Since first viewing Javon Johnson’s“’cuz he’s black” on You Tube, I can’t stop watching it. It is a must watch that takes less than five minutes. Please stop now and watch it even if you don’t come back and finish reading this post.
Johnson, a professor in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, for sure is brilliant, articulate, a charismatic orator who captivates my attention. Not only have I watched “‘cuz he’s black” at least a dozen times in the first 48 hours since Mr. David Johns shared it on his twitter feed, I have played it incessantly over and over in my head.
As I work, I type, “The Tenant upon twelve months’ prior written notice,” while I hear in Johnson’s deliberately soft voice that makes me lean in and listen intently to his words, “I’m not happy with the way we raise our black boys. Don’t like the fact that he learned to hide from the cops well before he knew how to read.”
I think of my own nephews – ebony, ivory and mocha colored boys. Would my nephews learn to fear authority, to hide from the cops out of fear of being hurt? In one large extended family, would some of my nephews – the white skinned boys – grow up adulating cops, wanting to be one when they grow up? While my mocha and dark skinned boys grow up fearing the 5-0, ducking and avoiding them at every intersection.
“The Landlord shall use commercially reasonable efforts,” I continue, as Johnson’s voice booms in my head. “‘Get up,’ I yell at him. ’In this car, in this family, we are not afraid of the law.’… We both know the truth is far more complex than do not hide. We both know too many black boys who disappeared. Names lost.”
I think of “my kids,” the students I mentor and teach in the Boston Public School system. Do these sweet, engaging cherub faced 11 & 12 year olds already possess a healthy fear of the police and authority? A natural byproduct of the reality of growing up as a black boy in America.
“The Tenant must respond within five business days, or …,” I note. Johnson’s voice continues in my head, “… it’s about how poor black boys are treated as problems well before we are treated as people.”
I am not a black man so it would be wrong for me to conjecture that I know what it feels like to be a black boy or man dealing with a law enforcement and judicial system that is more often than not predisposed against me because of the color of my skin. I can only imagine the pain and humility associated with systematically being treated as less than, as being consistently looked as the problem and never thought of as the solution.
I am, however, a woman who loves a black man. I have held my breath during a routine traffic stop as I witnessed his very demeanor switch from confident male to a submissiveness that goes beyond politeness and the rage that followed that encounter.
I close the file on my desk and I hear not in Johnson’s voice but in my nearly three year old nephew Alex’s sweet, inquisitive voice, ” ‘But Uncle,’ … ‘Uncle, what happens if the cop is really mean?’ ”
I think of my two youngest nephews: Alex nearly three years old, with his deep brown eyes and a smile that could melt the ice off the coldest of hearts and Austin, not even one year old, blonde and blue eyed, playful and carefree as babies are meant to be. Both beautiful babies, showered with love, yet Alex will face the struggles of growing up a black boy in America while Austin, who will likely not even be aware of it, will have the privilege of growing up a white boy in America.
I wonder am I supposed to teach my nephews differently. They will, after all, face two different realities. Teach Austin to soar simply because he can while letting Alex know to always be aware of how people react to him and the color of his skin, to be cautious and mindful, to watch his back and realize that no matter how accomplished and successful he might become there will always be people who fear and disdain him for his blackness. I cannot. How can I? That would make me part of the problem not the solution.
Like that four year old, apple faced boy in the back of Javon’s ride, I want Javon to be more hero than human.