I bought a gun.
Let me explain.
You taught me that as a parent you must be willing to do all you can to protect, nurture, and make life better for your children. Parenting is a holy and sacred calling by God to serve. You have never uttered those words to me, but your actions have said so.
I did not know why you often fell asleep during dinner or while reading a story at bedtime, and might have been slightly annoyed, but I now understand how daunting and wearisome caring for a family can be to your mind, heart, and soul. I have a spouse and one job. You had no spouse and more than one job, while also attending college and ultimately receiving a graduate degree.
Parenting is a holy and sacred calling by God to serve.
Except requiring me to read Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land and learn the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Greatest Love of All,” you never asked much of me other than to do my best and be my best despite the circumstances. You taught me to never settle for less than what I am entitled to receive, to always place my faith in God, but also that truly powerful and sincere prayers never ask of God what you are unwilling to do for yourself and for others.
I don’t know if you have ever read James Baldwin or Audre Lorde, but you endeavored to raise a Black boy in a hostile world “who will be despised [but] not despise himself” and teach him that “love and resist” is an act of survival.
You know I love my wife—your daughter-in-law—and your grandsons more than I could ever imagine, despite experiencing your limitless affection. And you taught me that I couldn’t love them without first loving myself. My love for them has brought me closer to God. It has sharpened my focus on my physical and mental well-being.
It is also why I decided to buy a gun.
As a kid, you would not allow me to play with toy guns. Even those cartoonish looking super-soakers, were forbidden. I couldn’t point my index finger and jerk my thumb in a mock shootout with friends. You even confiscated the firearms that came with my G.I. Joes. You taught me guns were scary and dangerous, used only by bad people to hurt others. I agree with you on the first point but disagree on the latter.
However, I always felt the presence of guns. At least two of my uncles kept pistols with them as we moved about the Bay Area. Another occasionally took me to the firing range. Papa Jonnie, my great-grandfather, always had a revolver resting, loaded, on his nightstand or dresser, within eyesight and arm’s reach as I read mail to him because his eyesight was so bad (oh, the irony of this man being licensed to possess a firearm!). I once found a rifle while rummaging through a closet at his house. Thanks to your wariness of firearms and the counsel of my uncles and Papa Jonnie, I had enough sense not to play with it.
I always felt the presence of guns. At least two of my uncles kept pistols with them.
I never told you that in junior high and high school, I was so afraid of being caught in the crossfire of a gang feud or being the victim of an errant bullet from a drive-by that I often walked to and from school alone along quiet residential streets instead of riding the bus with other kids. Or that while attending parties or going to a club as a college student in Los Angeles, I learned to always be aware of the nearest exit and to run while crouched in the event gunfire erupted (a habit that is with me to this day).
Now, as the parent of your grandchildren, I fear for their safety at school or whenever I’m not with them. So much so that, while on walks around our neighborhood or during outings around town, I have them practice running away from the threat in a zig-zag pattern until they reach a safe place where they can find cover from the bullets. “What’s your address?” I ask them. “What’s my phone number?” “What’s mommy’s phone number?”
Yes, it hurts to practice these drills with them, but in order for them to thrive they must first survive. It hurt more when I made them watch the video of 14-year-old Tamir Rice being shot by a police officer to explain why they couldn’t take their Nerf guns to the park. And it hurt even more to explain that while the toy gun heightened the perception of danger, his skin color—theirs and mine and Tamir’s—is a perceived threat. It hurts that they have to learn these lessons at our kitchen table, but it would hurt much more if they learned other ways.
It hurts that my sons have to learn these lessons at our kitchen table.
Until recently, the potential threats to our wellbeing, while seemingly ever-present, still felt remote and extraordinary. But after the slaughter of the Charleston Nine, at the conclusion of the weekly Bible study in the basement of Mother Emanuel AME in 2015, things began to change. The day of the shooting, I was in South Carolina with my two sons attending the funeral of a mother of a close family friend. We went to bed around sunset, because I wanted to be on the road before dawn for the eight-hour drive home to Washington, D.C., so I didn’t learn of the massacre until after I’d secured my sons in their carseats, said a prayer asking for safe passage home, and started our trip.
My heart fluttered. My lungs tightened. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I looked at your then three-year-old and seven-month-old grandsons sleeping in the backseat. Initially, I was overcome by a wave of sadness, but it quickly changed to anger. In the end, I felt vulnerable and scared. The murderer was still on the lam, and here I was a Black man with two Black boys driving on the highway by moonlight. My iPhone was fully charged and the number for roadside assistance was in my contacts. The diaper bag was stocked to handle anything my infant might produce. I had snacks and beverages in the cooler and a first aid kit in the trunk. But none of that would protect us from the business end of the semi-automatic pistol.
In the end, I felt vulnerable and scared.
A few years later, our family visited that historic church, which was burned down in 1822 after one of its founders, Denmark Vesey, was suspected of plotting a rebellion to upend slavery. The rebuilt edifice is a stone’s throw from a towering statue of former Vice President John C. Calhoun, a staunch advocate for slavery and a hero of the Confederate cause.
“Oh, my God,” I said clutching my wife’s hand as we walked into the church basement. We both froze and held your grandsons close.
Tears formed in my eyes when I saw the door to the office where the pastor’s wife and daughter huddled, while the slaughter was unfolding on the other side.
Sadness. Rage. Anger. Vulnerability. Fear. For them. For us. For me.
I think about this every time I hear another unarmed Black person has been killed for doing nothing more than going about their lives doing ordinary things I’ve done—come home from work, attend a bachelor party, walk to the convenience store or go for a jog. Now these murders seem commonplace, but not mundane.
The thought of not being able to meet the threat, any threat, with equal measure has put the fear of God in me. Knowing I have the means to respond with equal force but not equipping myself to do so seems like an unforgivable sin. For the same reason I work out and eat well (usually) to guard against illness; pray, meditate, place my faith in God and follow Jesus to fight spiritual and earthly daemons; I bought a gun.
And I pray God gives me good aim when I shoot.
With love, your son.