To my beautiful boy,
It is with profound sadness that I sit here writing this letter to you. You are only 8-years old and your world revolves around your friends and your family. You are oblivious to the ways of the world and what’s in store for you as you learn and mature and leave the safety of my arms. I wish that I could guarantee this safety for the rest of your life; but I can’t. I am no longer able to pretend that raising you right is all you’ll need.
Son, you, no, we live in a country built on hate, fear, and oppression. We live in a country that will judge you, NOT by whom you are and what you stand for, but for what some random person with the same skin color does. We are a part of a race of people that are looked at collectively. You are an African American and you’re a male and being those two things can be deadly.
Where is this coming from? I woke up this morning after watching coverage of the happenings in Ferguson, MO, last night and I knew that it was time for me to rethink the ways in which I’m raising you and the things that I am teaching you. I thought that all I had to do was make sure that you understood the importance of being honest, fair, and law-abiding and that it would be enough. I thought that if I taught you to have respect for authority and to work hard at everything you set out to do that I was doing enough. I realize now that it’s not enough.
Your father is a big man, about 6 ft., 2 in tall and well over 250 lbs. He’s an imposing figure and when he walks into a room it seems as though he fills it up. While I don’t know what your stature will be, I know that you’ll be bigger than you are now. You may be considered a deadly weapon just by virtue of your size and you’ll need to know how to be less imposing when confronted by a lesser man. I wish I could tell you that the police are there to protect and serve and in some communities perhaps they are. But I can’t. I won’t. The police SHOULD be there to protect and serve but if they get a call of a 6ft., 2 in. tall Black male, you may fit the description and in that case you may have an encounter with one of the lesser men that I spoke of.
I have NEVER had a real run in with police outside of traffic stops so everything I’m about to tell you is based on what I’ve seen throughout the years. What I’m about to tell you will make you question my sanity, but I am telling you this because I want you to live. There is NO room for mistakes in your life, Braxton; none. You cannot dress a certain way, you cannot talk a certain way, you cannot walk a certain way and you CANNOT EVER commit ANY kind of crime that will put your life in the hands of someone else. You CANNOT hang around certain people, walk in certain areas, or even go to the store with a group of friends to buy a sandwich. I may never see you alive again. Your life can be taken by police and there will be NO recourse because all they’ll have to say is 5 words…. “I feared for my life.” That’s it. Guess what? They will be believed because it appears that the prevailing belief is just by virtue of your skin color and sex that you are to be feared. It doesn’t matter that you’re very sensitive. It doesn’t matter that YOU don’t care about what color your friends are. It doesn’t matter, honey.
A lot of people will assume you’re a thug… not because you act like one, not because you’ve EVER walked the streets of an inner city, but because you are Black. It doesn’t matter that I worked my fingers to the bone to ensure that I raised you in a safe environment away from the issues that prevail in poor communities. It doesn’t matter that I’m educated and articulate. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t let you run the streets doing what you wanted to do; NONE OF THESE THINGS MATTER!
I thought I had more time to figure out exactly how to approach the fact that you’re Black and you’re a male in this country. I thought that I had more time to prepare you for what appears to be the inevitable. I don’t. Twelve-year-old Tamir E. Rice was killed after taking a BB gun to a playground near his home. The gun looked real enough. Someone called the police and told them that someone had a gun and was scaring people but that it was probably fake. Officers responded and according to them they told him to put his hands up and he reached for the gun. He was shot in a playground and later died. I don’t want to send you to the playground and never see you alive again. No more guns. I know you like playing with them but no more. You can’t even take your super soaker outside because who knows how that can be construed. No more!
If you are ever stopped by the police, Braxton, I want you to do the following:
1. Comply with their requests. It doesn’t matter how they request it, what they are doing while they request it or how you feel about the request. JUST DO IT! I need you to come home.
2. Make NO sudden movements. If they ask you for ID tell them it’s in your pocket and suggest that they get it out. Lord knows if they fear for their lives at that moment you may be killed.
3. If you’re driving, keep your license and registration in your lap or very close by so that any movement to retrieve it isn’t a big movement. You may be shot if they fear for their lives.
4. If the officers grab you, push you, rough you up. Take it! Demean yourself, humiliate yourself but take it. Remember those 5 words. “I feared for my life.”
