A Black TV Writer-Director's Letter to His 12-Year-Old Son: America "Doesn't Know What to Do With Us" (Guest Column)
In the aftermath of more police killings of black men, Salim Akil ('The Game') attempts to make sense of the violence.
After a week that included the police killings of black men Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, as well as the shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas, the following column was inspired by a conversation that film and television writer-director Salim Akil had with his 12-year-old son about race and fear in America.
Son, I've been watching you and your brothers — your bodies move through the world so beautifully, confidently — slicing through time and space like high-definition slow motion. Watching you fills my heart with love, like it would any parent, like it would any father, but then the paranoia of life creeps in. The realization that you have a black body conjures up images of 12-year-old Tamir Rice's murder in my mind. Catastrophic thoughts begin to invade my five senses. My heart beats faster. I try to catch myself, try to remind myself that no, you are here with me. I'm watching you. You are real and for the moment … alive.
Last night, I watched you inherit Daddy's paranoia. It's a paranoia that doesn't just belong to me, it's a condition from which every black man I know suffers. It's a paranoia from which America suffers. It's the paranoia and fear of your blackness. Black men fear that our blackness will murder us, while America fears and treats our blackness as a threat. Last night, through your tears, you expressed a fear for my life, which put a hickey on my brain. I thought, "Look at this, I have fear that you will join Tamir in death and you have fear that I will follow Philando in death."
But we're not dead, son. We are here alive, so let's talk. Let's put your tears into context, so that if the day comes that you have to stand next to your mother and hold her hand while she mourns my death, be it death by an officer's gun, choke hold or a trigger that's pulled by a brother that looks just like you and me, you will understand who really killed me.
Castile’s girlfriend, Reynolds, streamed the aftermath of his fatal shooting on Facebook Live July 6 in Falcon Heights, Minn.
America has a strange relationship with its racial memory. Death has always been a constant companion of black people. This fetish of violence against us, this unquenched desire to control us, began hundreds of years ago when your relatives were brought here across the middle passage to be sold. We, like the horses and cattle, were never meant to own homes, to marry, to have paying jobs or to become American or free. But here we are, and America does not know what to do with us, so she keeps doing things to us.
Death doesn't just present itself in the form of a bullet, it comes in the form of poor health care, a lack of education, a lack of jobs and in the form of politicians who coin phrases like "super predator," then pass laws to put us back in chains so that money can be made off of the fear of our blackness. Come election time, black and white politicians put on their costumes of compassion and care, shake black hands, kiss black babies, sing "We Shall Overcome" in black churches and pray that we will ignore the reality of everyday suffering and the damage that is being done to our future in exchange for our votes.
Sterling was fatally shot by police July 5 in Baton Rouge, La., and the video went viral.
Son, understand there were no good old days for us. Our good old days were tainted by lynchings, broken bones, scarred bodies, rape and brutal oppression. I know that you can see the hypocrisy; you can feel that boys and girls like you are still considered three-fifths of a white person. How else could the killing continue unabated in American neighborhoods? Yes, we pray for Paris, we pray for Dallas, we pray for Orlando, but can Oakland, Los Angeles and Chicago get some prayers, too?
If you have to pick up a fistful of dirt and let it fall from your hands onto my dead body, son, I want you to know that you are entitled to every good thing this country has to offer. You are the American dream, son. You were made black on purpose. God did that, so I want you to dance in the end zone, dunk the ball with beautiful creativity, become a police officer or a fireman, celebrate when you pass the bar exam, finish your medical residency, ride with your top down and play your music loud, wear your pants low on your hips or tie your neck up with a Windsor knot, find a woman like Diamond Reynolds and marry her quick. What I'm asking you to do, son, is after the tears dry, live. Live life "by any means necessary"!
Salim Akil is the executive producer, with his wife, Mara Brock Akil, of the television series The Game and Being Mary Jane.
This story first appeared in the July 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.