Love in the Time of Ferguson

My father doesn’t understand why I’m committed to racial justice. It’s always been bewildering to him, maybe cute or exciting on the good days, self-indulgent and misguided on the bad ones. I remember being 14 years old and arguing with him about the impact of race and socioeconomic status on high school graduation rates in my heavily segregated school district. We were sitting in his car after having gone out to dinner on a school night. I hadn’t seen him in months and when he just randomly stopped by to take me out I hopped in his truck determined to show off my intellect. My desire to be stronger and smarter than my father started early. He’s also a fairly emotional guy. He feels what he feels when he feels it, masculinity be damned. He’s 6’4 and built like an Oak tree. He’ll cry if he wants to. You’d think that’d be an awesome thing for a daughter to witness; her father being emotionally available. Maybe. What it was in my teen years was another way to compete with him. I’ll be stronger, smarter and… less emotive. Hah! So there. I win. 

Yeah. 

Turns out I’m just as big of a mush ball as he is. If not more so. Us Oak trees, the roots of our hearts run deep and we weep the big leaves. 

Thanksgiving this year was rough. My dad has been ensnared by the toxicity of mainstream media. The lazy, easy to digest, pseudo-reporting of CNN and Headline News convinced him he knew what the Hell he was talking about when he chose to bring up the nation wide protests to police killing Black people in the streets. He really thought he had some wisdom to bestow. Common sense racism I call it. It’s just common sense to believe that Mike Brown did something to deserve being shot. My dad listed off all the things that the news told him justified the execution. I debunked them one by one. I do this for a living; critique media and deconstruct narratives from a racial justice lens. So at this point in the after dinner conversation I’m still winning the “I’m smarter than you” game. But then he said something that made me angry. Once the words were out of his mouth my sons pushed their chairs back from the table and cleared the room as if someone had shouted “Fire in the Hole!” They removed themselves from the blast radius. My older son patting me on the shoulder as he went. 

The fight we had isn’t important. Anyone who has a loved one that spews ignorance at the holiday table has had this fight. My social media streams were filled with people having these arguments, strategizing how to handle them, bracing themselves and looking for support. 

There is a brilliant Queer Afrofeminist Nigerian writer, Spectra, that I’ve been following for years. She is insightful and loving and brave and generous in her blogging. On November 26th she wrote Dear White Allies: Stop Unfriending Other White People and I breathed this quote in fully:

“This is the time to remember that the outrage you feel can in no way match my own and therefore you have way more emotional capacity than I do to talk some sense into the ‘other side.’

This is the time to remember that your “solidarity” does not render you powerless; in fact, the entire point of your solidarity is to lend the power you DO have to folks who do not.

And by the way, this is the time to remember that you do have power.”

Do I have the capacity to be the person my dad works this shit out with? I better be, given that what I’m feeling is nowhere near what Black mothers and fathers are feeling now, have been feeling forever. Nothing compared to what my Black loved ones are experiencing, wrapped in despair or rage or seeking comfort. I may be feeling heartbroken at the failure of my society to protect and respect us all equally; my loved one is feeling hunted in his own hometown. What I want is for my father to feel this with me. To feel it in his gut too. To weep with me, to be angry with me, to fight along side me. So what is preventing that from happening?

My dad and I love each other deeply, he thinks of me as brilliant and beautiful and brave. He’s shown up for me in ways he hasn’t had to. We have a relationship based on mutual respect, kindness, trust, and the ability to see the good in each other. So if I can’t dig into racism with him in a loving and compassionate way, then who the fuck is supposed to? He’s my dad. I love him. I’m not going to give up on him. In order to reach him, to meet him where he was at, I realized I didn’t need to be smarter than him, or stronger than him, or less emotional than him. I needed to take a risk and be vulnerable with him.

First I told him that I know he is a reasonable person. That he needs to know the reasons why Mike Brown was killed, and he agreed to that. I said I know that he believes in justice, so he’s looking for what justifies a cop using deadly force on an unarmed teen. To him there must be a good reason for why this happened. The news has provided him with those reasons, right? The kid held up a store, he reached into a cop car, he was massively sized and super strong, crazy enough to charge at the cop even after being shot at, right? The media has been spewing that nonsense from the jump precisely to ease the conscience of reasonable people like him. He agreed to that too, maybe not as whole heartedly. I tell him that the fact he needs a reasonable explanation is so important to me.

This is when my eyes water. This is when my voice cracks. I tell him I know that he doesn’t want to live in a country where Black people are killed for being Black. Yes, this violence is heartbreaking, Yes, there is no end in sight. Yes, it’s been going on for lifetimes. And yes, our hands are bloodied by it. All of that is true. I feel all of those things, it’s not like I am immune. So I know what it is I’m asking him to do. To see the injustice, to let it in. I say it hurts me so much when I hear him insist that when a Black teenager is killed by police, it’s because the kid must have done something to deserve it. I speak to his vulnerability. I say I can see his heart and that I’m hearing him say this injustice is too much for his heart to handle. I know that he is protecting himself from a level of cruelty that should be unfathomable. I share that I know once we see no defendable justification for Mike Brown’s parents to bury their child, we can’t unsee it and we feel powerless to stop it. I tell him that is what I’ve felt. And he listens, and we don’t fight. He doesn’t say I’m right and I don’t need him to. He lets me be. I let him be. We’re also really good at giving each other space.

