Dr. Kaye Whitehead (Courtesy Photo)

By Dr. Kaye Whitehead

You will never know real fear until you have that moment, the one when you give your Black son the keys to his first car, and he says, “Tell me again what to do when the cops stop me so that they don’t shoot me.” Somewhere, deep within me, I realized that he said “when” and not “if:” when means it is going to happen; when means that it is inevitable; when means that he understands that he is a Black man in a White world; when means that he listened as I prayed for the mother of Philando Castile, of Miriam Casey, of Andrew Brown Jr., of Daunte Wright; when means that he understands that as a Black person, he is 20% more likely to be stopped, searched, cited and arrested than White drivers; when means that he gets it; and, it means that America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, has failed him.

Tell me again what to do…

When he was in high school, after watching all of his White friends get their license and then get a car, my son believed that having a car was a ticket to freedom. “You can go where you want,” he would laugh and say, “when you want and for as long as you want. I get a car, and I’m going to be free.” How do you tell your son that the pursuit of freedom has been the singular goal of Black people ever since we were kidnapped and dragged into this experiment that one day would be called democracy? We walked out of the Door of No Return, or off of Goree Island or away from Kunta Kinteh Island and we planned and prayed for freedom. We stood on the auction blocks, being poked and prodded, barely understanding the foreign tongue that was negotiating our price and we planned and prayed for freedom. We fought back as they tried to break us by raping, torturing and terrorizing us and we planned and prayed for freedom. We helped some to run, others to stay alive while we planned and prayed for freedom. We stood up and demanded our freedom from lynching and Jim Crow, from disenfranchisement and domestic terror, from redlining and economic injustice, from the mass industrial prison complex and discrimination, from police brutality and racial hatred, from White supremacy and Whiteness. We have been willing to die for our freedom even as we planned and prayed. So, how do I explain to my son that in America, freedom for Black people, as A. Philip Randolph once said, is never given; it is won. And freedom, as Medgar Evers said, has never been free.

When, I heard him say, not if…

This is why Juneteenth is complicated and why celebrating the Fourth of July as a day of American independence should never happen. In 1776, when White America celebrated its hard-won freedom from British rule, they did so while enslaving Black men, women and children. It takes a certain kind of wickedness steeped in White supremacy to celebrate your country’s freedom while simultaneously enslaving your countrymen and women. I feel comfortable using this familial term because, by that time, Black people had been in America for over 157 years and had died fighting for that freedom that white folks were enjoying. Six years earlier, Crispus Attucks, of African and Native American ancestry, was the first person killed in the American Revolution. And since that moment, Black people have been dying at the foot of the altar of Whiteness, fighting for our freedom. What, to the Black mother, who has had her children pulled from her breast, have seen the soles of their feet hanging from trees, have watched them beaten and brutalized, have witnessed their abuse and degradation, is your Fourth of July? Nothing but a brutal reminder that our freedom will always be celebrated in the shadows if we let some White folks define it and define us.

I have been celebrating Juneteenth ever since I was a child. It was our day of freedom and independence. Even though we were in South Carolina and not in Texas, we would fire up the grill as my grandparents talked about freedom and the strength of our family. They embodied Black love and Black freedom. They talked about how the day was complicated because to accept that June 19 was a day of liberation and freedom for all Black people, you had to accept that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery. And it did not. The Emancipation Proclamation only “ended” slavery within the Confederate States of America, a different country under the leadership of Jefferson Davis where Lincoln did not have the power to do so. They would get upset as they talked about how Lincoln chose not to end slavery in the states that he did control, so he could have ended slavery in Maryland or Missouri, in Delaware or Kentucky, but he did not. He was working to save the Union and not to free Black folks. Slavery, my grandfather would say, did not end with the Proclamation or when the South finally surrendered or even when soldiers reached Galveston Bay, Texas. It did not legally end until they ratified the 13th Amendment, and even then, and he would always sigh when he said this, we were free, but we didn’t have our freedom. Talks of freedom never went well with burgers and boiled peanuts. I understood, even back then, the importance of celebrating Juneteenth as a moment of hope for our people without allowing the symbolism of the moment to replace the truth of what happened to us. I realized that we are more than the lies they tell us about ourselves.

When the cops stop me…

My son lives in Tennessee, down in the heart of the South, and when we handed him his keys on the eve of Juneteenth, less than two weeks from the Fourth of July, my heart stopped for just a moment. It was the “when” and not the “if” that got me. It was the realization that no matter how far we have come, we have so much farther to go. It was a moment within the spaces, between being free and having freedom, that made me catch my breath. If you are not Black in this country, then you will never know the very real fear that washes over you, like cold water on a sun-drenched day, like listening to your grandparents talk about freedom while sharing stories of white fear and Black death, until you give your Black son the keys to his first car and he says, “Tell me again what to do when the cops stop me so that they don’t shoot me.”

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (todaywithdrkaye@gmail.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, & Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland and the 2021 Edward R. Murrow Regional Awar- winning radio host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. She is the author of the forthcoming book, i speak for the unforgotten: tales from behind the wall. She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons. 

The opinions on this page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the AFRO. Send letters to The Afro-American • 1531 S. Edgewood St. Baltimore, MD 21227 or fax to 1-877-570-9297 or e-mail to editor@afro.com

Help us Continue to tell OUR Story and join the AFRO family as a member – subscribers are now members!  Join here!