordan’s outstanding portrayal and witnessing how incredibly cut the guy is, I think Joshua and I both wish we looked like him. Joshua’s got a much better shot at making that happen. And, he began letting his hair grow out toward that exact end. He wanted braids or dreads that would look like those Killmonger sported in the movie.
Over these last few months, we’ve been getting his haircuts at a barbershop where they know how to cut African hair. I think there’s still a part of him that wants the Killmonger look, but I also think he’s been enjoying growing this huge mass of hair on top of his head, like a big, textured box-top. And, it’s adorable. So, now I have this super-cute third grader running around with the same kind of hairstyle I see on young men and teen boys who are also from African heritage. Amid growing up in mighty white Eau Claire, Wisconsin, I think it’s comforting for him to see older guys who look like him and also happen to have a similar hairstyle.
Just recently, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, when I saw another young man with Joshua’s do. It was a still picture of a young man named Anthony Wall being pinned to the outside window/wall of a Waffle House by a police officer. I saw the headline associated with the photo; something about an older brother who had taken his sister to the prom. To be honest, I skipped by it quickly.
Why? It’s simple. That young man looked like my Joshua. In that moment, I was seeing my boy being pinned against a wall and choked by a police officer. I looked away and quickly skipped by that image. I didn’t want to think about that. It wasn’t that long ago that young Jordan Edwards was shot dead in the back of a car by another police officer. His story broke my heart. I could see my son in Jordan’s innocent smile. And it hurt.
Even though I didn’t want to linger in those thoughts, especially envisioning my son in the place of that young man at the Waffle House, I saw that image again on my feed and this time I chose to engage. That’s probably because I remembered Jordan Edwards. And I remembered why I need to care about this. I remembered I was wired to care about this. I remembered that I would be disobeying my God if I ignored this.
This second image wasn’t a still, it was a video. I watched the police officer forcing Anthony up against that wall. The officer looked to be at least twice the size of the young man. I could not see Anthony resisting in any way. I see the officer violently pressing his forearm into Anthony’s chest and throat area. For no apparent reason, I see the office then lift the young man off the ground and slam him down on the pavement, followed by the officer leaning on him, holding him down, and maintaining his intimidation.
It made me sick. What the hell was going on there? There are those who will say we don’t have all the context. Honestly, I don’t know what happened before this moment. Don’t care, actually. From the video, there is no apparent reason why the officer had to be so violent, why he was choking Wall, why he slammed him to the ground like he did.
As I write these words now, I can feel my blood beginning to simmer. I’m angry. I’m angry at the injustice and excuse-making. And, I’m sad for Anthony Wall and his sister. I’m sad for every young black man who is perceived as a threat for no legitimate reason. I’m sad for my son, who will no doubt be seen as such a threat before too long by some backward-thinking person. Who knows? Maybe he’ll fall asleep in the commons area of his college dorm. Maybe he’ll walk onto a country club golf course (of which he’s actually a member). Maybe he’ll be in his backyard doing nothing. Maybe he’ll just want to have a waffle.
To all my white, right-leaning friends who want to find a way to defend this officer, or the golf course employee, or the police who shot Stephon Clark 22 times while he wielded his deadly cellphone, I don’t want to hear it. Especially to my Christian friends who are more concerned about what Anthony Wall may have done to “deserve” the treatment he received from that officer, keep it to yourself. I can see nothing of Jesus in such thinking. So, don’t bring that here, please. It’s time for us to see things for what they are, and not just through the lenses of our personal experience in our little safe, white, Christian bubbles.
A few months ago, I had coffee with a good friend who shared with me a quote he’d come upon previously. I don’t remember the exact verbiage, but it amounted to something like this: “The artists are now our prophets.” Okay, so I will never say that Justin Vernon or Bono carry the same weight as Jeremiah or Isaiah. But, I think there’s truth there.
One great example of this artistic prophecy is the recently released video from Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover). The video was released on May 8th, but I’ll admit that it took me a couple of days before I wanted to watch it, mostly because I knew it would make me uncomfortable. You know, that discomfort I really need to feel. I eventually decided to engage, and I was changed.
I am still processing the meaning of the song and the imagery in the video. However, I feel like I can already say that it is one of the most important pieces of art I’ve ever seen or heard. The song is called This Is America and it is a poignant commentary on many societal issues, such as racism and gun violence. I will likely write more about this masterpiece later, but there’s one central theme I see in there that pertains to what’s happening to these black men and boys and my (our) response to these injustices: it is very easy to just keep living life while others around us are going through hell. The video is below (warning: it is pretty graphic).
Notice what happens throughout the video, not just what’s happening right in front of the camera, but what’s happening in the background as well. A man is executed. One of the four horsemen rides in the background. Riots break out. Someone gets thrown off a balcony. A choir is massacred. And what’s happening throughout all of this? Glover and those with him dance. They have moments of clarity about what’s happening around them, some of which they cause, but they are easily distracted back into the dance.
The lyrics, at one point, speaks of “shaking the frame.” The imagery there is of the frame of reality being shaken so we are distracted from what’s really going on. We hear of students being slaughtered at a school in Florida and we are forget a day later. We see images of a young man being powerslammed to the sidewalk and we turn away, not letting ourselves be affected. We read about a young white man sending bombs to the homes of people of color in Texas and we don’t bat an eye. We hear about another young white man bringing a rifle into a different Waffle House for the express purpose of killing black people, and we just go about our day-to-day as if this is normal.
It is not normal, friends. It is not okay. We need to stop victimizing white perpetrators. We need to stop justifying police brutality. We need to stop grasping at straws to understand how Stephon Clark, Anthony Wall, Jordan Edwards, Philando Castile, or Trayvon Martin somehow deserved what they got. We need to look at the pictures of those who have been killed or traumatized because of their pigmentation. We need to get real honest with ourselves. I need to get real honest with myself.
White friends, please hear me, we gotta stop acting like there is no race issue in America. We gotta stop pretending that all men are actually considered “equal” in our society. We gotta stop avoiding the voices and stories of black communities. By acting, pretending, and avoiding, we are saying one of two things. We are either calling them liars, or we are telling them they don’t matter as much as we do. Those are the only two options, friends.
Whether or not we want to own it or believe it, the stories of Clark, Martin, Wall, Edwards, Castile, and so many more are real. This is America, friends. And until we stand up, own that truth, and start having meaningful conversations about how to facilitate healing, freedom, and justice in our land, we are simply allowing more black people to be oppressed, slaughtered, and/or traumatized. This is America.
I cannot turn my head. I cannot ignore. I cannot pretend. I cannot, because that would not resonate with the life God has built me to live. A Christian ignoring these injustices is not aligned with the Jesus who came to set captives free, raise the dead, and preach good news to the poor. So, engaging in this is obedience for me, and I would argue, for anyone in America who professes to follow Jesus.
But, personally, I go right back to the boy playing with Legos on my office floor. He has already faced racism from other kids. And as he gets older, he will face more. I don’t want him to be the next Anthony Wall, Stephon Clark, or Jordan Edwards. So, I will fight. And, I ask you to do the same.