As a Black mother, when I read about one of those children whose life has been snatched, at first blush I think, “That could have been my child.” But I have demanded of myself that I turn away from such egotism. The truth is that is not my child. My children are here, and they stand with me, to honor their dead.
Our wings get tattered. We sometimes thrash. Or bruise. Purple marks that remind us of our aching hearts. We are treated in ugly ways; they penetrate and shape us, but the struggle is more than beautiful. The fight in the face of it makes a jolie laide life. Reckonings are our lifestyle.
I wrote these sentences in Kyoto, on separate mornings after I walked along the Kamogawa River. Eventually they became part of the book Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (2019.) Writing them was an effort to capture both the beauty and the heartache of parenting, and to offer something like hope or at best a belief in the virtue of making do and trying to do good in a difficult world.
Over the past several weeks massacres have broken the hearts of feeling people in the United States and abroad. The purported reasons for the killings are not identical: racial hatred, personal anguish, rage. But something is consistent: violence as a response to what is roiling inside. And guns, of course. Arms are mundane and ubiquitous in this country. I gave a lecture last week in Arkansas in which I noted that Arkansas has a 57 percent gun-ownership rate and my birth state of Alabama has a 55 percent rate, and that is one way among many that the states are twinned. It was a sorrowful quip.
Historically, the production of guns was concentrated in the Northeast. Remington began in New York, Savage Arms in Massachusetts, Bushmaster in Maine, and Colt and Winchester in Connecticut. The mass production of guns began in 1844 in Vermont, at the Robbins and Lawrence Armory, whose innovation was interchangeable parts.
In recent years, the companies have proliferated, due to less regulation, and moved south. Daniel Defense, of Georgia, has been criticized because its AR-15-style weapon was used in the Uvalde, Texas, massacre. The perpetrator in Buffalo modified a Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle bought at Vintage Firearms in Endicott, New York. When in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, I’ve heard stories about the purchase of illegal guns up in Vermont. When in Alabama, I’ve heard tales of spectacular gun shows and entertainment at the shooting range. Death is always proximate, a gentle breeze threatening to destroy. The rush of power that a weapon promises is also a deathwish. It is the end of imagination.
As parents, whether our children are small or adult, we are terrified when we encounter stories of the violent deaths of young people. We worry. We want to protect them. We try to organize their lives so that they are unlikely to die in untimely ways. But there is another task we have, and it is more urgent. We must raise them to do more than cower in the face of the ugliness of the world. We must raise them, even into adulthood, to believe in the possibility of a loving and just world and that they have a responsibility to work for it. We cannot ensure their absolute safety. But we can socialize them into decency. This is a matter of civic and political participation, of course, but also the basics of human-to-human interaction. It is found in how we teach them to deal with discomfort and hurt, how to respond when they witness others suffering, and how to decide, among many possible priorities, what matters most. A hint: It is not the pursuit of perfection and attainment. Rather it is, in large part, the capacity for kindness and the ability to witness both ugliness and beauty. If we are honest, we cannot justify the meanness of the world, and we should not encourage our children to do so.
Three years ago, when Breathe came out, crises abounded. Today there are more. In fact, it feels like a different world. COVID ravaged us. And the old hurts remained. Three years hence, who knows what we will face. God willing, my children and your children will be here in 2025—and so will we, trying to “fight lions with a switch,” as the southern saying goes. I hope against hope that our virtue grows, even as our sorrow is likely to deepen.