A high school friend of mine who I recently unfollowed on Facebook has been posting the same meme every day. It’s Groundhog Day’s Bill Murray staring his oof-Bill-Murray-stare at the camera, saying: “Well, it’s quarantine day…again.” It’s light-hearted enough and absolutely not the reason for my unfollowing. Lately, I’ve unfollowed quite a few folks on FB. That may be a snarky, passive-aggressive move, but these days I don’t need or want to see your “don’t disrespect the American flag” rhetoric or your “all cops aren’t bad cops” rants or your white Jesus memes saying all lives matter.
Now is a time to “stay focused and pay attention.” That simple phrase was the parting message of my wife’s Aunt Net who passed in 2015 from cancer: Stay focused and pay attention. Everyone who knew Aunt Net has at least one funny and heart-warming Aunt Net story, a true testament to who she was. The pews were full at her funeral, which was a sincere celebration of her life—all that she gave and how she gave to others. As I watched the George Floyd memorial service on television on Thursday, June 4, I got that same feeling. I was touched by his life and story. How he brought so much joy to his family, his world. It was humbly inspiring. There was so much celebration and grace. Our country needs more grace. I was struck by the words of Floyd’s brother Philonise, his cousin Shareeduh, his youngest brother Rodney, and his nephew Brandon who talked about how George—or Perry for those who knew him—perpetually felt like he just won a championship. All love and grace.
It continued with Benjamin Crump and the Reverend Al Sharpton, and at the end of the service my wife and I stood with our children in silence for the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that horrifically ended Floyd’s life. Standing still with children is no easy feat, but it was of utmost importance for my wife and I that we did this together as a family. Our children are mixed-race—half black and half white—but as they step into the world, into this world, they will be black first. Forever and always.
I play the conversations that I’ll have to have one day with my black son in my mind over and over—the ones that I never had to have with my parents. The ones that are about great African kingdoms and chieftains and how Africa wasn’t discovered by the Portuguese, Africa always was, is, and will be, and about slavery and public lynchings and about how, no, Jesus is definitely not white—he looks more like you, son—and about my white privilege and about Jim Crow and Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and the ones where I have to explain to him that police—and not just police but, well, a lot of people—might treat you differently because—because—well—some of it is plain hate and racism—some of it is confusion and ignorance—but let’s stay focused on the police for now, you have to do what they say and while I have to do what they say too, you have to really pay attention to how you do what they say and always, always make sure they can see your hands at all times. It won’t be one conversation, and I know I won’t get it right all the time. It shouldn’t ever be one conversation.
It’s Thursday night and we’re talking about Drew Brees. My wife says I need to be more forgiving. He did apologize, she says. It’s about a person’s character, not only what a person says. I say I think you’re right, but—I don’t like how I use that word but, I should have said and, I should know better—but I don’t want white people to use that same logic to defend racist white people. Like Trump. That’s how he always gets away with shit. She gives me a look and says, Trump? Everybody already knows what he’s about. He’s already shown us. Then why, I say, do people still support him? She doesn’t answer.
On Friday, it’s overcast. We have a late morning and decide to take a drive to the beach. We haven’t actually been to the beach since we arrived here to Long Beach on March 17 from the Philippines. We park along Ocean Boulevard and walk down the hill to the Junipero Beach. We don’t stay very long, but it’s refreshing to see the sea again. To smell the salty breeze. To plunge ankle-deep in the sand. We walk back up the hill and there’s a memorial where usually the grass is flooded with yogis in various poses, twists, and turns. It reads: “In Remembrance of the Lives Lost to Police Brutality. Standing in Solidarity.” There are posters and pictures. Lists of names. Flowers and blank index cards to add a message. A white woman wearing all white approaches us and asks if we want to lie in the grass underneath the trees and listen to the players striking the gongs to get the full experience. This America. Another one of my wife’s aunts calls—there’s a protest going on in our neighborhood.
We park at the Albertson’s and walk along Clark Avenue toward Lakewood City Hall. Orange barricades block off Clark, so we walk in the middle of the street, safely practicing social distancing. My wife, son, and I are wearing masks, our daughter, just over a year old, is not. People are coming and going, holding makeshift signs and posters. Most wear black. Others don’t. Some are in large groups. Others with just a friend or two. I see some mothers pushing children in baby strollers. There are teenagers handing out free water, apples, and granola bars. No one is alone. A white man who is leaving hands us a neon orange sign that reads: “Equal Justice—Now.” We hadn’t planned ahead enough so we graciously accept. I can tell the man is smiling even though he too is wearing a mask.
We are there. Toward the back. We don’t want to risk getting too close. We are worried about exposing ourselves and our children to COVID-19. And yet, we are there. My son is on my shoulders, holding our newly acquired sign. My wife takes a picture. I walk with my son a little closer to the center of the crowd. We sing happy birthday to Breonna Taylor who would have turned 27. My son claps. He loves to sing happy birthday. We return to Mommy and baby Ava. We stay a little longer and then walk back to our car. We pass our sign on to two young black women who are also wearing masks and also smile and say thank you. All love. All grace.
I can only get so close. I can only imagine what it must feel like. I can’t ever really know. I can’t. So I wonder how I can work even harder at sympathy and empathy. How I can listen more and talk less. I think of a James Baldwin clip on the Dick Cavett show where he quickly schools a Yale Professor about the fake idealism of the American Dream that he has never seen.
Just as we put our children down for a nap, the protestors are marching down Clark Avenue, passing our home. I feel like such an amateur. We didn’t know they were going to march down our street, these change-making youth. The youth! The young people in this world who believe that yes, they can. They about to take it all.
We wake Khalil and Ava. They need to be witness to this movement. We stand on our front porch holding our children, each of us proudly putting forth one fist in the air. As the crowd notices our beautiful mixed kids, my always-smiling wife, and me, they cheer louder and harder. They shoot fists of love and justice right back at us and yell and roar. We are all yelling and roaring. And crying. We hear yeses and that’s rights and no justice, no peace and, “we’re doing this for your children,” a few times. And in that moment I don’t think I have ever been prouder to be an American.
I pray the momentum doesn’t only lead to protests. Time to stay focused and pay attention.
Photo Credit: Author (with permission)