Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson and what they said

My children had such different reactions to the news last night that the cop who shot an unarmed African American teen in Ferguson, Missouri last August will not be indicted. In the wake of the announcement that Darren Wilson will walk free after shooting and killing 18-year-old Michael Brown—who was walking home to his grandmother's house in the middle of the street on an ordinary day—people marched in cities across the country, and in Ferguson, the city burned as police fired tear gas canisters and bullets into the protesting, heartbroken crowd.

My daughter had called me earlier to ask was I listening to the news. She was in a study group meeting, but had stepped out to talk to me. I had not been listening. My cousin from Trinidad had just arrived to spend Thanksgiving with us, and she and I were with my husband and son in the living room catching up. But my girl sounded upset, so we switched on the news to see what was unfolding. "It's so unfair," she said. Her voice quivered with tears, not just from sorrow, but from righteous anger at what she saw as the injustice of it all. "I can't believe you can just shoot an unarmed kid like that and get away with it. I'm so frustrated and I have no idea what to do. But I don't want to just become cynical and hopeless and accept that this just happens."

I wondered why I wasn't more worked up. I thought, for one thing, that it she was undergoing an experience that was appropriate to college; you're supposed to become politicized in college; it's supposed to open your eyes to the injustices of the world. At the same time, there was in fact little she could do in that moment, and while I wasn't sure that I should be trying to cool the fire burning so hot in her, I thought maybe a more philosophical approach might be helpful just then. "I know how you feel," I told her, "and it's so important to be in touch with that and to look for ways to change things. But you have to remember that as awful as things seem, the polar opposite also exists in the world. There is goodness in equal proportion to this madness, and you have to stay conscious of that and look for that too, or the darkness of all this will consume you."

She paused and considered that. "It does help to see it that way," she decided after a while. "I mean, all this has been happening all along; Black boys have been shot and killed for no good reason long before Michael Brown and Ferguson. At least now there is outrage about it. At least more people are standing up and saying it's just plain wrong." We talked for a while more and then she went back into her study group.

"She's upset?" my son said as I put down the phone. He was in the kitchen brewing some oolong tea for himself and his aunt.

"So upset she was crying," I said.

"They're idealistic in college," my cousin said. "It's right that she's upset."

My son shrugged. "That's the difference between my sister and me," he reflected. "I don't get upset anymore. I'm basically just numb. After Trayvon Martin's killer walked free, I just decided, this is the world we live in. Deal with it." As sad as his words made me, I realized that maybe I got numb after Trayvon Martin, too. Because what my boy said made perfect sense to me. But what my girl said was perfect and right, too.


  1. Thank you for reminding me of balance. It is hard for me to remember that sometimes.
    Like right now.
    But you're right.

  2. My son is also numb. I think since long before Trayvon. I think the average young black man living in North America experiences enough to become numb by the time he starts looking more like a young black man than like a cute little black kid. If they didn't become numb they would have to become angry, and no one is going to tolerate an angry, young, black man.

    It seems white North America doesn't like to see power in a black skin. Perhaps that's why my son wears suits when they are not required, speaks softly, makes a point of not standing too close to people when he speaks to them and consciously affects the speech and mannerisms of a refined New England white man of a bygone era.

    It's sad. One thing about West Indian young men, they have the experience of living in a black man's country that I don't think American black men have and it makes a difference. It hurts me to see my son camouflage his power and his culture.


  3. I feel exactly like your son. I wasn't expecting anything other than this injustice. However, it this has meant a great deal, more than justice, this young man got a nation talking and fighting for him. And that's huge. Huge.

  4. This just sucks, all the way around...

  5. Unfortunately I feel the same way as your son: numb, helpless and targeted

  6. This was powerful, and I hoped you would post today.

    Invisigal..." If they didn't become numb they would have to become angry, and no one is going to tolerate an angry, young, black man." will stick w/ me for the long haul.

  7. I love your response to your daughter. It was loving and appropriate and spot on. I aspire to do that. To have just the right words.

  8. I asked my 29 year old son if the outcome was what he expected. He said it was. I was surprised that he expected the same outcome as me. Numbness is what I saw in his eyes.

  9. All of our most difficult conversations should really make us slow way down, really come to a full stop and look, try to deeply look at what's there. We're all in such a hurry to snatch at the first fact that confirms how we already see the world, but we make up our minds about how things are much, much too quickly. I don't believe there's any benefit in ever deciding "that's how it is."

    Much better to ask ourselves, "How is it? How is this thing that looks to me like this or like that? Is it really that way? Is there more to it?"

    Anyway, it is no surprise to me that you are curious and open and that you acknowledge the pain and unfairness but you keep looking deeper, and encouraging your children to look deeper, too.

    You are a true life angel in this world. You make things better just by being yourself in this difficult place.



  10. Oooo Tearful, yes. "Much better to ask ourselves, "How is it? How is this thing that looks to me like this or like that? Is it really that way? Is there more to it?" Thank you for this.


  11. Your words to your girl were so perfect and good. Thank you for sharing them here.