Becoming a Parent in the Age of Black Lives Matter
In a park about half a mile from my home is a wide-open field of grass, whose thin, uneven blades rise up past my ankles. The playground near the park is, like other playgrounds across the country, no longer open, surrounded by the orange-plastic fencing that has become unsettlingly familiar. Swings and seesaws and monkey bars that were once teeming with children sit in silence. Robins have begun making a nest at the top of the slide, building a home in the empty corner of the jungle gym’s small deck.
I have a 3-year-old son who loves to sing songs from The Lion King at the top of his lungs and a 1-year-old daughter who laughs like there are fireworks in her belly. Almost every day over the past three months of quarantine, I have taken my children to this field as the culmination of our daily walks. We are almost always the only people there, and relish the sweeping emptiness that surrounds us. We park the double stroller in the center of the grass and build our own world around it. We grab sticks from fallen branches and pretend to be wizards casting spells that turn one another into farm animals. We play tag and chase one another through the field as the tall grass licks our ankles. We bend down low to the earth, take deep breaths, and blow the dandelion-seed heads, watching their small, white parachute seeds spiral through the wind.
My children are both respite from all the tragedy transpiring in the world, and a reminder of how high the stakes are. When I am with them—on our walks, playing in the field, reading them stories, giving them baths—I am not able to fall into the infinite hole of endless scrolling that so often brings me to despair. But also when I am with them, I am reminded of the brokenness of the world that their mother and I have brought them into, and get lost in a labyrinth of anxiety about how I might protect them from it.
I did not have children when the Movement for Black Lives was at its height. At protests following police killings six years ago, I moved through the night with brazen indifference about what might happen to me. I was governed by anger and thought little about the implications of what might happen if I were arrested, if I were hurt, or worse.
My children, as is the case for many other parents, have pushed me to reprioritize, reevaluate, and reorient my relationship to the world. My decisions are no longer singularly centered around me. They are shaped by my commitment to these two small humans who think of me and my wife as their entire world. This is a new reality for many black parents who did not have children when the Movement for Black Lives began, but who have young children now in 2020. So much has changed in our lives even when it feels like so little in our country has. Our children have raised the stakes of this fight, while also shifting the calculus of how we move within it. It is one thing to be concerned for my own well-being, to navigate the country as a black man and to encounter its risks. It is another thing to be raising two black children and to consider both the dangers for yourself and the dangers that lie ahead for them.
A week ago, George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after Chauvin kept his knee planted on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd, in a distressing echo of Eric Garner’s pleas five years ago, could be heard telling the officers around him that he could not breathe. Despite Floyd’s appeals, according to a court document, “The defendant had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in total.” It went on, “Two minutes and 53 seconds of this was after Mr. Floyd was non-responsive.”
Floyd’s death follows a string of recent incidents in which black people have been killed at the hands of police and vigilantes: Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in South Georgia by a group of white men who chased him down while he was jogging and shot him as he struggled to escape. Breonna Taylor, who was killed when police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, entered her home with a search warrant looking for drugs that were being sold out of a house more than 10 miles away. There was also the incident involving Amy Cooper, a white woman in New York City’s Central Park who was captured on camera falsely claiming that a black man named Christian Cooper was attacking her. I imagine how easily a different story might have been told if Christian Cooper had not recorded the incident, if Amy Cooper’s distressed 911 call was the only piece of evidence from that moment. I keep thinking about that shift in the register of Amy Cooper’s voice, making it sound as if she was actively being attacked while on the phone—how she knew exactly what that inflection would signal to the person on the other end of the line.
So much of this feels heartbreakingly similar to what transpired a few years ago. People took to the streets to protest the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Freddie Gray, and others. And yet an obvious difference exists between this moment and that one: Today, all of this is transpiring during a global pandemic that is disproportionately killing black people in America. While some may claim, implicitly or explicitly, that this disparity is simply a result of cultural or individual shortcomings, black coronavirus deaths are not the result of personal failings. They are the result of housing segregation, medical discrimination, low-wage jobs, and lack of access to health care; they are the result of history.
This is part of the story that my parents had to explain to me, and that I will one day explain to my own children—that so many in our community find themselves in these conditions not because black people have done something wrong, but because of all the wrong that has been done to black people. Many are now familiar with the other conversations that black parents have with their children, the conversations in which parents attempt to tread the line of making their children aware of the realities of the world, without making them feel as if it is somehow their fault. I experienced these conversations as a child, and will one day have to find a way to have them with my own children. A conversation that is more central to my life at the moment, however, is the one that black parents are having with one another.
With many of my friends in their early 30s, an increasing number are beginning to have children. We are new to parenting, and almost everyone’s children are under 3 years old. For the past few years our text-message threads have been filled with advice on how to get your child to sleep through the night, where you could find the best deal on diapers, and who was going to the toddler birthday party that weekend. More recently, our Zoom calls and group chats have largely centered on checking in with one another amid the isolation of quarantine and the stream of black deaths, from both vigilantes and the virus. A common theme is that the need to be present for our children, who are so young and so in need of our constant attention, has distracted us from the television screens and phones we might otherwise be glued to. How we feel at once grateful to be pulled away and stressed by the fact that the world feels more dangerous than we have ever known it to be. As one of my friends put it when thinking about having a 2-year-old son in this moment, it’s the “discomforting juxtaposition between the joy of seeing the world through his eyes and knowing how the world will see him one day.”
In 2015, before I had children, I wrote a letter to the son I might one day have. In it I wrote, “I hope to teach you so much of what my father taught me, but I pray that you live in a radically different world from the one that he and I have inherited.” Now I do have a son, and all the fears, anxieties, and joys I wrote about five years ago are no longer an abstraction. They exist in his curly hair, his soft face, and his voice full of songs and questions. I am not sure how different the world I entered is from the one he has, but the past several weeks—to say nothing of the past several years—have made clear how fragile the project of progress truly is.
As we were leaving the park last week, my son saw a butterfly fluttering across the field. “Caterpillar! Chrysalis! Butterfly!” he sang to himself, taking pride in having recently learned the animal’s life cycle. My daughter clapped and swung her head from side to side as he repeated the words. I watched the butterfly rise and fall in the wind, its thin yellow wings carrying its body in an uneven pirouette through the air.
George Floyd had children of his own, two daughters, Gianna and Roxie. I am left wondering what their memories of their father will be. Did they run through open fields together? Blow dandelions into the wind? Play tag until they fell breathless and jubilant to the ground? I hope that any memories they carry will supersede those of their father on the ground, begging for his life.