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After Trayvon, a black father has 'The Talk' with his son

Safety of Citizens

The following is an open letter to my 12-year-old son.

Dear Brian,

Every morning when I come into your room to wake you for middle school, I pause, for a moment, and marvel.

I can still see traces of that kid in the red wool cap and lumberjack coat up on my shoulders in that portrait above your bed. When I look at you, I see a boy bursting with ideas and creativity. When I look at you, I see a boy who honored his daddy's genes, shooting up tall and narrow as bamboo.

And since Feb. 26, when I look at you, I see Trayvon Martin.

You've heard about Trayvon. He's the 17-year-old up from Miami to visit family in a gated community in a suburb of Orlando who was killed by a citizens watch volunteer after a sketchy confrontation. The gunman's a guy named George Zimmerman, a wannabe Barney Fife.

The boy died with a package of Skittles in his pocket.

Why? Son, I'd love to tell you there was some justification, but I can't. Seems Mr. Zimmerman thought Trayvon was up to no good. That he looked suspicious.

Well, it's true Trayvon wore a hoodie. Perhaps Mr. Zimmerman thought he had spotted the Unabomber. Likely, something else stoked his misgiving. Though the hood shrouded Trayvon's face, it appears Mr. Zimmerman glimpsed all he needed: blackness.

Nearly 12 years ago, you entered the world, along with my hopes and aspirations for you. One of my greatest hopes was that this day never would come. The day that generations of black parents have dreaded because it meant innocence lost.

The day that I'd need to have The Talk.

Not about birds and bees. About surviving a world that often sees darkness if black is the skin you're in.

Fearful Jim Crow-era black parents knew that a wrong word, a glance held too long, could prove deadly. The Talk was a primer for kids in kowtowing, a survival guide for apartheid America.

Now, oddly, the roles have reversed. Now, it's you who inspires fear.

Looking at you, I see the glory of God, a beloved creature made in his image. Yet, Trayvon's death is a grotesque reminder of the pitiable people outside your cocoon who only see someone to fear.

A heavy weight for such young shoulders. What to do? Well, there are, for example, rules that we've learned for surviving driving while black. Show your hands and don't raise your voice. Avoid provocation. Better to swallow your pride than your teeth in a face-down takedown.

But what's the script for surviving walking while black? Never wear a hoodie? That's the same blame-the-victim garbage heaped on rape victims. Genuflect when confronted by a stranger? Absurd. And if you're pursued? Run? Stand your ground? Confront your pursuer? Call for help? Whether Trayvon tried to do any of these, all of these, he still ended up dead.

A father's duty is to protect his kids. But the tragic truth is that safety tips are no guarantee. All I — or any parent — really can do is pray that every day you'll again stroll through the door.

And that chills me to the bone.

But you can't live in fear. Nor does it make sense to mirror the doubt and suspicion that some have for you. You've learned through our rainbow-colored church and Scout troop that goodness comes in all shades. Don't forget that.

In closing, son, I see a boy destined for great things. I see a blossoming young man. And I see a boy who, in five years, will be the same age Trayvon was when his dream of a future in aviation crashed in a heap on a rainy night because someone saw darkness in his blackness.

I'm sorry we still need to have this Talk. I'm sorry there are people who distrust you for your skin color. But seeing boogeymen in every nonblack face is an equally scary proposition.

I'll always worry about you, son. And pray.

Love, Dad

Darryl Owens writes a weekly column for the Orlando Sentinel, where this article originally appeared.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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