It wasn’t until we stopped speaking that I realized that we haven’t had a real conversation at any point in life. Sure, there have been talks, but they’ve always been one-sided, and I don’t think either of us realized it. Truth is, I’ve been living in your shadow for so long trying to be just like you, that I’ve never been able to be myself or fully express myself.
I grew up dreaming of the day when I would be able to scream at the top of my lungs “BLUE PHI” just to hear you reply “YOU KNOW,” but as time passes, I’ve realized that day will never come. It’s not my desire to have three college degrees, live in a predominately white middle-class neighborhood, and have a government job which pays a handsome salary, all of which you obtained before the age of 30. That’s not to say that I don’t necessarily value education; my first teacher was you. Every ounce of knowledge that I’ve obtained in life can be traced back to those days when we were home-schooled by you. Somewhere along the way, our differences in philosophies have completely severed our relationship.
I remember the night the Geraldo video was put on Twitter, my biggest fear was of how you were going to critique everything that took place. In fact, when you called the next day and explained that I did nothing wrong, I felt like for the first time in my life I finally made you proud. That somehow you would go get the tattoo of my face that you got removed, redone. It didn’t matter about anyone else’s opinion at that point, because I knew I had you on my side, and to me that was all I ever needed.
It’s not my desire to have three college degrees, live in a predominately white middle-class neighborhood, and have a government job which pays a handsome salary, all of which you obtained before the age of 30. That’s not to say that I don’t necessarily value education; my first teacher was you.
Neither of us expected things to have an impact the way they did. For all it’s worth, you’ve been listening to me speak about social justice since you made me aware of everything happening in society. If there’s anybody who has witnessed my passion first hand, it’s been you, and you’ve been trying to mold me into a leader since birth. That’s the reason you sent all those texts and phone calls during the Monday Uprising, warning me to stay out of what you perceived to be harm’s way. It’s funny because, according to my mother, you sent those texts while you were out by Penn North and Mondawmin Mall yourself. I now know that we shared the same desire to be there in the midst of a war zone in our hometown. Though we watched from two different perspectives, your influence is what drove me to go out and understand what was really happening.
I don’t know when and I’ll never know why you made the decision not to be out there protesting like I was every day. I mean, here was the circumstance in which you basically prepared me for my entire life. I remember your words constantly: “Never back down from the truth,” “Be a man of your word.” And I remember the time you stood up for me against whiteness in order to protect me.
I was in 8th grade at Cardinal Gibbons, an all-boys Catholic middle/high school. Gibbons wasn’t necessarily a diverse school; there were blacks and whites, but for the most part, the school was very segregated and filled with whiteness. In fact, they taught us that the Black Panthers were a hate group that wanted to kill all white people. I remember the initial incident as if was yesterday: It was after school, and I was waiting on you to pick me up. I was talking to another student my age, a white student. His mother arrived first to pick him up, and we said our goodbyes. Behind me was a group of four high school students, all of whom were white. I heard them behind me joking around like normal teenagers, but what they said next was everything but normal to me.
One of them made a joke about the other kid speaking to me. He pretended to be the boy’s mother by saying, “What have I told you about talking to niggers?”
I had never been called a “nigger” before, but you could imagine the pain rushing through my veins. I was a skinny 8th grader, but at that moment I lost all fear and approached those four white jocks. A verbal altercation followed, and by the time the administrators calmed me down, I was facing a three-day suspension, while the four white students were allowed to go to football practice. The next day, I watched you walk into the principal’s office and listen to everything he had to say, before ever saying a word. Then I watched you speak in your calm demeanor, as you explained how suspending me would only empower those white students. By the end of that conversation, there was no suspension and the four white students received a week of detention, which to me didn’t make any sense.
I remember your words constantly: “Never back down from the truth,” “Be a man of your word.” And I remember the time you stood up for me against whiteness in order to protect me.
That’s when you gave me the talk that I would never forget. You let me know that as a black man in America, I’m going to have it ten times as hard as anybody else, and that my blackness will always be perceived as a threat. You broke it all down, explaining how I had to play the game of respectability politics in order to truly accomplish my goals. The conversation finished with you explaining to me how those four white students getting detention was equal to me to me being suspended, because white supremacy will always protect white bodies while minimizing and justifying their actions.
I never forgot that day. It’s ironic, because I think I was wearing a gold tie from Donald Trump’s collection. That conversation, amongst all the other lectures you gave me, formed me into the man that I am today. It gave me a purpose in life to change all of that. Fast-forward to now, and I never knew my biggest challenge would be convincing you that playing the game won’t free us.
