When I was a little girl, my father was my definition of a man. He was handsome, charismatic, emotionally available, and beautifully flawed. My paternal grandfather, whenever he had a collection of old men sitting around the cleaners he owned in Harlem, would laughingly tease me about my devotion to Daddy. "Hey watch this," he smirked as he turned his attention toward me, "Danielle, who is the most handsome, brilliant man of all?" I'd brighten up immediately, "My daddy is." A swirl of laughter would follow as the elders present marveled about how well my father had trained me. It seems like a silly story now, but it underscores how deeply I understood my father and the other Black men in my family and community as larger than life -- my protectors, my champions, my problem solvers, and my buffers against the cold hard world that met me when I became a woman.
My father is not the end of the story of how I came to understand Black masculinity, and it's power and grace. My first school principal was Black man. My first math teacher was a Black man. My pastor was a Black man. And, my understanding of what that meant was childlike, trusting and absolute. So, it was with bewilderment and disgust that I came into consciousness about what the larger society thought about my father, my principal, my grandfather, my pastor and all the Black men who'd had a hand in nurturing me. I can't clearly define the moment. Was it the Spanish teacher who snickered behind corrected test papers, "They were Black, weren't they," after a white classmate said he was mugged on his way home from school? Was it the neighbor who screamed out loud in terror as a Black male surgeon in my apartment building swooped into the lobby after his ritual morning run (yes, he was hearing a hoodie)? Was it the day a former student of mine spent a night in a NYC jail because he'd been traveling on the subway without a picture identification card (they wanted to run his prints just in case)?
Through it all, I managed my frustration constructively as I reveled in the intelligent outrage of the carefully conceived post-civil rights activism of my community. We weren't marching as much, but we stood resolute in the sacrifices of our forefathers and remained to committed to our own advancement through education and a exemplary work ethic. And, I lived on a promise of what it meant to be part of democratic America. It was a promise I embraced even in the wake of injustices (Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Griffith, Amadou Diallo, etc) because I hoped these injustices were outgrowths of an ignorance I could somehow overcome by way of my own example and patriotic fervor for the country I knew we could become. I worked hard. I got good grades. I went to good schools. I played the game by the rules of the handbook I'd been given, and waited expectantly for a new America to emerge because Langston Hughes had promised that someday I'd be able to sit at the table when company came. All the while I was watching, relying on, and emulating the adults in my family and in my community to see what an appropriate response to the indignities of post-civil rights racism looked like.
And, just as I watched my mother, my father and the other adults in my community, our children are watching us in this moment. We are living in an age of obscured American ideals. We are living in an age when activism only sticks if the marketing pitch works on Twitter and Facebook. If you are raising or reaching Black and Latino boys, be clear, we've reached a tipping point. If we do not stand up for their lives in this moment - they will never trust us again, they will never believe our stories about freedom, citizenship, what America means and what this country is founded on or can become. We will not have the credibility to ask them to pull up their pants, to watch their language, to give us their seats on the bus when we are too old to stand on our own. We will be remembered as a generation of cowards who were short on risk and integrity, and rich in electronics, cars, bragging rights, fancy degrees, beach vacations, and bourgeois dreams. Our kids will wonder, where we were when George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin... and how will we answer? Will we proudly show them old photos of us in our hoodies and believe that in a momentary act of social media solidarity we did good? Will we buy Skittles once a year to commemorate our so-called courage?
I do not have a son. But, I am a mother. My daughter is my lifeline, my humanity, my hope and a living affirmation of my own connection to the universe. I am certain that Trayvon means the same thing to his parents. I imagine their grief is deep, and blindly, and excruciatingly painful. Bold action is required. Public policy must be changed. Laws must be rewritten. There must be accountability. I do not have a son. But, I am smart enough to know that our children deserve the right to buy Skittles, to laugh on the phone with their friends, to score touchdowns, to grow up, to graduate from college, and to reach the finish line of life in one piece. Hoodies are good for today. What next? What happens tomorrow? Now more than ever, recreate your community -- by your activism, by your philanthropy, by your civic engagement, by your volunteer work, by your continuous learning. Don't be a one-hit wonder. Be the solution.