In this heartfelt letter, Marlon Peterson explains why he promised his nephew and grand-niece a better life, but cannot make good on that promise.
Dear Baby Logan,
I remember when my nephew, your Daddy, was ready to be born 26 years ago. I vividly recall standing in the small hallway of our 1-bedroom apartment on Nostrand Ave in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where six of us lived, and praying to Jehovah, “I promise that I will be everything to my nephew. I will make sure his life is easier and better than mine.”
I lied to God.
I was just 9-years old at that time, yet I knew too well how disappointing life could be. I already knew about Michael Griffith and the Howard Beach case. I knew he was killed because of racism, and I knew that he could be me.
In your Daddy’s infancy I remember how cute and chubby he was. I remember he had a full head of hair and that he liked to call his pacifier his “phi phi.” Even at that age, I adored him more than my short cup of life could contain.
I knew I was lying to him every time I looked into his eyes and expressed hope that life would be better for him as a black boy in this country. Before he was three-years old I already knew about Yusef Hawkins and how he was killed because of racism. I already experienced the Rodney King video and verdict. I remember he was beat because of racism. It was clear that Rodney’s abusers were acquitted at trial because of racism.
Logie, I remember taking your Daddy outside to ride his little tricycle against his mother’s wishes (she didn’t trust me with her baby boy because she thought I was too clumsy and would probably let him ride the bike into the street and get hit by a car) just blocks away from rioting black folks who blamed racism for the killing and subsequent handling of the death of young Gavin Cato.
I knew that folks were tired of feeling like they did not matter back when Devon, your Daddy, could barely run without falling. Logan, I used to lightly pluck your Daddy’s legs when he was learning to stand and watch him fall on his fluffy pampers. He never cried when I did it, but he would give a look that said, “Why you bothering me, Uncle?” He was so cute, yet I knew I was lying to him when I told him that he would not have to worry about things like racism and the disregard for Black life.
I was aware of my deception even as a pre-teen because I had already read books like The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man and Black Like Me. I already saw “Do The Right Thing.” I knew radio Raheim was killed because of racism.
I had paid attention in class when they taught us that the US Constitution once labeled us three-fifths of a person. Logan, I was fully aware that racism was ingrained into the very laws I was taught to follow, and although I could recite and explain every amendment to the US Constitution by the age of 11, I was conscious that not one word of it was written by people that looked like me–not one sentence. I knew the foundation for white supremacy was stitched into the fabric of the 50 stars of the US flag, yet I calmly deceived your father when he was kid, and still in love with Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I did not want to ruin his limited worldview of reality.
Logie, several years later when I was a teenager wading and wandering through the streets of Brooklyn, clouded by way too many blunts, maintaining half-ass grades in high school and still occasionally attending the Kingdom Hall with my father, I came face-to-face with the cognitive dissonance I had benignantly soaked into Devon’s seven-year old mind.
When that unmarked car full of white cops stopped me and him that summer night to ask us if we had any guns or drugs on us I knew that racism made them stop a 17-year old boy and his seven-year old nephew who were both wearing shorts and t-shirts. Logan, I was both scared and enraged that night just feet away from our apartment building. I knew that little Devon, who was just happy to be able to go with me to play steel pan, was scared and confused. I felt that his confusion came not from why the cops stopped me and him, but why was I, the person he adored, lying to him for so long.
He was beginning to uncover the deception that racism would miss his generation. He was now watching the news about Abner Louima, and I am sure he understood that racism made Officer Volpe wedge a broken broom handle up the rectum of a Black immigrant from Haiti. Devon was clear that it was our fear of racism that warned him not to take his water gun outside for fear police might think it was real and shoot him in self-defense. I wish Tamir’s parents had successfully instilled that (ir)rational fear of white supremacy into Tamir and his sister.
Several months after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, because of racism, and three weeks before a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson and Eric Garner’s killer Danny Pantaleo because of the system of white supremacy, Logie, I spent the night in the hospital with your parents before you were born on October 30th.
I remember being in the room with your mommy as she lay in the hospital bed heavily drugged on pain medication (because you were giving her hell in your final hours in the womb). Devon, who was exhausted also, fell asleep in a cot next to your mommy’s hospital bed. Though Devon was now 26 and your mommy, 23, I still felt like they needed my coddling–my protection from this world. The room was chilly so I found some extra sheets and gently tucked both of them in their slumber–like I tucked away my conscience that was exhausted with my perpetuation of the lie that white race superiority would no longer kill black people like when it killed Emmitt Till; or when it killed George Tinney; or when it killed Eleanor Bumpurs. Logie, Black people need to be lied to to remain warm in a cold world that offers little affirmation of their humanity… at least that’s what I was told by my parents and told your parents.
They don’t know this, but I cried to myself in those moments while they were asleep. I was thankful to know that they were creating you. I cried because I knew that your survival depended on us telling you lies about living a world without racism, and I knew I would probably tell you the same lies that generations of well-meaning Black parents and aunts and uncles have been obligated to tell their children. I cried in prayer to that same Jehovah, who I now have doubts about, because I know he is aware that racism has been killing Black people for centuries.
I lamented to him both begging for the strength of the holy spirit to be a worthy great uncle to you, baby Logie, and also to find a way not to lie to you the same way I lied to Devon, your Daddy. I asked Jehovah to give me the wisdom to help others see that the intersections of white supremacy and the stinking thinking that centers Black men and invisibilizes Black women are what killed Gakirah, Renisha, Aiyana, and almost took Shaneka away from us.
Was I asking God for divine lies?
Several hours later, 11:01 am came and you made your presence known. I had left the room when the doctor said you were ready to come out. Moments like that are meant for mommies and daddies, not uncles. But, just 15 minutes after you slid out of your mommy (Jennifer said that she did not have to push too hard–that you came out relatively easy, so please excuse my male ignorance for not finding a better word than ‘slid’), I held you. O, Logan, I held all six pounds of you. I was scared that you would slip out of my arms. I could hear my 26-year old nephew, your Daddy, whisper to his mother, your grandma, “Marlon better not drop her. You know he madd clumsy.”
Déjà vu. I remember his momma saying something similar about me over 20 years earlier. Logie, holding you was probably one of the top three moments of my life. Being released from prison and the birth of your Daddy trumped you. Sorry.
Logie, you were so beautiful. You looked at me. You smiled at me. Logan, I fell in love with you. My love for Devon, whose initials are in my signature, deepened because he and Jennifer shared their miracle with me. Yet, as I held you for all of four or five minutes, I quietly said a silent prayer of cognitive dissonance.
“Jehovah, I promise that I will be everything to Logan. I will make sure her life is easier and better than mine.”
I said this prayer in the midst of over 100 days of black frustration in the streets of Ferguson because of racism, and hundreds of years of us pleading that our lives mattered in the face systematic white supremacy. I made this promise just weeks before I became activated within the NYC Justice League along with Millions March NYC.
I uttered this vow just weeks before friends and family would call and text me to “stay off the streets” and “stay away from police” in my neighborhood where those two dutiful officers were killed. Interestingly, Logie, just two hours after those officers were gunned down
I held you after not seeing you for almost a month. I could see you stoically stare at me as I was watched NYPD union president, Pat Lynch, on television declare war against me…and you.
Holding you, I remembered why lying to you and Devon was necessary.
Photo(s): Cover (Flickr/Farhad SH); Baby Logie and Devon (Author)
This post originally appeared in The Brooklyn Reader, and is being reprinted on The Good Men Project with the author’s permission.