I find myself in that conversation with a lot of older black men in particular. The black men who wear suits and feel as though by wearing a suit, their words are more valued than those of us who don’t. The black men who continue to play the game, while not realizing that by playing the game, they’re just reinventing the cycle and justifying respectability politics.
That conversation couldn’t have been any more relevant than at the 45th Congressional Black Caucus Annual Leadership Conference a few weeks ago. I remember growing up, you’d always attend the conference. I’d ask if I could come, and you’d always say no. That’s why when I was invited down for the weekend the day of, even with all of my belongings in storage, I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to see what it was like to finally attend CBC for myself. I wanted to say that I did what you did.
One panel stuck out to me in particular. It was a panel on minority participation in law enforcement, moderated by Robert Jackson. The panel was filled with people from different backgrounds, among them the deputy chief of Baltimore City School Police (falsely presenting himself as a Baltimore City police officer), and a black police officer from Houston. I couldn’t figure out the purpose of the panel, and quite frankly, Brittany Packnett (member of the Ferguson Commission) was the only panelist not speaking behind a smoke screen. The Q&A session made matters even worse. A young lady asked the question to the two officers, “How do we start to hold these officers accountable for the violence they incite against black bodies?” The two people with law enforcement backgrounds immediately began dancing around the question. The school police officer from Baltimore even tried to suggest that there was a civilian review board in Baltimore City that currently operates to hold officers accountable.
I find myself in that conversation with a lot of older black men in particular. The black men who wear suits and feel as though by wearing a suit, their words are more valued than those of us who don’t.
Being one of the people who continues to work so that a civilian review can actually be created, I couldn’t help but to pause the Q&A to point out that the officer was not being 100% truthful. I was dressed in Oxfords, khakis, and a #BlackEXCELLence tee shirt, not in a suit like all the other black men at the conference. As soon as I began to correct the officer’s statement, Robert Jackson and the officer both tried to shut me down. “Young man, young man, we’re up here for a reason. We know what we are talking about,” in the most demeaning tone possible. As I was walking back to my seat, I saw one of your frat brothers, Mr. Phill, who I’ve known since I was a child, and he told me, “Good job. You did the right thing.” He actually knew me and didn’t judge me for what I was wearing, but listened to what I was saying.
After the panel was over, the two men came over to where I was sitting with Mr. Phill, and to my surprise both men knew Mr. Phill. They both immediately started attacking me, and trying to tell me what I didn’t know and how much they knew and why I should be listening to them. At no point did they ever attempt to hear anything that I was saying, until Mr. Phill said to me, “You know those are your father’s frat brothers, right? In fact, your father crossed the officer.” Only then did the two men stop talking and realize that my father was one of them, and that maybe I wasn’t the hoodlum just interrupting for no reason. Mr. Phill then explained to them who I was on my own, and some of the work that I do. The officer instantly stopped talking and had a look of shock on his face, as if he didn’t expect any of that from looking at me. Meanwhile, Robert Jackson kept ranting about how much I should listen to him.
Now, I’ve never really respected respectability politics, and no matter how much I love to wear suits and read GQ magazine, I never thought I’d be trying to fight to change the thought process of my own father. Your frat brothers showed me that that’s exactly what must happen. Why should I have to wear a suit for your friends to take me seriously? Why should they have to know that I’m your son before they judge my character? These are real questions that I am searching for the answers to, and I can’t accept your normal response of “because that’s the way things are.”
These are real questions that I am searching for the answers to, and I can’t accept your normal response of “because that’s the way things are.”
I shouldn’t have to feel like an embarrassment to the man who’s taught me everything, simply because I refuse to just accept the way society is. Truth be told, had I been wearing a suit all along, my words would have had less value to the very people who needed to hear them the most. Intelligence is not determined by what school you graduated from, or whether you wear a suit to work, because quite frankly Dr. Ben Carson is arguably the greatest surgeon of our time, and yet he just doesn’t get it at all. Truth be told, too many black men are just like him, comfortable with their fancy titles, and they feel entitled because they played the game and wrapped their blackness in a $3,000 suit, only to be another “nigger.”
If I have to be arrested 30 more times just for fighting so that I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not, then they can skip the trial and just give me the sentencing. Wearing a suit doesn’t mean you’re free; it means you’ve decided to play the game. It means that you’ve chosen to sacrifice the natural urge to be free in order to be allowed into white spaces where your voice is marginalized. Everything I remember about what you taught me goes against that. I’m just trying to remind you of it.
This article originally appeared on kwamerose.com.