I think I scared my daughter. Hell, I think I terrified her. When I heard the Zimmerman verdict, I lost it. I yelled the “F” word, then obliterated two of the milk crates my daughter uses to store toys. The strength of my reaction frightened me. I was hit with a rush of memories of Black men taken from this world. Some of them I didn’t know (Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant III, James Byrd); some of them I did (Gordon Arias, Trey Samuels, JaQuan Rice). I flashed back 23 years ago when a bullet entered my flesh. I then became angry with myself because I did not recall a single woman who’d been killed—I know of quite a few.
On the couch, knees pulled up to her chin, I saw my daughter’s eyes wide and wet. She was shaking.
I went into the bathroom, washed my face and returned. I asked for permission to sit next to her. She nodded, and I sat down. I asked her if I could hold her, and she crawled into my lap. I just held her. I wasn’t going to talk until she did.
She bravely asked: “What happened, Daddy? Why are you so mad?”
I was stuck. I have a firm philosophy of “If she can ask, she can know.” I then told her about Trayvon and Zimmerman and why I had such a strong reaction to the not guilty verdict. She connected this to some of the losses she’s already endured and then hit me with, “Daddy? Why do some White people think it is okay to kill Black people?”
I had a choice. Do I just speak from a place of anger and plant in her a seed of hatred and distrust for White people, no matter how friendly they appear? Or do I try to engage a 5-year-old in a nuanced discussion about race, racism, cognitive dissonance, and White supremacy—which she’s already all too familiar with?
No one tells you that as a parent, your word is gospel for your child. Your words make their reality. In that raw and vulnerable moment, I did not want that responsibility. But the responsibility fell to me, and my baby-girl deserved an answer. I did not want to personalize it as White people—as this would make us just as bad as the folks we are trying not to be—so I turned White supremacy into a character.
“Black people, being alive, happy and successful are White supremacy’s biggest failures. It stole us from Africa; so many of us died on the way to other parts of the world. It took our gods from us, and gave us a new one. White supremacy took our language and the stories of our ancestors away, and told us stories that we weren’t good enough. It used whips and fire to destroy our beauty. It hurt our privates. It ripped babies from their daddies and mommies and sold them to other White supremacists.
“But the thing is, we’re still here,” I said. “We’re strong, beautiful, and have influenced White supremacy more than it wants to admit. And you want to know what the crazy thing is? The children of White supremacy copy nearly everything that we do—they want to be us.”
She was having none of it. We teach her to have a critical mind, and it’s a shock when she turns this mind on what we say. “Not all White people are bad, right Daddy? But I should be careful around them just them same?” Damn.
Having to explain my feelings to my daughter was difficult enough, but how was I going to explain the verdict (and my feelings) to the young men of color I work with? How do I honestly tell them to work hard and get off probation, follow all the rules, and then transition back into a society that, for the most part, hates their guts?
A part of me fantasizes about pulling a The Spook Who Sat by the Door, and take them somewhere to train them into becoming a paramilitary self-defense unit. I want to teach them to stand their ground—to stand our collective ground—and make even an attempt to unlawfully take a Black life a costly enterprise. But in the moment, I just started to cry.
My daughter rubbed my arm when she saw me crying. She asked, so I told her why I was still sad, mad, confused, stuck. She said she’d use her powers to “make love bigger.” And in the simple words of my homey, artist Krista Franklin, “I need her to do that.” I really do.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.