For The Black Men I Love In America

“Sun don’t shine, and we all know why. Bullets be flying, so many shooting. Through the darkest times, through the darkest nights. We war, we war.”

—Bullets by. Kaytranada ft. Little Dragon

I have a legitimate fear for the lives of the black men that I love. A fear that I wish was irrational—however it’s proven over and over to be extremely warranted.

For my father who lives back home in the Republican state of North Carolina and operates a factory with white men who’ve never even crossed the Mason–Dixon line, I have a very tempered level of fear. He’s a law abiding citizen who does a good enough job at blending in and still lives by societal rules born of the segregated American south. He even sometimes pisses me off with the ideals that blacks have to be 10x better to be regarded in the same light as a white counterpart. Weeks after Mike Brown’s murder we had a dinner table discussion in which he wanted to point out what Mike had done wrong. I absolutely hate this mentality but I have to remember what generation he comes from. He was raised in a “yes sir, no ma’am, don’t bother” white folk southern world. And because of this my brother and I have known since we could write our own names that the Nance children were expected to behave exceptionally and excel academically just to be regarded similarly to our white school mates.

In some ways I appreciate my father and mother and grandparents for that type of upbringing because I feel like my brother better understands how to navigate this world. However, I hear his stories and his struggle.

The kid is brilliant. He’s a scholar at North Carolina A&T, one semester shy of an engineering degree with the world at his fingertips. However year in and year out he leaves the cocoon of his HBCU, enters the workplace at different internships and co-op job opportunities, and faces what it really means to be the token blackie. He’s told me stories of snide racist remarks during his first internship that had me ready to go fight someone at his job. People joked that his school was not a real one because they hadn’t heard of it, and undermined his education because it was coming from an HBCU. I was livid. He then moved to Finley, Ohio for a semester to work for an oil company—an amazing opportunity for him. For me, the core of my nervousness is always whether or not he can handle being the only one. I can no longer fathom what that’s like to hear the stories on the news and have to pull on a suit and a smile and go into the office and pretend that this isn’t on your heart. I’ m blessed to not carry that burden personally. For him, I just hope he can continue to walk that line.

And then there’s my boyfriend. The person who would make his best effort to bring me back Neptune if I asked for it. The person who respects his elders and has a genuine soft spot for the homeless. The person who prefers family game night over the club. These are all characteristics that I know, that his friends know and his family knows. However, should anything ever go down these are the things that the media would be hard pressed to cover up and pretend were never a part of his DNA.

He’s the same person that I get knots in my stomach over when I know that he’s out for the night with the guys. Or when he decides to live by his own motto—”get lost”—and takes to his skateboard to go exploring. Because he’s young and black and likely wearing a hoodie and a hat and a backpack if he just finished hooping with his friends. Because his preferred method of transportation is his skateboard and he keeps his hair cut low on the sides and long on the top, all of it makes him a target for NYPD to fuck with him.

He will tell you himself about his run-ins with the cops. And though the stories seem enough and the outcome is always him back at home, unscathed after a few hours of seclusion from society, it still weighs on him. He’s still scarred from spending time in holding with lethal criminals when all he did was skateboard a few blocks on the sidewalk. I can tell it hurts, and I can’t help but wonder: Why are police so hell-bent on throwing our black men into the system? What makes the dreams of this college educated black man from Brooklyn less valid than the dreams of any other? Why can’t he and his friends enjoy a crazy night out without the thought in the back of their minds and the minds of those that love them that they may not see the next day?

Why is it okay to erase a black man’s entire being without any consideration at all? And the question that continues to smolder in the back of my mind day in and day out is what will I do when one day I’m the mother of a black man in America? What will I tell him, how do I ensure he’ll stay alive?

Just a few months ago I sat a few rows away from Mike Brown’s mother at the Essence Festival and stood arms length away from Trayvon Martin’s mother. Two women who have become pillars of strength because their sons were murdered at the hands of those who were tasked to protect. These are two women who will proudly take on that title, yet it’s nothing to be proud of. Why should they have to bear that burden? Why should other black mothers have to look to them as models for how to go on when your black child’s life is deemed worthless? Why? How? For what?

I don’t want to keep adding mothers to this hall of fame of women who we regard as strong, for whom we feel eternal empathy and want to cover in endless hugs. Instead I want that elite club to be shut down. I want black mothers to stop being the only ones in this country who love their black sons. This shit, it has to end.

Oh, to be black in America.

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By Michelle "Elle" Nance

By day Elle works for ESSENCE Magazine. During all other waking moments she’s likely to be found writing, curating or creating music, or dancing.