Wait… I can’t do this; this is complete and utter bullshit. I’m sorry, baby, but it is. I shouldn’t have to tell you these things. I shouldn’t even suggest that you allow yourself to be humiliated to preserve your life. It’s insane but IT IS REALITY; our reality. I don’t want to be Sabrina Fuller or Lesley McFadden. I don’t want to run down the street and see you DEAD, baking in the noonday sun. I don’t want to watch a smug prosecutor who appears to find satisfaction in letting your killer resume his life as if yours meant absolutely nothing. I don’t want that for you. I need you to be strong. I need you to be law-abiding because God knows if you EVER make a mistake, if you EVER commit a crime, your future is no longer bright; it’s no longer yours.
I can teach you to stand up straight and hold your head high, but when confronted by the police find a way to appear smaller; less imposing. I can teach you to be law-abiding but that won’t prevent you from having to deal with police who only need believe you fit the description of someone who committed a crime to stop you. I can tell you to fight for what you believe in but not if it involves police. In that case you’d better believe what they tell you to believe. Remember those five words. “I feared for my life.” I can teach you that respect is earned but the reality is that you’d better respect police authority earned or not earned or face possible execution.
How in the world do I teach you to be proud of who you are when every single time I turn on the TV there are negative images of people who look like you? When a Black man does something positive it’s an individual accomplishment. When a Black man does something negative, it is somehow a collective condemnation of all Blacks. Others can distance themselves from the negative, criminal acts of those like them… we don’t have that luxury.
If I teach you nothing else, I will teach you that you are to grow up to be strong, and proud and honest and hardworking. I’m going to teach you to always do the right things no matter what. I’m going to teach you that you have to work 3 times harder than your peers even though at the end of the day, the rewards won’t be as great as theirs. But you are NOT to stop trying.
I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning and go to work. I wanted to roll around in my sadness and depression a little while longer. Then I went in your room and watched you sleeping. Creepy, right? I realize that I cannot afford to stay in this place because it’s my job to help you navigate through this messy world. You will NOT be a victim. You will NOT be murdered by some cowardly officer who used those five words. You will NOT be a criminal. You will NOT stand by and watch your friends behave badly without attempting to stop them. You will NOT drop out of school. You will NOT listen to rap music. I’m just kidding! You will NOT do anything that will land you in the back of a police car because there have been situations where a handcuffed man was accused of shooting himself back there.
You are beautifully and wonderfully made, Braxton, and let NO ONE tell you different. You are not responsible for the actions of others. You are responsible for YOUR behavior and YOUR choices. I will stand with you until hell freezes over so long as you do the right things. Unfortunately for you, you do not have the luxury of making boyhood mistakes. You do not have the luxury of pleading your case to an officer or defending yourself against one. You do not have the luxury of reacting because you feared for your life against an officer.
The decision not to indict an officer that killed an unarmed young man last night made me a believer. Your life is of no value to the majority in this country. No one can convince me that it is. Not anymore. You have to be smart, Braxton, and think about every single decision that you make because the consequences can cost you your life. A Black man with a felony in this country may as well be dead. Because it doesn’t matter if he’s served his sentence, his life is virtually over. Don’t be THAT man. Be honorable, be smart, be strong, and be proud. Take care of your responsibilities and hold YOURSELF accountable for your actions and choices.
You need to know and understand that in this country, you can be killed by the police without ever drawing a weapon, without ever being convicted of a crime, without ever committing a crime. I know what you’re thinking. I know you’re wondering what the hell you’re supposed to do with the cards stacked this way. I am telling you to do WHATEVER you need to do to make it home to your family alive. That is what you’re supposed to do. Come home! I want you to live to deal with the justice system another day. Come home!
I need to see you graduate from high school and college. I need to see you meet the woman of your dreams and marry her and give me grandchildren because your sister says she’s NOT having them. I need to see the man you’re destined to become. I need you to live, Braxton. I will figure out how to deal with my fears when you walk out the door, but I need you to walk back in that door alive. I am sick as I type these words because it isn’t fair that I have to tell you these things. I don’t imagine other mothers have to do this with their sons. But I need you to live, so here I am.
I love you, Braxton,
Celia K. Dale