Philando Castile and A New Fatherhood

“Am I Next” — c/o Tony Webster

I knew it wasn’t going to happen.

A few minutes after the verdict came through my phone, I knew it was a done deal. It didn’t matter that he said to everyone within earshot that he had no intention of reaching for his weapon. It didn’t matter that his wife and daughter were in the car with him. It didn’t matter that he had secured his seat belt. His life didn’t matter, and there were seven bullets in his body to prove that. His blood would drip into his hands and clothes for an audience of three, then thousands, then millions to view in person, then virtually.

His life didn’t matter, and the police officer needed everyone to know that his “wide nose” and the color of his skin were evidence enough for his execution.

Castile’s name comes to me every so often in the quietest moments. Before I became a father, I knew I had internal work to do before taking on the gift and the burden of another life. My father showed up once or twice a year, and I begrudged him for it for decades. My stepfather was mentally and physically abusive, and I learned to create my own version of manhood from that. The various men in my life, from the priests and professors who dropped gems of wisdom to the celebrities and activists I admired from afar, couldn’t teach me how to be a better man for myself, much less for others.

Teaching over a thousand students over the course of 12 years gave me glimpses of how deep I would have to love a child, whether they excelled in class or not. Even when some have called me like a “father,” I knew it was only a sample of the joy and rapture I wanted to feel as I held my son.

But I’ve also thought about the ways that society plagued fatherhood for fathers of color and the intentional traps set out for so many of us. The stereotypes were prolific and vicious. Too often, I observed fathers turned into one-dimensional statues, indifferent disciplinarians who were emotionally cut off from their children. They were supposed to work before their children woke up and came home to rest and growl about their days. They were supposed to abandon their children to run off to their friends or other women, or sat in jail with limited visitation rights. They were supposed to drink to numb their senses, and beat their partners in front of their children. They weren’t fathers as much as they were gene donors.

The Cliff Huxtables and Phillip Banks of the world, fictional characters attached to real audiences, were reserved for those families in the middle and upper class income brackets. The rest of us would have to settle for tragedy. At least that’s what was fed to so many of us.

As I got older, though, I wanted to find a better version of fatherhood for myself. It started with my own father, who had children by different women. Even before he passed away a few years ago, I had already made peace with his approach to life because it gave me sisters, brothers, and cousins across the East Coast. If that was my inheritance, then that’s my peace. I then reflected on my stepfather, who showed me all the things I wouldn’t want to do for my own son. I needed to forgive him so I could forge a path that wouldn’t replicate those behaviors.

I also saw how our country’s institutional policies aided and abetted their destruction. Deportation, war, mass incarceration, and income stratification were not accidents. Hypermasculinity, sexism, patriarchy kept even the most well-meaning fathers from being their most human selves. Divestment from rehabilitation efforts and access to mental and physical health care fed into the narrative of men needing to “man up” when they felt debilitating pain. Our society kept enforcing made-up rules about the times and situations we were allowed to emote, to show love, to be better versions of ourselves for the people we loved.

Oh, and black dads were the most involved of any, debunking decades of nonsensical narratives fed to us.

By the time January 6th, 2012, I was more than ready for the vulnerability and openness necessary to take Alejandro on. When my partner-in-life Luz gave birth to him, the boy came out roaring at a world that I hoped would accept and love him the way I did: instantly and without prerequisites. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t say to him directly that I love him. I make mistakes aplenty, but I get multiple chances to correct them.

Everything worth doing right now takes on a whole new meaning because my fatherhood amplifies the empathy I have for this human work I take on daily.

Which brings me back to Philando Castile. The spirits of those who have been hashtagged and posterized in the name of justice might still be with us, but they don’t get that chance to live another day. The verdict may have already been decided before May 30th, 2017 because that verdict would not resuscitate him. His name, like so many others, has emboldened us to fight and mourn at the same time in our streets, our schools, and our homes.

As for me, it’s reminded me that Alejandro must know that his dad loves him and he is proud of him. I never leave Alejandro’s sight without him knowing as much. For so many fathers I know, our fear isn’t that our lives largely depend on the fears and biases of those served to protect us (or anyone else). It’s that those who love us won’t get a chance to hear how much we want to reciprocate that love in our oft flawed and boundless ways.

That’s not a chance I’m willing to take. Those of us who call ourselves fathers must love and forgive ourselves when we’re not at our best. In the names of those who’ll never get that chance.