“How painful it is to be reminded every day that your race doesn’t matter.” ― John Boyega
I’d just turned 22 when I received a call from my maternal grandmother telling me that my father had passed away and I was the next of kin. I rushed through my final exams and returned home to Minneapolis to be overwhelmed by all the responsibilities that came with his death. I spent the next several weeks cleaning out his apartment downtown with the last person on this Earth I’d choose for that task ― my mother.
My father wasn’t very involved in my life and his side of the family — my Black family — was entirely absent from my life when I was a child. I was raised by my white mother and her side of the family after my parents split up when I was a baby. Neither of them ever had anything nice to say about the other. In fact, they’d rather not have spoken about or to each other at all ― or made eye contact. Even something as minor as a phone call where one of them asked the other if they could speak with me was always accompanied by an uncomfortable hostility.
I never knew why they felt this way about each other and, to be honest, I found it best not to ask. I loved them both and didn’t want to see them not get along. I can see that obviously they were hurting and I acknowledge the validity of their feelings. (Sometimes now, I even find it a bit humorous that two people with such disdain for each other could have produced a child. ) But it sucked having parents who hated each other, and that very pain is part of what taught me to strive to love others authentically, generously and intensely.
When I went to my father’s apartment after his death, I found half of the kitchen floor covered with empty bottles of gin that had been organized in neat rows. The electricity and water were hardly working, and mountains of magazines, papers, folders, pornography and junk mail dating back decades cluttered every corner. It was dark, musty, and filled with the foul stench of meat rotting in the fridge and whatever small creatures ― like the dead mice scattered everywhere ― that had crawled in and never made it out again. My mother found an old form from when I was a baby that listed her as his significant other.
Cleaning out his apartment was a certain hell-on-Earth that I wish I could forget, and yet it was all I had left of him. I couldn’t help but search for clues of some kind ― rifling through every shred of paper, every photo to try to uncover just who my dad was. Even when he was alive, he was secretive about his past and never talked about himself. When I was 6, I remember asking about my paternal grandparents and being met with an uncomfortable silence. In third grade when I had to make a family tree, it was just one big question mark for every branch above and around him and, even then, he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Whenever I get asked whether I want kids, I get a feeling like my heart is being ripped from my chest, dragged along a floor of jagged glass and left to rot with the mice carcasses that littered his apartment. I don’t know what kind of father I’d be. In many ways, I didn’t have one.”
I didn’t know my grandparents’ names until after my dad passed ― I had to learn them from his relatives when I went to fill out that information for the death certificate and funeral pamphlet. Even then, I was sitting down with an uncle I hadn’t known existed. My father’s death led me to fly down to Tennessee to meet his estranged family on Christmas Day, drive out to their hometown of Wynne, Arkansas, to bury him on Boxing Day, and then fly home the next morning. I haven’t seen any of them since.
It wasn’t until after my father passed that I really thought hard about my regrets regarding our relationship, because now they were things that could never be. Those feelings were amplified by finding his fishing rods, tackle boxes and old baseball mitts ― remnants of all the time we promised to spend together but now never could. The list of regrets continued to grow as I got older. I wish I could’ve shown him “Black Panther,” so that he might have had hope that young Black kids would have heroes to look up to. I wish I could’ve listened to Kendrick Lamar’s albums ― the “Black Panther” soundtrack, “Good kid m.A.A.d City,” “DAMN.” ― with him. Whenever I get asked whether I want kids, I get a feeling like my heart is being ripped from my chest, dragged along a floor of jagged glass and left to rot with the mice carcasses that littered his apartment. I don’t know what kind of father I’d be. In many ways, I didn’t have one.
It took me a while to realize I was grieving more than the loss of my father. In a sense, I was grieving the absence of my Blackness ― a part of my humanity that I was denied while growing up in white suburbia. He hated that I was raised by my mom’s side of the family. He was always angry that I never really embraced my Blackness growing up, which resulted in my pushing it away even more because of his anger with me and his refusal to just let me like what I liked and do whatever I had to do to survive in the world I lived in. I know he had reservations about modern Black culture but his silence on so many topics made it hard to decipher what he felt or why.
It was also difficult to embrace my Blackness in the middle of Midwestern white suburbia where it wasn’t looked upon fondly. I grew up in a place that had more than its share of isolation and more than its share of resentment and violence. Earlier this year, as I sat in Illinois working on my Ph.D. in a predominantly white physics department, I knew the protests happening in my hometown of Minneapolis were about more than the killing of another unarmed Black man. They were a fight for Black people’s survival ― a fight to merely exist. All those people in the streets were a monument to our perpetual grief as this country still refuses to see the humanity in Blackness.
If you’re ever wondering if your kids are too young to discuss race with them, you should know that I was already grappling with the concept at age 2 when I realized that I didn’t look like any of my family and friends. One of my first memories is of dragging a bottle of lotion out of the bathroom while thinking, Oh, I see mom put this on and she’s white, so if I put this on my skin, I should look whiter like her. I remember her telling me that’s not how it worked and feeling devastated. Growing up, I wanted long brown hair and blue eyes. I wanted to know what it would be like to fit in with my family ― just for once to not have anyone question me when I shopped with my mom or helped my grandma. To not be looked at with suspicion when I wore my favorite hoodie or followed when I did something as harmless as navigating a store.
I wanted to not look like my Black father.
Growing up biracial in white suburbia was complicated. It was always a balancing act of being too Black or too white, or not Black or not white enough. It could be small things like having one of the counselors at my high school spend a year confusing me with another biracial student, or having people argue in history class if I counted as four-fifths of a person because I’d inherited three-fifths of one-half of my personhood from my dad and one-half of my personhood from my mom. Sometimes it was getting into physical fights. Sometimes it meant being 16 and my grandma telling me the story of how she sat my mother down and told her she didn’t think dating a Black man was a good idea because mixed-race children would be a mistake and they would have it rough and all of the other problems she foresaw.
