Dear Christian and Gerrod,
I write to listen.
Both of you were Afya students, when I was the principal. You entered middle school in 2008 as we opened Afya, and were in our first graduating class in 2011. This week, I saw that you posted and protested your hearts out. I hear you. I respect you. In the face of the wickedness, you made me feel that all Black protest is good and necessary protest.
Christian Patterson and Gerrod Maddox: You are me/not me.
Christian, in middle school, you were what I wished I was when I was 30 looking back at my teens. You were intellectual, curious, inquisitive, calm, quiet, smart, pensive, determined. Today, at 52, I still want to be like you when I grow up.
Gerrod, you were like me as a middle schooler. (But for one thing, a spitting-image, in fact.) Gerrod! When you weren’t a plain fool, you were endearing, engaging, ironic, wise, funny, athletic, handsome, and seriously and outrageously dumb! A good day for you, Gerrod, as it was for me when I was 13, was 95 percent silliness and stupidity and 5 percent seriousness and smarts. A great day meant we had a 90/10 split. You were even worse than me, I’d say. When I had 5 percent good to give, I gave it all at once. You held yours back. You’d give a little, goof off for a while, and then give a little more. For both of us good was like cash. I spent mine in a minute. You! You used it as leverage, doling it out at just the right time so your bad would be forgiven and forgotten.
Gerrod! You and I were like lines of uncooked pasta as kids. We could stand up tall and starchy straight when we put our mind to it, but mostly we found ourselves, or put ourselves, in hot water, so we wiggled all over the world, in and out of trouble. With enough salt and olive oil and good tomato gravy— always provided, at just the right time, often at the last possible moment, by our moms and other loved ones and teachers— we retained the potential to feed and nourish, even if we weren’t quite sure how or why. Others, thank goodness, tended to our talents and tolerated our unruly behavior so we could grow.
Gerrod, I am like you. Christian, I want to be like you. Gerrod and Christian, I am not like you.
In this country, there are two lines that trace back through our history. A White line begins at the beginning and travels forward, always in power. At times, this power is benevolent, even magnificent, the envy of the world. At others this line of power loops itself into nooses, writes itself— in the laws of the land, on signs above water fountains— racist barriers that can’t be crossed and do not support the notion that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are accessible to all Americans. This line of power can manifest itself in the Silent Majority. This blunt line of power can also elect presidents who are as oppressive as any in the world. After the events of this past Monday afternoon, Tiananmen Square and Lafayette Square are now tethered with tyranny woven from the same cloth.
Gerrod and Christian, this White line has always been better to me and to my family than it has to you and your families. Better because I am White. Better still because I am a White man. In this way, you and I are different, even as we are the same, Gerrod, even as I want to be like you, Christian.
The other line, thin and blue, runs right alongside the White line. American police officers started wearing blue after the Civil War, using leftover Union uniforms. Those Union soldiers, wearing blue, fought to free America and Black people from slavery. American police officers, wearing blue, now kill Black people, especially Black men, at rates that continually reinforce the idea that the violence and bodily harm of slavery times hasn’t really ended.
By law, White police officers don’t own all these Black men that have been killed at their hands, by their guns, or at their knee. Police power, White power, has strangled the law, however, and reshaped it to reinforce and support its own ends. Derek Chauvin doesn’t care about the Emancipation Proclamation. Wearing a blue uniform, he stared right into the camera with measured, psychotic, confidence. At the intersection of Chicago Avenue and E. 38th Street, in the city of Minneapolis, with a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, George Floyd cried out for his mom, the echoes of his call chain-linking him with some 400,000 Africans who were shipped across the oceans, cargo in the holds, to the United States of America, where they would not be free. Derek Chauvin was unmoved, likely finding solace in all of the verdicts that have come before, certain that his form of justice was the necessary and legal form of justice, with an acquittal forthcoming. Derek Chauvin was the master of his domain.
Gerrod and Christian: What happened to George Floyd almost certainly could not have happened to me under any circumstance that I can imagine. I’m a White man in America. Among the many things I’m afforded is the right to walk down the street, or ride in my car, without the fear of being shot by a police officer because of the color of my skin. My skin protects me. Your skin, from the perspective of the police, wearing blue, and in the purported natural order that has been drawn by the White line of American history, endangers you.
Two lines wind back through our history— the thin blue line of the police, the White line of power. Beneath these lines, the foundation of our country sits. Black Americans built this foundation. Black Americans are this foundation. Gerrod and Christian: You are the foundation of America. Your charge, your work, your future is to pick up these two lines, White and blue, to hold them in your hands, and to repair them, as they are now as twisted and tattered as the flag that flew atop what was left of the World Trade Center after 9/11.
This work will be a fight and it will come with no rest. Yes, you will play with your own children one day, you will walk on beaches with a loved one, you will find joy in your talents and in your friends. Yes, you will sleep. You will dream. But in this fight, there is no rest. My abiding hope for you is that this is one of few things in your life that you do not protest.
Know that at this time you have more allies than ever before. I humbly count myself as one of them. But you, Christian and Gerrod, you are the leaders. It is your voice, which was so profoundly articulate this week, that must be heard first. It is your voice, and countless others like yours, that must be listened to first. Up from the foundation, with the blue and White lines of history in your palms, lead me. The lives of all Americans cannot be fulfilled until the lives of African Americans are fulfilled. Lead us.
Photo Caption: Founder Mike Morgan and Gerrod Maddox at the finish of the Afya Mile in 2010