A Talk With My Father
By Noble Butler
Actually, this blog began as an answer to a Quora question: what would (or do) you say to your father today? I started not to answer this question because I didn’t think I had a good enough answer to offer. But, during this past week, the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri came back with the decision to not indite the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown with any type of crime. And, that got me thinking…
…I am blessed that I still have my father as an active participant in my life. However, growing up, my father and I were not as close as I would have wanted. It’s true, me and my dad were not the closest while I was growing up, and I’m willing to bet he would agree. I must admit, I was more of a “mama’s boy” growing up, being much closer to my mother than my dad. And, that’s not because he had abandoned his family, he was there. It was more like he wasn’t present. It was my mother who took care of us kids: getting us up in the morning to go to school, taking us to the doctor’s when one of us got sick, the one that would beat our ass if we got too far outta pocket.
But, with all due respect, my mother was a woman, and the older I got, the harder it was for her to control me. As I got older, I started to get more and more attracted to the street life, and get into more and more trouble with the law. Don’t get me wrong, my mother was a pistol, standing only 5’2” and weighing in at 120lbs or so. Still, she was not someone that you’d want to piss of at any size. But, I was getting bigger, stronger and more devious, sneaking out to hang with my homeboys, looking to find trouble wherever I could find it. Even though my mother tried to keep her foot in my ass, and me on a straight path, it just wasn’t enough. By the time I was 14 years old, most of the time I was hanging out in the streets, well on my way to becoming a full-fledged gang member. Mama finally got tired of my bulls*#t and turned me over to my father.
Me and my dad had continuous run-ins with each other, I was rebelling against him as hard as I was bucking against my mom. And, that caused me and my father to butt heads at every turn. There can only be one alpha male in any pack and I was continually pushing the limits of my place in the hierarchy of ours. Something had to give. And, it wasn’t going to be my father.
At the time, I thought my father hated me. I know now that’s not the truth, but in my 14-year-old mind, it was the only thing that made sense. And, that just made me rebel even harder. And, with that rebellious spirit, I drew the attention of the police that patrolled our neighborhood. At the time, I really didn’t notice.
But, my father did. One day, I came home late, sometime after midnight, coming in through the back door that led into the kitchen. I wasn’t sneaking in, I had become bold and felt that I was untouchable. When I came through the door, my father was standing in the kitchen drinking a bottle of root beer. I was a little surprised to see him at first, but it wasn’t unusual for him to come around and be at the house. Just not at midnight. At the time, I didn’t know he had been waiting for me for a few hours, ever since one of his old running buddies called him and told him he had seen me hanging on the corner where the older homeboys were out selling drugs.
Just like my mom, my dad wasn’t stupid. He knew I was out there getting into trouble and trying to be a gang member. And, probably more so, he understood that it would be damn near impossible to make me stop. So, he did the next best thing and had a talk with me.
My dad was no square; he had grew up running the streets of New Orleans during the Jim Crow/civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s. So, it was easy for him to see in me the same spirit that held him captive when he was my age. And, he also knew what was waiting for me if I didn’t get my life right.
Me and Pop didn’t do a lot of talking around this time in my life. I was too hardheaded and because he wasn’t always around, there was a disconnect between the two of us. But, I remember this particular conversation.
My father told me to grab a seat at the kitchen table and offered me a bottle of root beer. I knew instantly, what ever the old man wanted to talk to me about it had to be serious, he usually didn’t share his soda.
I accepted the bottle and we both sat at the table. Like I said, me and my dad didn’t do the whole male-bonding-talking thing, but, this wasn’t your usual chat. It was the first time Pop talked to me about racism.
I remember this conversation because my dad didn’t try to scare me straight, it wouldn’t have worked anyway if he had. But, he did tell me about running the streets and to be careful when I had a confrontation with the police. I can’t remember the details, but not long before, an unarmed Black kid had been shot and killed running from the police. Pop told me about his growing up in segregated New Orleans, he told me about the Watts riots and how the police could get away with killing a Black boy with no conscious or concern for the aftermath it would cause. My father told me that no matter how bad I thought I was, the police could beat me down, throw me into a jail cell and go home to eat dinner without a second thought.
