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A necessary conversation [Commentary]

I would like to write my sons a love letter about peace and post-racial living, of a wonderful time when all people move freely, of a place where black bodies are not endangered and black life is not criminalized. But that is not my story, and it is not their reality.

As much as I try, I cannot hide my frustration about what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., my disgust over what happened to Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., my outrage over what happened to John Crawford III in Ohio, and my horror over what happened to Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, Calif. — tragic events that have happened within the last month, four unarmed black men killed by police. These are the types of stories that I told my boys about when they were younger and we talked about the Civil Rights Movement. They thought that I was making those stories up about police officers — using tear gas and water hoses, dogs and chokeholds — to frighten them into behaving. It has taken years for them to realize that these events did happened and it has taken the past month for them to finally accept that these events are still happening.

There are days when being black in America overwhelms me and makes me want to spend the day in bed/ and times when being a black mother of black boys in America makes me wish I had enough money to move them somewhere anywhere where I could keep them safe from everything. My heart always skips a beat when a cop's car is behind me while I am driving at night, and though they are not old enough to drive, I am already frightened by the day when they are stopped for the crime of driving while black. I have tried to teach them to follow the rules and to respect authority but lately it seems as if the rules are constantly changing and we are always one step behind.

I spent the last week watching as the situation unfolded in Ferguson. I read the minute-by-minute accounts on Twitter and Facebook, as pictures were posted, comments were shared, and tensions escalated. Although many of the facts are still coming to light, there are some things that are undisputed: Michael Brown was unarmed, he was shot and killed by a police officer whose name was not immediately released, the community responded, and the police (over)reacted.

My sons wanted to know why some members of the community were breaking windows and looting the stores in their own community, and I shared with them the long-term effects that rioting and looting had on Watts in 1965 and on South Central Los Angeles in 1992. I had and still have no answers for what it must be like to be so frustrated and to feel so disempowered that the only way that you think that you can express yourself is to destroy your own community. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it must be like to feel as if the very breath that sustains you was being taken from you daily and that the only way that you could respond, the only way that you could make the world see your suffering, the only way that you could reclaim your breath, was to tear down everything that your hands could touch. I was not surprised when Ferguson exploded nor when I saw the video footage showing tear gas, stun grenades, a LRAD Sound Cannon and smoke bombs. I feel as if I have become a pessimist because I believe that this is what happens when you combine racial profiling, racism, community frustration and police brutality.

I had hoped that President Barack Obama, instead of telling us that it was time to heal, would have instead used his powerful platform to encourage the nation to finally have a serious conversation about race. He could have used that moment, when the entire world was watching and waiting, to talk to us about how important it is for us to share our feelings of anger, fear, rage and frustration. I am not suggesting that the president should host another feel-good session, where a few representatives meet at the White House, have tea, and talk about how we are now post-racial because we no longer "see" race. I am talking about doing the hard work: sitting down in small diverse community groups and wrestling with the questions of how race and our feelings about it are still dividing our country. We need to ask ourselves what type of society we want to live in, what type of world we are willing to leave to our children, and what we are willing to do to be the type of change that we believe needs to happen in the world. We must be willing to express our feelings, to open up and make ourselves vulnerable, to be held accountable for what we say and do and to commit ourselves to doing more and to being better.

I am not surprised that Ferguson exploded, the police overreacted, and that communities around the country, including in Baltimore, responded by having a national moment of silence in memory of Michael Brown. I am surprised that we do not realize that it is time to have a conversation about race and that this conversation must take place before we begin the process of healing and before something else happens to capture the nation's attention.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland and the author of the new book, "Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis" (USC Press). Her blog is kayewisewhitehead.com and she can be reached at kewhitehead@loyola.edu.


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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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