Growing up a Black man in America: Why our souls are on fire

Race

June 1, 2020 at 2:19 pm, Special to The Seattle Times

I was 7 years old when my mother yelled at me, “Stop. Listen. Stop. If you don’t start listening to me, then you’re going to get yourself killed one day. Because the cops will only say stop once.”

Like many young boys of color, the only thought I had in that moment was for my mother to release me from her tight grip and allow me to continue on my way. Many years later, many shootings later and many deaths later related to police brutality, America is at a tipping point. The souls of men of color are on fire much like the buildings and streets of America. America’s truest colors are showing, and it is a frightening sight.

In 2016, I sat in one of the largest football stadiums in the country. As the national anthem began playing, Colin Kaepernick was mocked for kneeling peacefully against police brutality only moments before the same men applauded the Black athletes whom Kaepernick symbolized. Yet another example of how being a Black man in America can feel as though our actions are continually viewed as incorrect. Protest peacefully? Wrong. Protest with violence? Wrong. On the athletic field, we are viewed as equals, but in society this bar of equality has been fractured and, some might argue, destroyed.

When and how does inaction change to action and listening result in transformation? I sit with the rage of my Black community, and I march with the nonviolent protesters. I write with no distinct answer, but there exists a perpetual myth that halts the conversation of progress: Only certain Black men become the result of such police brutality. I assure you that what has occurred with George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery can happen to me or any male with my skin complexion. Understand, we as Black men are not given the benefit of the doubt. When I leave my home, I do not walk around with a sign that reads, “Dr. Campbell, former student-athlete at Emory University, Graduate & Former President of The Ohio State University College of Medicine student body, M.D., M.S.”

I am just another Black man.

In 2011 — as a recent graduate of Emory University and AmeriCorps member — I had just dropped my girlfriend off at her home in northeast Washington, D.C. I was driving my mother’s Lexus sedan when I fell asleep at a red light — exhausted from a 60-hour week of service. Five seconds later, I awoke. I lightly pressed my foot on the gas pedal and began advancing through the red light a moment before it turned green. As I recognized my error so too did the police officer in his car. Understandably, he pulled me over. It is what happened next that puzzled me. An Asian-American officer approached me. I was wearing a Ralph Lauren jacket, button-downed collared shirt and slacks. I provided him my ID and registration. He ran the plates. I explained it was my mother’s car, and then he asked, “Do you have any weapons in the car?”

“No,” I responded, calmly. “Mind if I check?,” he asked.

“Not at all,” I said as I stepped out of the vehicle. He dropped to one knee and looked under the car seat while reaching his arm as far as he could. He then stood up, handed me my ID back and wished me a good night. In reading this there will most certainly be a level of anger toward either my willingness or my inaction of combating his prejudice at the moment. However, a compliant voice then now allows for a provocative pen. I was alone, on a dark street in the middle of the night. It was the police officer and me.

I was just another Black man.

The concept of anti-racism has newly emerged through the weeds of complacency. This concept is the only way to move forward as a non-Black ally. The moving walkway of discrimination, prejudice and bigotry favors the racist and standing still places one in this jurisdiction of hatred. To antagonize their message, one must walk by actively fighting, disrupting and dispelling their racist tones — both overt and subtle.

In the book “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin wrote, “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being …”

When one watches the video of George Floyd on the ground with another man’s knee pressed into his neck, it is nearly impossible for these words not to haunt one with a distinct level of truth and accuracy. Irrelevant of profession or walk of life, we deserve an America that gives us the benefit of the doubt or at least an America that allows us to breathe.

Visible Man: An Illumination of My Black Father

Fatherhood, Race

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The subtle yet remarkable line from Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man published in 1952 continues to be a declarative voice in today’s society: Black men do not play a role in raising their children. There are so many, including my grandfather and my own father, who have proven this stigma to be incorrect.

Despite being considered invisible, black fathers have remained beautiful statues to emulate for their children. It was the year 1972 and a young black man, trunk packed and ticket in hand, boarded a bus headed towards Philadelphia with his parents’ directives echoing in his head’— “Work hard and good luck, son.” For the first time in his eighteen years of life Thomas Campbell was leaving home in pursuit of a college degree—the first of his siblings.

The opportunities many black fathers have generated are now profoundly evident in the accomplishments of their children. One of eight children, Thomas Campbell was born in 1953 in the Northeast corridor of Washington D.C. A year after his birth in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Fifty-three years later, I was graduating as one of a few African-American students from a private high school in Washington D.C.—a vicarious atonement of what may have been for my father had his parents been able to afford the tuition when he was accepted to a similar school. “I wanted you and your sister to have more than I could have ever dreamed of as a kid. When I grew up my family never had a car and never went on family vacations,” he remarked.

There are a multitude of young black men changing the world owing the qualities that have made them successful—dedication, commitment, and perseverance—to their black fathers.

“Jason, remember you can be whatever you want when you grow up.” As he tightened my tie on that Easter morning looking his ten-year-old son in the eye. “If you put your mind to it, then it’s yours.” Nineteen years later as I climbed the six shallow stairs in the auditorium at my medical school graduation ceremony my father’s words reverberated. A story nothing short of recurrent and delivered dreams: receiving a private school education followed by three more degrees—the last one permanently attaching the initials MD to my last name. What even I struggle to fathom is what my father must have felt when I walked across that stage and was declared a ‘Doctor.’

The magnificence of my achievement truly belongs to my father. Despite having grown up in a home where his own father could neither read nor write he journeyed to earn his law degree. Subsequently, he cemented a path for me and my sister to earn five degrees between the two of us. My father’s example serves as a declaration for my sister and I that boundaries do not exist.

Grown J and dad

Like a multitude of black fathers, Thomas Campbell exemplifies a vision of the world where the finish line is not dictated by the starting line.

Once invisible men—now visible. They are black fathers.