He reminded me about the boy that had been killed not long before and tried to stress to me that with the way I was running the streets, that could very well been me. My father and me spent hours talking about all the different scenarios that could happen to me out there in the streets if I ever had an encounter or run-in with the law. And, he stressed to me that even if I do everything right, it could still go all bad for me and to be prepared. Then Pop did something that I never saw him do before: I heard him choke up while talking to me. To this day, I still have never seen my father shed a tear, but this was the closest that I had ever witnessed this level of emotion in my father. And, at the time it scared me. Now, mind you, I am out there where people are shooting and stabbing each other for no other reason than the color of clothes that they were wearing. But, seeing emotion in a man that I had believed didn’t have any was very unsettling. Then my father did something else that shocked me.
My father told me that he was terrified that I would end up dead if I wasn’t careful. Pop confessed that when he had heard about the other kid that had been killed, he was afraid that it was actually me. Looking back, I can see how he mad the mistake, the boy was my same age, and his general description matched mine. Plus, Pop knew I was out there kicking up dust and the possibility was there.
As we talked, I saw a different size to my father, a human side I had never been exposed to before. I wish I could say that his talk worked; obviously I didn’t listen because I have been serving a life sentence. But, I can say this: his advice to me did save me from time to time. I remembered his advice in a few different situations that could have easily gone bad if I had not heeded my father’s advice so long ago.
The reason I decided to blog about this is because my father had this talk with me back in 1983, and here we are, 31 years later, and it is still necessary for a Black father to have to sit down and have a talk with his Black son about being wary of any interaction with the police. I would have thought that by this time, in this country, the need for that “talk” would not be necessary. I would have thought, that in the 21st century, when this country had made history and elected it’s first Black president, I would not need to fear if my son, nephews, young cousins had to cross paths with a white police officer. Especially in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.
But, here we are again, and to me, an African American man sitting in prison, it feels like instead of going forward, this country is going backwards. In the last few years, there have been a slew of incidents where young, Black men and boys have been killed at the hands of White police officers or regular citizens who decided to take the law into their own hands. And, in the majority of circumstances, the “killer” either walked free or was never charges in the first place. And, then, when the Black community explodes, White citizens acts surprised that we are protesting and rioting. Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone the destruction of any property or the attacking of any people, even police. But, as a Black man, and one who has had very intimate interactions with the criminal justice system for almost all my life, I understand only too well the pain, frustration and the feeling that a young Black male’s life is worthless.
It was hose feelings that, partially, anyway, justified in my mind, my being able to go out into the world and causing the destruction I did to my own community. And, I admit, Black males are still the leading cause of death among other Black males. Race doesn’t play a part in that statistic. And, race is NOT an excuse for committing crimes and terrorizing all our communities. There is not justification for that.
But, at the same time, it’s hard for any progress to be made when I have to keep looking over both my shoulders for both the man who looks like me, and the person who is supposed to protect me. My question is, why do I have to in the first place…
…Oh, I almost forgot, my answer to the question. First, I would, ask my father to forgive me for my failures and for not being the son he could be proud of. Had I heeded his advice so long ago, I would not be here now. And, second, I would tell him that even through all my trials and tribulations, he has always been my pillar of clouds by day, and my pillar of fire by night, the guide I have followed while I tried to learn how to be a man while in prison. I learned a long time ago that my father was the way he was because he knew no other way to protect me, to raise me in a world where being Black was as much a liability as it was a blessing. For that, I am thankful beyond words.
I would tell my father that even though I never said it, I love him with all my heart, and I am thankful that I had him as my role model. I couldn’t have asked for better.
Originally published at thelastmile.org on January 15, 2015.