As a black man I’d learned to fear the police. Then the police became my family.
The day of the grand jury announcement that absolved Darren Wilson of any wrongdoing for the killing of Mike Brown, I noticed that one of my friends had updated their profile picture on Facebook to an “I Support Darren Wilson” meme. Having effectively purged from my social media most of the people I considered no better than Confederate flag enthusiasts, I was horrified by this turn of events. Who had I missed? Who did I now need to delete as a friend?
It was my sister.
As a black man, it had never occurred to me that anyone in my family would stand in solidarity with the murderer of an unarmed black male.
To be a black male in America, your constant state of being is Ignatius of Antioch, forever on deck to be devoured by a Colosseum-dwelling lion, and police are the felines in question, confined to an arena where their blood sport is not only encouraged but rewarded. I was raised in Milwaukee, in a single-parent home where I was an anomaly, the only man present. The men who came in and out of my mother’s lives were troubled men, dangerous men — some of them emotional criminals, others criminals in the very literal definition. They ran afoul of the police often. From my perspective as a child, these men fully earned being targeted by the police.
And much like any victim who has been tormented, my mother turned to those who were her saviors: She joined the sheriff’s department. Law enforcement may see the black male as public enemy No. 1, but to the black women who are often left in the wake of their men’s struggle for freedom, it’s very understandable that a black woman would play into the role of Michael Corleone, pulled into a world that is needlessly cruel and violent, yet also a safe haven and the only means of protecting themselves in this world.
There was a point when I realized as an adult that despite my privileges relative to so many other black men — a grandmother who drove me to a bookstore on the south side of town every month to purchase the latest Goosebumps book on its release date, a college degree in theatre, a graduate degree from the Tisch School of the Arts — this world was still not designed for me to succeed. And police were a constant reminder. Police who looked at me like a Yeerk, some alien life-form willing to infect and infiltrate the world they found precious. A man who would be so very easy to kill, whose death would have no consequences.
It was not necessarily my mother’s career in law enforcement that caused our initial rift, but it was all tied in to how she had to use her badge as a shield, as a uniformly colored Dreamcoat to protect herself from anyone who could do her harm. Subconsciously, she knew that her black son could grow into a dangerous man, one who could bring pain into her life, or one she would be forced to eradicate with an American-bred bullet.
The thing about a cold war with your mother is that there’s always collateral damage. I blamed my mother for picking my sister as her favorite, the one she would mold in her own image. In the absence of breathing room to be who I wanted to be, to find myself, I blamed my mother for the distance between us. I insisted that she had failed me as a mother and as close as my sister and I had been in our youth, I knew that she was destined to follow in my mother’s footsteps. She was being groomed as the heir apparent.
So when I realized I was gay, that Milwaukee would smother me and burn every canvas I could ever use to paint a single work of art, I fled at the first opportunity — to Loyola University-Chicago, 90.2 miles from home, where I could fumble through my own personal Minos labyrinth and figure out whatever it meant to be a gay black male in America.
“Like any artist without an art form, she became dangerous.” — Toni Morrison, Sula
My sister, a gifted and intelligent woman, had no such aspirations: She had no art form that had ever been determined. She had no outlet for that which banged within her rib cage every day, searching for an exit. And as such, the way out of her personal chains was to join law enforcement. In the times when she struggled with her identity, she fell in with a crowd of similar unrealized artists. She was often in trouble with the law — sometimes earned, sometimes a victim of profiling (to make myself feel better I told myself it was because of her manner of dress — I was a victim of respectability politics then). She began her career as a correctional officer and moved to Texas, but returned home shortly after. I had a creative outlet to keep my family close and yet far away at the time. I wrote about them, keeping my sentiment and family ties confined to a computer document. My sister had no such outlet and craved her familial ties. When she returned to Milwaukee, she still needed the strength to escape her chains. My mother’s tenure as a sheriff inspired my sister to apply to be a police officer. It was a natural progression of her search for any type of strength or power.
Years earlier, on a chilly autumn afternoon, I stood by a behemoth of a fountain at Loyola University-Chicago’s campus, where a tarot card reader once disoriented me with circular logic about the obstacles I needed to confront in my life. Her words had long faded, but her face remained burned into my mind as the phone in my jeans vibrated with a call from my sister.
The words come blunt and quickly. “I’m gay, Ira,” she said. I didn’t hear her the first time. She was speaking through sobs. The crashing water beside me and the flurry of student activity surrounding me made it hard — shit, made it impossible to take all this in. I sat down on the edge of the fountain and selfishly began to think about myself. Why would my sister decide to come out to me? Had she figured out something about me I’d struggled so hard to maintain in my hometown? Was she the only person in my family who could see my true self?
No, she had no kinship with me other than the perfunctory one Sister Sledge sang about. We were family. She was my sister and I was her brother. And in the event that your mother discovers a surreptitious note you scribbled to a burgeoning love, and in turn discovers that the daughter she molded out of her dreams for a better life than her own is a lesbian, the only person you can call is your brother who’s pulled a reverse-prodigal son and fled from home the first chance he got.
My mother, hardly a religious woman except in the act of maintaining the status quo of a black woman in America, was offended by my sister’s “sin.” My mother, hardly the most attentive while my sister went through the motions of a juvenile delinquent, was offended by my sister’s “betrayal of our values.” “Your sister’s a lesbian.” That was the call I received from my mother. It was icier and lacked any desperation, but I could still feel gutted from the subtext of her phone call.
It was then that I was given the chance to be a canvas. My sister had discovered her gifts and it was my turn to be a teacher, a muse, allow her the opportunity to paint freely. All I had to do was come out to my sister, tell her that we were one, that we not only shared the same blood, we shared the same soul.
I couldn’t do it. I didn’t come out for another five years.
Before my sister laid her support for Darren Wilson on Facebook, she called me one evening and asked me for my address. She had to list me on her application for the Milwaukee Police Department. I allowed her to list me as a reference because I still love the women in my life, despite us being on the opposite side of a fight we did not create. I want them to be safe and they want me to be safe, but I think about what would happen if I were in the line of police fire. Would I be mourned only in private?