When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I had all the questions lots of dads have before fatherhood begins. Will I be a good parent? How can I best support my wife? What will my son be like?
Then, in early August of 2014, just a couple of weeks before my boy was born, Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
A few months later, Tamir Rice, 12, was also killed by police, in Cleveland.
Just like that, all the “normal” questions I had about all the “normal” things gave way to something else — to a visceral reminder that any notion of “normal” is a privilege that’s out of reach for many Black people in America.
Instead of daydreaming about the first basketball game I’d take my son to, I wondered: How can I raise my brown child in this world? What, if anything, can I do to keep him safe? Is normal even possible?
Those questions didn’t go away. A couple of years later, two Black fathers, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police during “routine” traffic stops. They died a month before my second son was born.
All of these moments reinforced how precious and vulnerable my sons’ lives were — how precious and vulnerable my own life was. I understood that raising my boys would mean sharing with them how abnormal life can be for Black people, because keeping them safe would require it. I also hoped that in showing them the world as it is, they might also find a way to make it better. But that proved a difficult task.
By the time Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in a modern-day lynching, I felt demoralized. He could’ve been me or, worse, he could have been one of my sons.
The anguish of his murder scarred me more than others, and I’ll never be the same again. Learning it was covered up by state and local law enforcement for months, forced me to question everything.
I realized that the America my great grandparents lived in — and had feared — hadn’t substantially changed. I realized I misplaced my faith in a legal system that was historically built and systemically modernized to maintain bias and inequity. I realized marching and voting would never be enough for America to see Black people as worthy of our whole humanity. I realized I couldn’t continue to blindly hope people would choose to change the system based on altruism alone, and that I needed to do my part to help change society, and start to reckon with 400 years of systematically inhumane treatment in this country.
“Normal” is a privilege that’s out of reach for many Black people in America.
I realized I couldn’t help my boys change the world, until I helped myself.
Losing Ahmaud, in the wake of so many others, has clarified my personal journey; it’s helped me lean into healthier ways to cope and changed my willingness to engage in the discomforting truths of “normal life” as a Black person in this country. In addition to the real social risks, for example, nearly half of Black men suffer from cardiovascular disease.
I started the local chapter of Black Men Run, an organization focused on Black men’s physical and mental wellness. I also found a Black therapist to help me improve my mental fitness and better prepare myself before the next shockwave hits Black America. I was a champion sprinter in high school, but I’m running more now than I ever have in my adult life because I have a purpose. I can’t change everything, but I could change how I address the hard truth of Black men’s health in our society. I run for me, for my kids, for ‘Maud, and a better Black future.
When I started writing this essay, I didn’t know what the verdict would be. Learning the news that Ahmaud’s murderers would be held to account sparked two things in me: euphoric celebration and deep reflection on how close we were to not even having a case.
It took months for the Greg and Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan to be even charged with a crime. Most African-Americans were systemically removed from the jury. The defense attorneys repeatedly used race-based tactics to try to bolster their clients' case. Those are all indications of "normalized" behavior and results of a country that refuses to reconcile its racist past. I am happy that these men are held accountable for their despicable actions, but I know that we are still far from justice; Ahmaud is no longer alive.
And yet, I realize that I am stronger now because I’ve changed my definition of what a “normal life” can and should be as a Black person, Black partner and Black father. Having a running group of Black men committed to health, and rooted in love, is a living testament to Ahmaud’s memory. We run every Saturday; and we call our run “Sankofa,” a Ghanaian (Akan Peoples) Adinkra symbol that generally means “bring your history forward with you,” because we always evoke and remember our ancestors who came before us.
I will forever run with ‘Maud and carry his spirit with me, just as I walk in a world not designed for me. I will keep running and sharing my story because I know this verdict won’t change hearts and minds more than individual courage and truth can.
There will be another tragedy in America, another unjust verdict, more de-humanizing depictions of Black people in the media. But access to running and therapy allow me to return to the work of healing myself and our society authentically.
My sons are 7 and 5 now. I want them to enjoy the freedom of existing in a more just and equitable country. Maybe one day they will inherit a new normal — a better “normal” — when they, and all Black people, are seen as equal humans, who can run anywhere, safe from harm.