By NICK CHILES
As the pain of the George Zimmerman verdict settled in yesterday, the sting of the words “not guilty” slowly starting to recede, I said goodbye to my son.
The timing was quite disconcerting.
He is just a few weeks away from his 21st birthday, preparing for his last semesters of college, on the verge of stepping out into the world—just as that same world was pronouncing, for about the hundred thousandth time, that it has no regard for the lives of young black males.
As he piled his stuff into the back of his car, I was a jumble of emotions: fear, gratitude, sadness.
The fear is the same emotion I’ve been struggling with ever since he turned 16 and started driving—the fear that the world wouldn’t love him like I did, wouldn’t see the same joyful glint in his eyes, the spark in his personality; wouldn’t care to see the sharpness of his mind. His hulking, muscle-bound football frame would register as one thing: threat.
My gratitude derives from my happiness that he has made it nearly to his 21st birthday, at a time when so many boys who look like him have not.
But there is also a sadness for the Martin family, and the families of the other black boys who now make up the horrible roll call of senseless racial killings—Emmett Till, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Troy Davis…For these families, the memories of their joyous days with their boys have a finite ending, a severing, far too early, too soon.
Since Zimmerman has gotten away with killing young Trayvon, there are many words being written today about the precarious existence of black boys. It is a theme I recently explored at length in a groundbreaking three-part series I did for Ebony magazine called “Saving Our Sons”—though I tried to spend just as much time exploring solutions as describing problems.
For those of us who have black boys in our homes, the reaction to the Zimmerman verdict is more personal, cutting deeply into the places where we hold tight our anxieties and hopes for our children. Today we struggle once again with the knowledge that our nation doesn’t care as much about the lives of our boys, can comfortably spout legal theory and prosecution missteps as the headlines when the real story is the annihilation of a boy with a pack of Skittles. This knowledge affects the way we parent our boys, the way we control their movements, monitor who we allow in their presence and how much we let them explore the world—at times to their detriment, as we are tempted to smother them, to be so overwhelmed by our preoccupation with survival and protection that we don’t push independence and demand maturity and excellence.
As a result, too many of our boys know well the poison of lowered expectations, the mix of pity and charity that they feel from too many people around them.
I watched my son climb behind the wheel, ready to speed off into the next chapter of his life. With Trayvon on my mind, I felt the need once again to give him that black father/black son speech about watching his back, staying away from the distractions, not embodying the stereotypes that the world is too quick to cloak him with, using his wits and common sense.
Of course I know that these will not be enough to ensure his safety. Nothing can do that. Danger and threat can sneak up in the dark of the night—or the bright glare of a subway platform.
But as I talk to him this time, I feel a difference in his demeanor, a heightened willingness to absorb my words. I think it’s because he too has been following the Zimmerman trial. He has had his own bewildered reaction to the verdict. The words he has been hearing from Dad for the last decade suddenly have become more than parental boilerplate to him. He’s about to turn 21—about to be responsible for his own fate.
For him, everything just got real.
1. In Attacking Trayvon’s Friend Rachel Jeantel, Black Folks Are Taking It Too Far
2. Trayvon Martin’s Parents are Still Co-Parenting—Through Death and Zimmerman’s Trial
3. Trayvon Martin’s Family Launches ‘Change For Trayvon’ To Fight Stand Your Ground Laws
4. Teenager Killed in Florida by Neighborhood Watch Brings Terror To My Heart
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.