Church was ending. The benediction had been given, the closing song was sung and people were beginning to gather. I was doling out the requisite hugs and pleasantries when he came running to me. The moment was all too familiar. But something about that day was different. There was a seriousness to him that hadn’t been there ever before. He looked up at me and the first words he said were ‘I love you.’ I was surprised. And then I smiled. And then I wanted to weep.
It sounds silly, but I’d never heard him tell me he loved me. At least, not unprompted. We play fought. Sometimes I listen to him talk. Sometimes he listens to me. But this week was different. I’d already spent the majority of the week crying. The murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling had me waking up in a cold sweat to the sound of gunshots. I was about to move away from home for the first time and there was a lot to be sad about.
So I was pleasantly surprised when my 4-year-old god-brother told me he loved me, in fact, I was overcome. Not because I needed to feel loved, but because I worried about why all of a sudden, he felt the need to say it. Could he feel that his life was endangered? That his mere existence made him a target? Does he understand death? Can he see that Alton or Philando could’ve easily been his father? Tamir was a child too. Could he sense my negative energy? Could he tell how much I worry about the lives of Black people? Was he trying to comfort me when he threw his tiny arms around my neck? Does he wonder why his mother hugs him longer? Holds his hand tighter?
As I stood there holding him I couldn’t help but wonder how long his childlike wonder would last. How long do I have left before the world makes that sweet young boy into a man? How long before he realizes he lives in a world where people think his life doesn’t matter. Soon his mother will teach him the lessons of having to be twice as good to get half as far. She will remind him that he should cross the street at night when he encounters others so that they do not see him as a threat. Never wear your hood up. Make no sudden movements when the police pull you over. Keep your head down and your nose clean. The slightest mistake could signal a death sentence and the only crime would be blackness. His mother will teach him these lessons. And I fear for him because even those lessons are not enough to save him. I fear for every child who knows nothing of the world’s hatred for them. I fear for the children who already know that hatred all too well. I see uncensored joy in their innocent eyes. There is unbridled love in their hearts and yet I fear in mine that we have already failed them. I found comfort in his love, but know he can find no protection in mine.
The first time he said I love you, I told him I loved him too. Then I prayed that love would be enough.