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Dear Michael Brown,
I’m too late; every black man who understands is too late—90 seconds too late, a day too late, months and years too late. We didn’t get there in time and you died in the middle of a street.
I don’t know if we were very different at that age. I imagine in many ways we weren’t. Some of the media pundits say you were a thug and others claim martyr. They march now, in your name, because of what you represent. You’re a placeholder, a meme, a tool, a t-shirt, an agenda for so many. And we’ll never know the real you, will we? To say the boy who shook down the convenient store owner for a box of cigars was the real you is easy, but that’s only one image in a giant tapestry. You were too young to be labeled as more than what you were—an 18-year-old black boy living in Ferguson.
I apologize to you Michael, and to the many who have come before you. Like you, I grew up with both of my parents. My father never did a day in jail. He was a marine, Vietnam vet, and later a therapist. My mother a college educated social worker. We went to church. I always felt loved, but as I grew up I also felt angry. It was a kind of anger I could never fully understand—it was in my bones. Looking back, I realize it was an anger rooted in a search for my identity. To be young and black is hard. The media says we’re dangerous and to be feared. It’s a long-standing narrative that hasn’t gone away and likely never will, and you and I inherited it. Meanwhile, our peers tell us it’s not cool to be smart. To excel at anything except sports is social suicide. We have to be hard; we have to let our pants hang low to say, “F*ck you to society”—and it’s passive aggressive. I’ve felt it. I know you did too. So we dive head first into the only place that seems to celebrate us no matter what—rap culture. I don’t call it hip hop or urban, because it’s not. Rap is a celebration of the proliferation of guns, drugs, violence, misogyny, and every stereotype we’ve been forced to swallow. The thing is most of us get the chance to grow out of it. We go to college; we get jobs and raise families—we join the military, even become police officers ourselves. Your life was cut short and we can only ponder what you would have become. In our culture, this is a rebellious phase, and it can get the better of us and we can end up dead. Teens in other cultures go through this too. It may be replaced with rock music and instead of blunts its joints, paint huffing, and Adderall. Truth is Michael, we can’t afford the phase anymore, we can’t afford to rebel like this. We have to find another way.
It’s the responsibility of every black man that survived this phase to look out for each other. We failed you—we failed all of you. No one is going to look out for us, except us. It’s a harsh truth but it’s not going come from the president, civil rights leaders, NAACP, or any other organization. It’s going to come from that brother who graduated from your high school, who went to college and got a good job, and swears he’ll never return to a place like Ferguson. That’s the problem Michael; we have to return to educate, to encourage and to save. It’s a community issue. We have to start taking care of each other. I wish, so desperately, I had crossed paths with you that day—that I had been in that convenient store—a moment could have changed everything.
We have to understand that not all police are rotten—for each questionable officer, there are ten outstanding. I don’t know what type you encountered that day in Darren Wilson, but my heart breaks wondering what lead to your demise. As a community, we have to do better. We need to find a way to save each other because we do need saving—and it’s a shame you had to die to remind us of that.
I’ll continue to pray for you and your family.