The Factotum Post

How My Mother Feared For My Life Growing Up In A Dictatorship, Now I fear For My Son’s Life Growing Up Black In America

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I was born in Haiti, where I only lived half of my childhood because under Jean-Claude Duvalier’s dictatorship, it was a sin to be a young male. I remember how paranoid parents got when their boys began puberty and their voice started to change. When boys started to grow facial hair and their Adam’s apple became slightly protruded, mothers became frantic and fathers became stricter with their sons than they are usually with their daughters.

In a dictatorship, young males, are considered a threat to the system and are therefore, systemically persecuted and jailed or executed. So growing up in Haiti in the mid-eighties was that complicated. Our parents were concerned, and rightfully so, because a savage paramilitary group sponsored by Duvalier called the “Tonton Macoutes,” always viewed young males as a possible threat against the regime. Having “The Talk,” with your male child about how to stay off the Tonton Macoutes’ radar was as essential as the dreaded birds and the bees’ conversation for every parent; except, most parents would gladly skip the uncomfortable talk about sex, but couldn’t afford to skip the talk that would save their children’s lives.  Our parents would tell us how to avoid opining anything negative about the regime. We weren’t allowed to talk to our little friends about anything political, nor could we ever make any comments about the news. At home when our parents talked about Duvalier or his government, they whispered and looked to the sides as if there was someone watching or listening behind the couches. And every now and then we would hear the painful squeal of a mother whose son had vanished without a trace. Our parents told us to avoid getting involved in artistic endeavors, such as theater, painting, singing, or dancing, since you could easily be accused of being a communist sympathizer and be taken away in the middle of the night to never be heard of again. When I turned eleven, my mother agreed to let my big sister take me to the Dominican Republic to live with her and spare me from an almost certain arrest or death. I remember what it felt to finally be free of care to say what I wanted and to express myself, but most of all I no longer had to fear for my life because I no longer lived in a police state.

Fast forward to 2016, I now live in the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I am the father of a 15-year old black male; yet for some reason I find myself feeling the same kind of anxiety and fear my parents felt for me so many years ago back in Haiti. It started with the murder of Trayvon Martin at the hand of civilian neighborhood volunteer watcher George Zimmerman. At the time my son was eleven or twelve and it terrified me to think he could be shot by an overzealous neighbor in the same suburban community he’s lived in Charlotte, NC since he was 6-years old.  So I had to talk to him about how he should behave should he ever get detained and questioned by a neighbor. All of a sudden, the killing of unarmed black men became a dangerous trend spiraling out of control, and the most disturbing detail about these killings is that the shooters were actual police officers who’d taken an oath to protect and serve.

Every time one of those senseless shootings occur, I think “this must be the last one,” but much to my dismay, it continues to happen over and over again. Most astounding yet is some of the reasons I’ve heard the shooting officers offer to justify their actions. Most unnerving is the media’s deliberate attempts at time to paint a picture of criminal about those young men as if to say that somehow, they had it coming. The scariest of this whole thing in my opinion is how little empathy other races seem to have toward this cause.  All of a sudden, the discussion about police brutality became a matter of pro-police versus anti-police; so, some people felt it necessary to counter the chant “Black Lives Matter,” with “All Lives Matter,” without even taking into consideration that if all lives truly mattered, there wouldn’t be a need for the Black Lives Matter Chant.  Then you have the loudest voices in the room, the conservative radio and TV talk show hosts, who started to concoct the most far-fetched conspiracy theories accusing anyone who dared to say anything about the disturbing trend of police brutality, as anti-police. And just like that the black community’s outcry for social justice and accountability to murderous law enforcement agents found itself drained, emaciated by the fact -voided right wing megaphone.  

Today Charlotte, the city where I live, the city where I chose to move with my family in 2006 when my wife and I were looking for a safe place to raise children, that city is today engulfed in an explosive mood of protest, and as much I’d like to voice anger at the fact that the protest has gotten out of hand at times, that we’re better than this; that we should know better; the fact is I just can’t bring myself to judging those folks out there protesting. Furthermore, the notion that there’s only one acceptable form of protesting is to me absolutely ridiculous. Nowhere is it written that protesting is pretty, and in fact, the very causation of a protest is to point out when things are no longer pretty. The idea of peaceful protest is a noble one in theory and it certainly worked at a point in time, but we’re living in a different time. This is a time where people have chosen to be ignorant despite all the information available to them. People have opted to fall back on prejudices, phobias, bigotry, hatred, and racism despite the evidence establishing our oneness as the human race is staggering and blindingly obvious. I question the fact that those who have expressed anger and disgust at the latest events in Charlotte seem more preoccupied with the destruction of businesses and material things, as opposed to the loss of all the lives we’ve seen taken by the police in the past few years.

Honestly, I’m scared. I’m terrified every morning when my 15-year old son leaves my house at 5:35 am to catch his school bus just three or four houses down the block. I fear that an overzealous neighborhood watcher might go “Zimmerman” on him because he is tall, athletic, and black; which in white America means “big bad dude.” I’m afraid that one of the several cops who live in our neighborhood, on their way to their first shift duty might decide to stop and question my boy as to why he is standing there so early in the morning. I am petrified that soon my only child will start driving and despite all the instructions I’ve given him about how to behave when detained by the police, I have no guarantee he might survive his very first encounter with law enforcement. I should be happy to think about my son going away to college in a few years, but I am secretly wishing he stays home and opt for UNC Charlotte because I don’t want my boy to be the next young man fatally shot because all kinds of assumptions are immediately made about him due to the color of his skin.

I’m a law abiding citizen, I’ve voted in every election since I became a United States citizen, I pay my taxes,  I’ve had very serious discussions with my son about patriotism and how to lead a life of responsible citizenry. So, why do I have this feeling of total despair? Why am I so afraid for my son’s safety mostly from the people who are supposed to keep him safe?  Why do I find myself reliving in the United States of America the same anguish my parents lived through so many years ago in Haiti about my safety as a young man? I’d like to agree with those who are outraged about the protests, the riots, and the total demonstration of civil disobedience, but unfortunately the stakes for me are higher than loss of properties. What’s at stake here is our lives, the safety of our families, of our sons and daughters. We’re not asking for special treatment; we’re not asking for anything unachievable; we’re simply asking for respect for the lives of our youth. Simply put, we’re asking that you follow and apply the law in the same manner you apply it when arresting a white person. We’re asking you to put aside your implicit biases and prejudice, and instead of seeing our sons as a threat to your safety, but rather as another human being, a father to some children, a husband to a wife, and a son to a father or a mother, but above all, a human being like you.  

One thought on “How My Mother Feared For My Life Growing Up In A Dictatorship, Now I fear For My Son’s Life Growing Up Black In America

  1. Kathryn Cox

    Your insight into the destructive mindset of this modern day era of protests
    is on point.

    Your willingness to allow your readers into your personal life lends credence to your fears for your son, as well as any other young man of color.

    The voices for social justice, the images of protesters, the sheer madness, the senseless acts of violence on all parts brings to mind Kent State in 1970–the outrage that poured across the country–took four lives–only four. Now before you misunderstand me, examine how we as a people have tolerated the establishment to the point ,these years later, where no one blinks an eye when numbers are passed around and ’tis far greater than four. I also am reminded of the far from peaceful protests against the United States involvement in Vietnam. I see the Civil Rights uprising again, I see the images of Warsaw Ghetto uprising–what have we, as the human race, learned from all of these cries against social injustice? Where are the lessons learned? –I think we are not learning.

    On a lighter note, I always knew tonton makout was a boegyman, but somehow the meaning, for me, has taken on a whole new light.

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