Other times it was having your family cheer for the police in cases of brutality and telling you, “But I don’t see you that way,” when they talked about how the people of color involved in whatever incident had it coming or were thugs. Sometimes it was being told I shouldn’t ask someone out because they didn’t think it’d go over well with her white parents. Other times it was having older people strike up conversations on flights and remark, “You don’t look like a physicist,” or express how miraculous it is that I don’t “speak Ebonics” and have a graduate degree.
“My dad had so much hope for a system that fundamentally betrayed and hated him simply because of the color of his skin. He was defeated by this world ― a world in which he was routinely harassed by police, security guards and shop owners, where this kind man was constantly suspected of being a criminal simply because of his Blackness.”
Going through my father’s apartment made me sad but also mad because I had missed out on learning about who I am and where I came from. But the thing that infuriated me the most while I was cleaning out his place was the amount of political campaign mail he had. And the “I voted” sticker I found affixed to the back of his wallet. And when I learned that even though he was destitute, he was still donating to political causes. My dad had so much hope for a system that fundamentally betrayed and hated him simply because of the color of his skin. He was defeated by this world ― a world in which he was routinely harassed by police, security guards and shop owners, where this kind man was constantly suspected of being a criminal simply because of his Blackness.
Once, on one of the rare occasions we were together during my childhood, he was stopped by mall security in front of me. He had the composure to act like nothing happened ― to keep a brave face for a son who wouldn’t understand what was going on or why. When we were together, we always took the bus, and he’d wear this big green nylon jacket and carry anything he’d buy in a small duffel bag. I would watch as he got patted down just walking into a Target simply because he was Black and didn’t have enough money to own a car to get around and keep his purchases in. Today I, too, carry my backpack at all times because I also walk everywhere, and now when I go to Target, I always buy something ― anything ― to help soothe my anxiety about leaving empty-handed and potentially being accused of theft.
One day alone in his apartment, I found an old stash of photos from the early ’70s, including a slightly blurry image of my dad at his high school graduation. My own high school graduation was the second-to-last time I saw him in person. I remember staring at his photo and wondering how much has really changed since then.
In my last conversation with my dad, I expressed my disappointment that Donald Trump won the first election I voted in. My memory of our final talk has faded with time, but I remember he told me to never think my vote doesn’t matter. He was a proud voter, but did anything really change between his graduation and mine? I’ll vote again in just a few days, but by the time I finish my doctorate, will anything have changed? If I have children, will anything change by the time they graduate? Was the pride my dad had in this country ― and the hope that it would someday, finally, treat its Black citizens as truly equal and truly human ― for naught?
When my father died, he was penniless, broken and left to rot with the mice and garbage. But that was business as usual. He was just one more victim of a system that made and continues to make men like him suffer and disappear. Between the unknown family issues and the weight of being beaten down for being Black his whole life, how could he have possibly hoped to instill in me a sense of pride in our heritage? It’s an internal conflict I am unraveling for myself. The more I wrestle with it and the more work I put into trying to understand it, the more I see just how deeply this trauma bleeds into every aspect of not just my life, but also the lives of those I hold dear ― their immediate negative responses to Blackness, Black people, Black culture.
It breaks my heart to see that negativity internalized in people who say they love me ― as if I’m so close to being enough (but not quite), as if I’m the exception to their prejudice. So, you’re damn right that I welcome every action challenging the systemic racism and violence that Black people face every single day of our lives. You’re damn right I have no sympathy for a police officer or white supremacist accused of murder, especially when too often they’re acquitted or not even held accountable for their crimes. And I’ll be damned if I ever lament seeing this nation’s oppressive institutions reduced to smoldering ashes.
Each day it seems our society finds new reasons to justify the killing of another person of color, another way to exonerate the police of any wrongdoing, another way to criminalize Blackness. I can’t help but feel paralyzed by betrayal as I look to the future. Do I want to be hopeful that something will change? Of course. But a part of me is reluctant to get my hopes up in fear that things will get even worse, or just go back to the way they were, as we wait for the next hashtag and forget the one before. Part of me is afraid that I don’t know how to start healing the erasure of my Blackness. How do we begin to mend not only the things that I have experienced but the entire 400 years of intergenerational trauma I have inherited? As we cycle through a system that continues to betray Blackness, I am distraught.
Still, I want to believe that things can get better ― that the fight Black people and their allies have undertaken for centuries does matter. And I know that even though the system is stacked against us ― that white supremacy has worked long and hard to ensure that we are not truly free or equal ― we have tools at our disposal. We can call out racism whenever and wherever we see it. We can protest. And we can vote out the people who do not think our lives matter ― who do not think my father’s life mattered ― and look to new leadership. So, despite my reservations and fears and uncertainty about what the future will bring, I will vote this November ― not only in hope that my Black vote will help create the change this country so desperately needs, but also to honor my father.
Donny, or D.J. (short for Donny Jr.), Pearson was born in Minneapolis and attended Robbinsdale Cooper High School. He attributes his love of science to wonderful teachers and the opportunity to visit Costa Rica three times during high school for research through the program Seeds of Change. While at Clark University, he majored in physics and chemistry and graduated cum laude with high honors in physics. With inspiration from his teachers and professors, he went on to pursue a Ph.D. in atomic, molecular and optical physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, as part of the Joint Quantum Institute. However, he left with a master of science when his lab moved to the University of Illinois, where he continues to pursue his doctorate studying quantum optics with the newly founded Illinois Quantum Information Science and Technology Center. When not in the lab, he can be found playing soccer, watching the Premier League, drawing, painting or enjoying anything “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park” related.