My older son can’t get enough of music. At the tender age of 4, he’s always singing or playing his tambourine at home and asking me to put on music in the car, the louder the better.
When I play a favorite track at home, whether Bach or BB King, he sticks his face in front of the speaker and stays there very still. When I sit down at the piano, he and his siblings climb into my lap and tinker along.
My boy’s love of music fills me with joy. I imagine him joining a band or orchestra in school, maybe singing a cappella like his dad at university, and accompanying his mom on stage in ourchurch band. Maybe he’ll even make music his vocation later in life, a source of joy for many beyond myself.
Yet the thought of him playing his stereo in public, as a Black biracial boy, also fills me withdread.
As I read the tragic news of Aidan Ellison’s murder last week in Ashland, Oregon, for playing his music while Black, I can’t help wondering what might happen in 15 years when my son is Aidan’s age. What if he’s tall like his dad with darker skin like his mom and he chooses to play the music he loves in a way that is displeasing to a white man with a gun?
Will that man see a music-loving youngster just trying to relax or a “dangerous” and “threatening” adult, as Americans have long been taught to see Black teens? Will he calmly ask my son to turn the music down or will he “fear for his physical safety” against the evidence, as Ellison’s killer claimed in his defense? What if the man imagines my son’s empty hands contain a gun and shoots him to death while he sits in a friend’s car listening to music, just like Jordan Davis, age 17?
Did the fact that neither Aidan nor Jordan was armed or dangerous do anything to save their precious lives? What about the hundreds of unarmed Black boys and men who have been killed by police and would-be police for other “crimes” like walking, jogging, driving, even sleeping while Black, just since our son was born in 2016? Not only in the Deep South but in liberal towns like Ashland and throughout the United States.
The pain and fear I feel cannot be compared to pain and fear and physical suffering felt by Black parents who live under the deadly force of racism and white supremacy every day. This is new to me as a privileged white man who has never known what it means to be afraid on my own behalf in a society built for me. But what good is a father if he cannot protect his kids? And what chance have I of protecting ours if I do not face the facts and work to end America’s original sin of white supremacy?
It is time for white parents to step up. Regardless of our politics and the complexion of our kids, we are united with every other parent of every other “race” in our need to keep them safe and well. We will do anything in our power to see that it is so.
At a time when white kids enter this world with nearly 10 times the family wealth of Black kidsbecause of multi-generational injustice, all is not safe and well with our kids. At a time when Black kids die from childhood asthma at 10 times the rate of white kids and receive $23 billion less in public school funding because of housing and environmental discrimination, all is not safe and well with our kids. At a time when Black kids are six times as likely as white kids to be shot to death by police (and would-be police) – even for the crime of playing their music while Black – allis not safe and well with our kids.
As long as our nation continues to endow white parents like me with disproportionate power and wealth, the duty is ours to hold our white community accountable to make things safe and well for all our kids. A good way to begin is by investing our time and money in Black-led efforts to end police brutality and systemic racism in all its forms, like Equal Justice Initiative and the Movement for Black Lives. Only then can we hope to build a nation that truly serves all ourkids and is consistent with our common creed: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
When I think of my young son and the music-loving man at home in his skin I hope he will one day become, the anguished words of Aidan’s mom come to mind: “He would wear himself thin trying to make everyone around him happy, and he loved music. . . . There are two rules here: smile and be whitewashed. Because you can’t dance. You can’t have your music. You have to talk a certain way because no one understands what you’re saying and you have to re-create your whole self. And it angered him, it angered him so much, that he could not be who he was but everybody else could. And if you don’t submit here, you’re a problem. You’re a problem. … [Aidan’s death] isa loss for this world, but a gain for Heaven where he is free to be Black now.”
(Published December 13, 2020 in The Concord Monitor and other papers)