During a recent Black Lives Matter march in New York City, I got a text with a photo of my son. The screen showed an image of him in bed, smiling in that goofy, mischievous way he smiles. I pressed the phone to my chest, and then held it up. His face bobbed between protest signs. I protested for him. I want a world where his life matters.
He was born into danger. He is half Puerto Rican, half Black. When I looked at the phone, I saw his big eyes, so open to new experience, on the screen. As I marched, those eyes were juxtaposed with signs that read, “White Silence Is Violence” and “Black Lives Matter.” I am angry that he has had to enter a racist world, but I also feel hope that we can change it.
“Hey, is that your son?” a white protester asked. I nodded. She took a few quick steps, and pulled out her phone, set as a screensaver was a sleeping infant. We glanced at each other, and although we were strangers, a whole intimate confession passed between us. Love like this. Love that is this immense, overwhelms the ideas that separate us, and can connect those who felt it. Here in our children were all our tomorrows.
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“Your baby is beautiful,” I said. We hugged, briefly, intensely and then got back to marching.
How Can I Protect Him?
“Wuh-wuh-wuh.” The fetal heartbeat came through the speaker. I leaned in close.
Long before my son was born, I held a space inside for him. Each new sign of his impending arrival I tucked away like a letter from a faraway friend. I studied the black-and-white ultrasound photos of him in the womb. I held my partner’s belly, and felt his foot brush my cheek. Slowly, he changed me. When we left the doctor’s office, I looked at people on the street: the deli cook smoking outside, the wealthy older lady, the homeless person. Years ago, each one of them grew from something just as small. I imagined them as tiny heartbeats bobbing inside a womb.
In a flash, the contrast between raw new life entering the world and the pre-existing channels of history that it is forced into became very real. No one is born a race, or a nationality, or religion, or class, but each one of us is molded like clay by those systems. How would America shape my son? How would it teach him to see himself? How would my son learn to protect himself against the ambient threat against people of color that drenched the air like gasoline and could ignite in an unpredictable way?
I held my partner’s hand harder. She asked me what was wrong. I didn’t say at the time, but a loud question rang in my head. How can I protect him?
Living Every Day With the Threat of Violence
“Is he Black or white?” the 911 dispatcher asked. The woman on the phone answered, “Black.” The grainy 2014 video shows a police car rush in and stop. Two cops get out and shoot 12-year-old Tamir Rice. He died the next day.
When I first saw that video, I palmed my chest where a sharp pain hit. The photos and videos of Black people killed by cops magnified into view how racism can transform an ordinary day into deadly tragedy. Trayvon Martin was walking home from getting tea and Skittles. Eric Garner had just broken up a fight. Sandra Bland was driving to a job interview. The racism that killed them was blatant. But racism also operates every day in smaller, more subtle ways, even among communities of color.
After my son was born, neighbors gushed over his light skin and “good” hair. I know they meant well, but if he believes them, he will internalize their racism. People of color reinforce colorism. In the summer, he is toasted brown by the sun, so as a man, will he be profiled? Or will he learn self-sabotage at the racially segregated public schools in New York City? Or will he get sick from the dirty air, itself an effect of environmental racism?
Driving my son to Freeport, I saw homes wrecked and for sale after Hurricane Sandy flooded the neighborhood. A U.N. report warned that by 2030, our gas-guzzling economies will lock in global warming that dries the land, brings floods and deepens poverty. How will he face this?
Taking my son to the corner bodega, I see customers speak through masks and know that COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic. The poor, again, will suffer as a viral underclass because they live in the most tightly packed neighborhoods, and disproportionately do front-line work that exposes their bodies to disease.
How will my son face all of this?
Making Our Own Hope
The day before the protest, I lifted my son, fed him, changed his diaper and held him until he slept. Even though they can’t answer, parents just prattle to their kids. I know I do.
“You see everyone protesting,” I said as I kissed his forehead. “They are saying your life matters.”
I took him to his mother, and the next day I joined the Black Lives Matter march at Police Plaza. It thundered up Lafayette Street. Along the way, activists shared water, snacks, masks and uplifting chants. They carried each other’s heavy bags. They stopped to offer support when the sun and shouting made someone dizzy. They cared deeply for each other.
It was like how I cared for my son. And that is what gives me hope in this new movement. More than the ideas. More than the slogans and signs. The truth that we need to turn history around, and give our lives a chance is being practiced in every move and expression. We are already family.
And that’s when the text came. I saw my son’s face and held it up.
A marcher asked, “What do we want?” I yelled for the child I loved, “Justice!”