Voices: How do I raise my black son in this America?

This week, I cried on the Metro.

Hours before, in the wee hours of Thursday morning, I watched part of Diamond Reynolds’ live video, watched as she calmly talked to the camera and the Falcon Heights, Minn., Police officer, while her boyfriend, Philando Castile, bled and lost consciousness in the seat next to her.

But the next morning, as I sat down on the train for my morning commute, I decided to re-watch her video.

I watched Diamond Reynolds get handcuffed, ask for her daughter, and then heard a small voice tell police, “I want to get my mommy’s purse.” I started to cry.

I watched as Reynolds sat, handcuffed, next to her little girl in the back seat of a police car. I watched as her 4-year-old daughter said, “It’s OK, Mommy. It’s OK, I’m right here with you.”.

One woman shows the world the dying breaths of another black man.

I couldn’t help but imagine me and my little boy in the same situation. So I cried some more, on public transit in Washington, in front of a bunch of strangers.

And I made a friend.

Part embarrassed, part aching for a friendly face, a person who could share in my grief and disbelief, I looked over to the woman next to me. She was brown-skinned with close-cropped graying hair, smartly dressed. “Did you see the video about the shooting in Minnesota?” I asked, wiping tears from my face.

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She said she had read a bit about it before she left that morning. And we talked.

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We talked about Alston Sterling and Philando Castile. About the inequality of our justice system. The countless black people sentenced to life in prison under wrong-headed laws while a promising white college student caught in the act of sexually assaulting a woman gets a months-long sentence — and the chance to still live his life. About laws that keep our people enslaved, whether within penitentiaries’ walls or on the streets, unable to get a job or even vote because they’re now marked as convicts.

We talked about Michelle Alexander’s bookThe New Jim Crow. I’d read it; she’d bought a copy and had been meaning to read it.

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We talked about gun laws and how it’s inexplicable that anyone in this country can own military-style weapons. About the great power that police wield — as authority figures wielding powerful firearms — and how we send them out ill-equipped for that power. How it seemed apparent to me that this Minnesota policeman seemed in shock, faced with the ramifications of his panic, his internalized bias that perhaps he hadn’t been forced to face until now, in the form of a man dying in the car in front of him.

We talked about living in this world as a black person — how we live life always aware of our blackness, our otherness in this world, and how others perceive it and react to it. How we’re taught from a young age to always present ourselves “well” to avoid the possibility of a misunderstanding or getting hurt.

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And yet, black bodies are broken and discarded every day by a system that is dysfunctional on every level, from local law enforcement to the highest court.

And yet, a man held down by two policemen, can still be shot and killed at point-blank range.

And yet, a man can get pulled over for a broken tail light and never go home to his family again.

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We had questions and no answers by the time my new friend got off at her stop. As my train moved forward, I still sat on that Metro seat, feeling fragile and thin-skinned, overwhelmed by my powerlessness to protect my 2-year-old son, my husband and even myself from the dangers of being black in this country.

What does Diamond Reynolds tell her little girl? What do I tell my son?

Do I raise him as I was raised: to keep your head down, to be on your best behavior, and hope for the best? How do I teach him that he can be anything while also making sure he knows the realities of the world around him? How do I raise a man confident in his true self when I know that some will not see him as the adorable, talkative kid who loves to dance but instead as a threat to be avoided or neutralized?

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How do I not break down every time I send him out into this incredibly scary and uncertain world?

I guess the answer is the one every parent clings to: Just do the damn best that I can. Every day I will hug my child and tell him he is an amazing, shining star. I will correct him when he’s wrong.

I will teach him that life is messy, and often not fair and that it will undoubtedly not go the way any of us expect it to.

And every day before I send him out into the world, I will whisper: “It’s OK, I’m right here with you.”.

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James-Daley is a librarian and former journalist in Washington, D.C.