The Death of Black Superheroes

The Ahmaud Arbery lynching removes all illusions about who we are and who we can protect.

My son and I are playing Pokemon’ on his gaming device and I receive a text message with a video clip.  I play the video and unbeknownst to me, it catches my son’s eye. As I sit with palpitations from the visual of the slaughter and a young man fighting for his life, my son cries.  The cry was painful and I assumed he was pained by something other than the video.  

He cried for Ahmaud Arbery.  I console him, he regains his composure, and he shares that he saw the video and wanted to know why they were fighting and some men had a gun.  

“Did he fall down because he was shot?” he further inquired.  

One of the most loathsome decisions I have made as a parent (on three separate occasions) was to rob my children of their innocence, with the “Black Folk Rites of Passage."  You know the one where we are forced to introduce black children to their cruel fate of being perceptively viewed as inherently dangerous beings here America. 

The mere thought of each conversation makes me sick to my stomach. 

What has rage coursing through my veins, at this very moment, is directly attributable to the slaughtering of, yet again, an unarmed black man by armed thugs who conveniently posit their actions as driven by protection of property.  Not their own property, but that of a future neighbor who owns a home that is currently under construction.  

Since my childhood, the rules have been simple and clear; if a police officer speaks to you make sure your hands are visible. Say yes/no sir or ma’am. If they are not talking to you and you are with friends, remain calm and keep your mouth shut. Commit their names and badge numbers to memory if possible.  

One prays “the talk” (or rites of passage as mentioned earlier) does not happen too early. For the Felton boys, six and eight were the ages for their first talks about surviving the world.   That talk has happened twice for the eight-year-old, who is now 13. I’m guessing that in another three years my youngest will be forced to see another horrible tragedy and have to hear the unadulterated truth about being black in America. 

I have come to terms with a hard truth:  My superpowers as a father are no match for America’s legal/judicial system.  The burning question is when should I share this with my seven-year-old that Superman (me) has kryptonite.  When should I avail to him that I can not protect him from a teacher, school administrator, a citizen, or the system? Seemingly, and among other things, my kryptonite is the legal system and its continual perpetuation of white privilege, power, and disenfranchisement. 

We have devolved and are systematically desensitized, and it’s clearer now more than ever that a huge swath of America is detached from a crushing reality; for black men in America, regardless of education, status, or wealth -- our lives have little to no value. 

We are forced to confront the stereotypical threats of others in order to shift, change, adapt, and conform in order to survive.  We are required to master the legal, written and unwritten rules of engagement which can turn lethal in a split second. 

How heavy is it for a child to hear a mild form of victim-blaming (him) and to have to internalize it as a lifesaving intervention in dealing with white men and the police? I find myself trying to understand the institutions, both spiritual and educational, that have a responsibility to not only attack the social ills of racial division that plagues our nation, but also to educate, reform, and explicate our transcendence as one America.

I’m seeking to understand why the gravitational pull from this unfathomable execution is paralyzing and won’t allow me to focus.  Maybe the pull is exacerbated by my current blessing of serving as president of a historically black college, my black male students — my sons — and my past encounters with thousands of young black men who need to know that I am with them. 

All men should take pride in knowing that they can protect sons and daughters from anything and anyone. But that pride is uneven for too many of us and it is because of race. Why is what should be an inalienable privilege as a parent and a president, the honor of protecting, less than that of my white counterpart? 

Maybe privilege is the problem. I am one of the “good ones,” on the surface and on paper.  I escaped poverty, served our country, got an education, and am involved in the community. I’m clean-cut, articulate, well-mannered, and cultured. I am also a big black man. 

Where do I stand as both Black Excellence and Existential Threat?  How can I be born of a lineage of enslavement and segregation, yet still not have the right to go to the store at night, to play video games in my own house, to run in a neighborhood, to reach for my license and registration, to seek help after a car accident?

I am no different than Arbery, Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, or Philando Castile, or the victims to come. At any given time and all at once, we are simultaneously the full goodness we’ve tried to bring to our worlds and the piercing fear we bring into theirs.  

Maybe it was the raw video, the time elapsed between the actual murder and the public seeing the truth; the despicable attempt of a public official to rationalize the action that makes the rage burn like an inferno.  It could also be the legal officials who attempted to rationalize the lynching and protect two murderers from accountability. Or maybe it was the combination of several officials recusing themselves and kicking the can down the road or the limited amount of time in which it took Georgia Bureau of Investigation to make an arrest after reviewing the same information. 

“I ain’t pass the Bar/But I know a lil’ bit/enough so you won’t illegally search my sh*t” is the word offered by Jay-Z in “99 Problems.”  It resonates given the simple logic needed to simply arrest individuals based on the limited information available even to the layperson. 

I have cried, fought rage, denounced powerlessness, and sought comfort from family and friends because this one hit differently. When an arrest is made solely because of public outcry, all Americans should know that it propels the idea that Black lives do not matter.  This notion compels me to ignore the ramifications of sharing my feelings because every fiber of my being knows this is no time for comfort or silence. 

Yes, there is apprehension when I think about what my white mentors, friends, colleagues, and associates will judge within these words. But that apprehension disappears when I think about the other words I had to give to my son. 

You can take his innocence, and you can take my superpowers away. Just please, don’t take his life or mine.