This is what I have the capacity to do so that nobody else has to. No person of color, no stranger on the street, no coworker, shop owner, neighbor, needs to have this deep level of empathy for my father. But I do. And who knows how long it will take! Will we fight about it again? Maybe. I don’t expect this to be a one time conversation. I do know that I will try my best to come at it from this perspective, it’s too important not to come from a place of love. I will not avoid the topic, I will not shy away from conflict. I will love him unapologetically again and again every time.

My Gifts

When I was a kid I was labeled as gifted. This was the year I went to an elementary school around the corner from my grandparents house, the same elementary school my dad went to. I even had the same 4th grade teacher as he did. I walked into the classroom after having missed the first day and she welcomed me with, “A. Clark?” I thought she was calling me by my first initial and last name. But actually she was saying “A Clark?” as in “oh no, another Clark.” That was the year I went by my initials. I was determined to leave the complicated Airial behind and simply be known as AJ. I was tired of having to repeat my name over and over. It wasn’t that popular of a name in the 80’s. Mrs. Tracy was her name. She sent me to be evaluated by the school counselor right away. I had never taken an intelligence test. It was because she remembered my dad that she wanted to me out of her class and into the Gifted and Talented Education program as soon as possible. They didn’t have that program when my father was a kid. And she said it was a pity, he would have gotten into a lot less trouble if they had. So this Clark got labeled as “Gifted.”

I told my grandfather, the original Clark as far as I was concerned. He smirked. “They’re gonna separate you from the herd already, huh? Is that the gift? You don’t have to deal with the knuckleheads?” 

“Uh, I guess so…” I didn’t like when Grandpa got all sardonic on me. I thought I was sharing good news. Pretty sure I gave him the ‘stop being unreasonable’ frown.

He relents, “Or does this mean you have gifts to give?” a little more gentle.

“Errm… If I’m gifted, then that means I have gifts.”

“And gifts are meant to be given,” cue the knowing grandpa eyes.

My grandfather had amber eyes. Stubborn eyes that refused to pick a shade and stick with it. Molasses one day, sunset the next. He called my eyes indecisive. “Are you blue or green today?” He would ask, “Ocean or sky?” I would run to the mirror to see if I could watch them change. When they finally settled on a golden green, the exact same as my father’s, he said they should have named me “do-over.”

At the time I remember thinking what a strange Grandpa I had. Nothing ever simple. Never easy. Nope. Clarks, we’re a complicated group of people. But my grandfather’s words always stuck. I’m nine years old, I’m gifted, so I have gifts to give. 

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if my grandfather hadn’t framed it for me in that way, when the identity was fresh. Being gifted means you have things to give. Being gifted means you have to find new ways to give. The burden is on the gifted to figure out how to give. 

I just spent a week in the desert living in a gift economy. I was gifted many many things out in Black Rock City: Necklaces, blinky lights, books, drinks, food and a really cute pair of undies! Surreal performances of fire and aerial feats. Dance parties in the dust waiting for the beat to drop. Lollipops and heavy sighs. Smiles, hugs and sex. I was given gratitude. I was gifted with appreciation for me being me. I brought my gifts too. The big ones I don’t get to use all the time. The gifts that make me feel 10 feet tall. The gift of a booming laugh. The gift of fierce safety. The gift of a teasing barb. The gift of a strong brow and a set jaw. The gift of more than just mischief. The gift or real true unconditional love. The gift of being shown up for. Centered, confident and grateful; I was at my bossy pants best. 

And then… I wasn’t. Too far from home for too long. Too much disconnect from the boys. Too much never-never land and I was feeling every bit a Wendy. My gifts had burned away with the man. I was left with ashes and a wretched, guilt laced empty. 

New gifts appeared. Gifts of vulnerability and open heartedness and unapologetic need. Arms of a best friend – who’s beautiful name means “gift”- wrapped around my sobbing shoulders. I was being held by a gift; A gift embraced me. A person, yes, but the embodiment of gift to me. Our friendship is a gift we continuously give each other. 

That’s what I brought back from the burn. Yes, my gifts are for giving, but it’s not sustainable if I don’t receive any too. I slipped out the backdoor of my life for a week to be reminded of my own bigger picture. Who am I when I’m not caught up in the minutiae of parenting? I use my gifts everyday to make my kids’ life as awesome as it can be. My being gifted has saved our asses too many times. Yet, there in the dust I saw glimpses of this future me. And she’s rad. As soft as she is bold, as curious as she is knowing. As giving and she is receptive. No fear of gifts running out, no fear of not receiving. A beautiful, sustained being as loved as is she loving. And I can’t wait.