A day after my son was born, Stephon Clark was killed by police.
I try hard to not see his death as a prophecy for my child. He’s an infant. He stares at me with a bottomless love and hunger. I just want him to grow up and not fear for his life. So I do what countless black fathers have done before me: I hope against hope. But looking from the window, I see the reality. America is a danger to my son.
It’s already begun. Not with bullets. But even that’s not for sure. Cops kill black babies too. No, it’s more subtle. When I take him outside, already, neighbors lean over and coo about his “good” hair and light skin tone. They unknowingly teach him America’s racism. He’ll learn to rate himself on a color scale.
He’s already heard “nigger” and “spic.” They weren’t meant for him but someday they will be. Regardless of what I teach, he’ll have to decide if he’ll say those words. He’ll learn they come with a cost. At some point, he, like almost all people of color, won’t just use slurs but will ask if he is one: “Am I a nigger? A spic?”
He’ll be hit with implicit bullets first. When he’s older, he’ll feel New York City’s history of segregation in the weight people carry in their bodies. The lower the class, the heavier everyday life becomes for his friends. All the debt. All the stress. How it erupts in fights and cursing on the street.
He’ll feel it in every American institution, the weight descending upon him. In school, it will be the low expectations from teachers. Their near instant fear of him. The quick labels that are glued on him like a target.
Wherever we go, America will cast a shadow over us.
In playgrounds, I won’t let him play with any toy gun. Not. One. We’ll already have “The Talk” on how to go full Zen when cops stop him. And they will. In their eyes, my child will look like a menacing adult.
In job searches, his “black” sounding name will get red-flagged before he’s seen. He’ll have to plow through unspoken prejudice. He’ll develop a racist radar, an intuitive sense of when the face of whoever’s in front of him is reacting to some terrible inner image, not to who my son truly is.
I worry this will spark a deep rage in him. I worry his heart will close like a fist. So while I have him, now in these first days of his life, I close my arms around him like an oyster over a pearl. He’s that beautiful and translucent. His eyes are so accepting of this world.
At home, I panic. From my apartment, I see where people died. In Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy, boys kill boys. They are so angry and bitter, so young. On the stoop below, my neighbor George’s son was shot dead by a gang spraying bullets from their car. When I first moved here, he sat on the stoop for hours, wearing a shirt with his son’s face on it.
Boys kill innocent bystanders. A young woman was murdered near my building. Going to the store, I pass where she bled on the sidewalk. A year before, another boy, out for revenge, ran the street and shot wildly. He hit two of my neighbors, Frankie and Romi. Later Frankie showed me the crusted scabs, where bullets pierced his arm and thigh.
I think of those boys, already shaped by the invisible weight, falling down through the centuries into our everyday lives. They are sharpened into jagged knives, ready to cut. I don’t want that for my son.
We can leave. My partner and I talk about new neighborhoods, new cities, even new countries, like bank robbers unfolding a creased map. What about here? No, too cold. What about there? No, too white.
In the end, escape is a dream that dissolves upon arrival. Wherever we go, America will cast a shadow over us. The glittering, material “good life” it sells to the world, however unreachable, means the same status anxiety everywhere. The implicit racism in its narratives means we’ll feel an eerie familiarity in how power works, quietly, between people. What may change is what side of the line we’re on.
If we do get out, we run the risk of being cut off from the lifeblood of the people. Isolated boys of color, stranded in the warped image others have of them, are killing themselves fast. And girls are being arrested more.
Maybe struggle is the only home we have. Maybe that’s why we took him to a protest. We hoped he’d feel it, even before memory becomes words, the power of the people, overturning authority and demanding to breathe. It didn’t take long.
Eighteen days after my son was born, New York City police shot Saheed Vassell. He was a man with bipolar disorder, known by everyone on Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street. On April 4, he aimed a small pipe at random passersby. Panicked, they called police, who showed up, saw a black man aiming something and quickly shot him dead. Why so fast? Why couldn’t they wait? What if it was my son?
I looked at the poster of Saheed Vassell and imagined my son’s face on it. My eyes stung. My throat locked up.
The questions buzzed in my head like bees. My partner and I went to the protest, our son bounced in her Baby Bjorn. We stood in the crowd. She wore fresh braids and a Malcolm X hat. I took notes. The people held posters. Some raised cell phones like dozens of miniature mirrors. Rings of protesters spread out from Vassell’s family at the microphone. We waited in near quiet to hear, not ideology, not political posturing, but real pain because it connected to our pain. Our lives would be real. Our truth, ignitable like spilled gasoline.
We already live under history’s weight. It was too much to now have our children shot over a piece of pipe, a cellphone, wearing a hoodie and carrying Skittles, selling loose cigarettes or just playing music loud.
Vassell’s mother spoke, her voice going in and out. “I want to make clear,” she said, “he was not a homeless man. He was not a violent young man. He was good.” Her plea rang loud into the sky, hurt and strong and proud. “I want justice. I want justice for Saheed.”
I looked at the poster and imagined my son’s face on it. My eyes stung. My throat locked up. He was the best thing about me. He was my pearl.
He is meant to live past me. All of our children are meant to live past us. Their lives are worth more than America. So I joined her call for justice. It was our angry prayer. “No justice,” we yelled, “No peace!”
Nicholas Powers is a poet and associate professor of literature at SUNY Old Westbury. He is the author of 2014’s The Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans to Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street, from Upset Press.