Every Thursday evening, I have a graduate school course, and every Thursday evening, I call my mother while on my way home from school. Normally dismissing the fact that I am driving as a topic not worth addressing, last Thursday my mom brought it up almost immediately.
“Are you driving?” she asked with urgency. I casually answered with a “yes,” to which she responded with silence. Loud African Woman stereotypes aside, my mom is truly a loud African woman. To my mother, saying things more clearly means saying them louder. Saying things with passion means saying them with more volume. And to remain silent in a conversation with your daughter means that something is terribly wrong.
My mother proceeded to tell me that she had a serious conversation with my two younger brothers the previous night. They both live at home with my mom and dad, attending classes at their local community college during the day and producing hard-hitting rap music at night. They play basketball on the weekends and attend church with my mom most Sundays. Their hair changes each time I see them—from locs to fades to afros and beyond, my brothers make no apologies for being unequivocally them. So when my mom had a discussion with them about keeping their hands in the air, even when a police officer asks them to do otherwise, they called her paranoid.
“Mom, if a cop asks me to show them my license and registration, I’m going to do it,” they said. As my mom recounted this to me, she sounded both worried and defeated. This time, I was silent. My mom was right. It is safest for them to simply keep their hands in the air. That way, the cell phones in their pockets, the wallets sitting on the dashboard, the piece of paper that the police ask them to retrieve from the glove compartment—none of these innocuous items can be perceived as deadly weapons. My mom is right, I thought. Isn’t she?
On the other hand, I’ve also seen what happens to black people across the country who refuse to follow police orders. I’ve seen what happens to men who resist with the intention of protecting their black bodies only to end up with no living body left—to become nothing but a Twitter hashtag and a news headline. I began to imagine photos of my brothers posted online—hair pointed towards the heavens and diamond studs in their ears. I imagined myself wearing shirts with their names on them and trying to keep my composure as I wrote their eulogies. I imagined my mom crying out, “I told them to keep their hands up!” I imagined the guilt on my face as I would say, “And I told them not to.”
That’s when I realized that I wasn’t imagining at all. This is my reality. My reality is that black people become hashtags, and eulogies are being written for us far too often. My reality is that putting hands up or down, in your lap or on the steering wheel doesn’t make a difference. My reality is that my brothers might become hashtags. I might become a hashtag.
Black families in America are used to having the “when a police officer approaches you” prep talk, but how do we have these discussions in 2016? My parents, having emigrated from the DRC, were late to the game and brought us into this conversation later in life. And unfortunately, times have changed. If there ever was a “Quick Guide for Black Safety Around Cops,” there certainly isn’t one today. So how do we frame this discussion now? How do we protect our bodies and our children’s bodies and our brothers’ bodies? How do we stay alive?