Through the Eyes of Black Fathers—Remembering George Floyd • •
When I was old enough to drive, before my father gave me the keys to the car, he gave me the talk. No, it wasn’t about sex. This talk was the one every Black father hates to give. It’s about the heavy-handed police officers who are looking to abuse Black men driving “too fast,” “too slow,” or simply any excuse they could use to pull you over—to intimidate you, to arrest you, or worse.
As the father of a 23-year-old, six foot three Black son, I told him the same things my dad told me. We talked about the “correct” way to speak to a police officer. We practiced the phrases, “I have my wallet in my back pocket. I am going to unbuckle my seat and get it for you. Is that ok?” I instructed him not to move when in the presence of a cop; and more importantly, if he has to move, he should do so slowly while explaining why. I have never known a white friend who has had to give this type of advice to his child.
However, the numbers do not lie. A recent study of Califorian police officers showed that 28% of all persons stopped by Los Angeles police officers during the last six months of 2018 were Black; yet, Black people only accounted for just 9% of the city’s population. Let’s be honest, whether you live in the concrete jungle of the Hollywood streets or the desolate roads in the Louisiana bayou, for Black men, the most casual interaction with the police can get you killed.
When I was a young adult, I remember watching with my parents the Rodney King beating at the start of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. We were at a special viewing at the historic Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, California. Alice Walker was sitting to my immediate left. She would never remember me, though we both cried at the end. Rodney King, himself, was in the audience as well. I remember wondering what his father thought of that incident. I never knew King’s personal story, but being in the building with my dad, and seeing that level of violence imposed on him stuck with me. But the police killing of George Floyd was worse for so many reasons. Now, the Black father in me begins to reflect deeply on the streets of Minneapolis.
Last August I spoke to the Minneapolis Rapper Brother Ali. Brother Ali is known all over the world for his innovative and incredibly insightful social commentary. He is an albino white Muslim; however, his wife and children are Black. We had a deep conversation about the social and emotional aspects of Floyd’s death. He spoke to me about how much the Black community in Minneapolis loved Floyd as a man engaged to be married and as a father, and of his accolades as an artist, “None of that done kept George Floyd from getting killed. None of it freed Black people. What accomplishments are we really trying to count? None of it kept Philando Castile or Breonna Taylor from getting killed. None of it stops my son from being treated the way he is treated.” His concern for his Black son is just as real as mine in these times.
Or, let’s consider Billy Johnoson Jr. 51, originally from Inglewood, CA. Billy and his wife are the parents of fraternal twins in Santa Clarita Valley. He was in college when the LA riots jumped off across American TV screens. “We grew up hearing those stories,” he says in a somber tone. “My dad gave me ‘the talk’ when I got to drive. He told me to take the side streets. I did that. I carried caution with me throughout my college years. ‘Til this day, I am always conscious of the proximity of police cars to my own. Whenever I am driving—whenever my tags expire—the fear that I have experienced is indescribable.”
As tragic and triggering as the police murder of George Floyd was, Billy says he began teaching his kids about how to survive police interactions in their early teens. He says he and his wife would talk to the kids whenever he was pulled over. “After the police leave, I sit in the car with them. I would see if they paid attention to how I handled the situation. I would say things like ‘Did you notice that I was not argumentative? Did you notice I asked for permission to open the glove compartment to get the registration?’ ”
While we both feel like we have given our kids enough wisdom to survive even the most casual police interactions, we both know nothing is promised.
“I think my son and my daughter know what they need to know to survive,” Johnoson says in an optimistic tone. Still he recalls with some sadness, “Once after a traffic stop, I caught my daughter discreetly recording the entire incident on her phone. It broke my heart that it was her instinct [to record police activity] because she knew of what could happen.”
Talib Kweli, rapper, author and host of People’s Party podcast, once wrote a powerful song called The Proud where he talks about the conflict he feels in his heart about his son’s love for police:
He’s five years old and he still thinking cops is cool How do I break the news that when he gets some size He’ll be perceived as a threat or see the fear in their eyes It’s in they job description to terminate the threat So 41 shots to the body is what he can expect The precedent is set, don’t matter if he follow the law I know I’ll give my son pride and make him follow it all
Indeed, one of the things that separates hip-hop from other genres of music is that it has been consistent about its open resentment and resistance to police abuse of power. Rap music has more songs about police brutality than any other form of music on the planet. NWA, Ice T, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, and KRS One were some of the first rappers out of the gate to go on the attack. The mainstream media and many politicians branded them as liars and troublemakers. Rodney King’s videotaped beating vindicated hip-hop as a nearly prophetic path. But America never liked listening to the thoughts of young Black men—their perspectives were pushed aside as often as possible.
As we remember George Floyd, I’d like to encourage Black and Latino parents to take a moment and speak to their children about the senseless tragedy. I’d encourage them to share their own fears and encounters that they’ve had with the police, as they listen to what their kids share. Hopefully by doing so, we can help take at least one more step to ensuring their safety. Fathers need lawmakers and grassroots activists to apply pressure to ensure police profiling, abuse and intimidation is confronted on all levels. Today the hearts of all Black fathers are with the family of George Floyd—and with the many others who remain nameless and faceless and have suffered at the hands of unjust police force.
Adisa Banjoko is a Hip-Hop curator based in the SF Bay Area and London. He also hosts the @BishopChronicles podcast streaming on all platforms.