By Camilla Johnson Perry
Special to the AFRO

Congratulations to the class of 2020! They have worked hard and accomplished a rite of passage in these challenging and unprecedented times. Their perseverance is evident, and the nation’s hope for equality lies within the resilience of the future leaders of their graduation class. We as parents and the neighborhood village must continue modeling bravery for them, despite our concern about their future in our divided America. 

The class of 2020 is graduating into an America that is divided in many ways. It is worse than the division of the “have” and the “have-nots,” and differences between the rich and the poor. We are now divided into groups of COVID-19 negative, positive or asymptomatic, but still race continues to define the biggest boundary between “us” and “them!”

My son was scheduled to graduate on June 1 from Chesapeake Math and IT Academy North in Laurel, Md. Like many other seniors, his graduation ceremony was canceled. I worry for all our Black sons in the class of 2020 as they leave the protection of their parents to participate in social-distanced celebrations, I am acutely aware of their risks amidst the racial tensions. In fact, I have been more concerned about my son’s risk of becoming a fatality during a police stop than the likelihood of him contracting COVID-19. 

Desert Storm Army Veteran Camilla Johnson Perry. (Courtesy Photo)

The country is in crisis! We have been quarantined for over 60 days, and today’s news headlines communicate stories of civil unrest, protests, activation of the National Guard and unmasked people ignoring social distancing guidelines. Last week’s murder, of another unarmed Black man killed by a police officer, will require more parental warnings to our Black sons across America. The images of protesters of varying ethnicities, compared to pictures of unmasked people relaxing and enjoying the nation’s beaches, demonstrate compelling differences between American values, and promises of liberty and justice for all. Nonetheless, all of these actions are the precursor of future consequences, such as injuries, arrests and more deaths. My heart aches for all of their family members. Undoubtedly, some of the beach goers, as well as some of the protesters, will return home having been infected with COVID-19, and they may consequently infect their loved ones with this highly contagious virus. 

I never thought I would see all of the ingredients of war on American soil. We have violence, militia, biological hazards requiring facemasks, propaganda, classicism and threats to use force. There is very little difference between today’s crisis and the civil unrest witnessed in foreign nations in which America has intervened, like in Operation Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq. In America, we are facing a new kind of war, but it is war. 

I deployed to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm not long after I finished high school. I told my 19-year-old self that we were fighting to free the people of Kuwait, I wanted to serve my country. The memories of the dangerous lull, slow motion and dream-like state that panic and fear causes on the mind right before battle remind me of now. We are watching first hand the build up of American forces, this time against Americans. Like other veterans, I still remember wearing nuclear biological protective gear nearly everyday. Now, I again feel the dread of war even, this time as a civilian in America even though it is technically peacetime. 

I find myself stricken with familiar panic and fear as my own son embarks into a world of uncertainty. Now, as I think about what is needed to move our country forward, I have thought about a scene from Alex Haley’s Roots. I am talking about the scene when Omoro raises his infant son, Kunta Kinte, above his head, and asks for God’s blessings on Kunta’s life. That scene, and the horrendous treatment that Kunta Kinte later endured, still brings me to tears. It is true that the treatment of Blacks now is better than what has been depicted in Roots, but there is much work to be done. The commonality is we are still worried for our Black sons.

Until now, I naively believed I could level the playing field by going to college, working harder, preparing and performing. I also believed that by 2020, the year my son would graduate from high school, he would be met with equality and fairness, at least commensurate with my effort. Now, thinking about racism and discrimination from the perspective of being a parent, I am disheartened to see that America’s one nation, under God, is still divisible. It is clear that my tears are the result of fear for my son’s safety. I recognize the pitfalls of today’s bigotry are trickier to identify, and much different than that of the mothers raising sons amid the inequality of slavery; they knew their enemy, but fear is fear and palpable nonetheless. 

To cope, I am coaching myself from thoughts of fear to prayers for God’s favor. I am praying without fear and reminding my son that God is in charge; He is a mighty warrior! I am modeling watchful vigilance and sowing hope, not hatred; faith in place of fear, and responsibility instead of revenge. I have explained to my son that the issue is not the National Anthem, the problem is the perpetrators of racism. I still sing, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” because as a veteran, I continue to believe America is the home for people brave enough to fight for freedom. Let’s stand up and be brave! Bravery in 2020 America is doing what’s right and calling out bad people. That is my message to all Americans, not just parents of Black sons. We must be brave for everyone to be free! 

So, to the class of 2020, I offer this advice: be brave! Be brave enough to be kind to people who look like the evildoers because not all people who look like the man who killed George Floyd are bad. Be brave enough to be the change you desire for your generation. Be brave enough to serve others, and learn from the history of our ancestors’ faithfulness; they modeled for us bravery, responsibility, humility, patience and love. Finally, Be accountable and VOTE! 

Camilla Johnson Perry is a wife, mother, former Army Officer and Desert Storm Veteran.