A Letter to My Unborn Black Son
Dear Ulysses IV,
Dad here. I know you’ve yet to be conceived or even thought of for that matter, but there’s a strong possibility that one day you will enter into this world, and I want to give you a heads-up on what you are up against – because that’s what good dads do.
Let me begin by apologizing – for the beautiful milk chocolate hue your skin will carry. I apologize because the world will not view your mocha complexion as beauty, but as a black stain on white fabric; dirt on pristine clothes; a drop of oil polluting crystal blue-eyed waters. I apologize because you will be born to a father who will pass along to you humanity’s most superior genes and its most inferior skin color, neither of which is within our control; yet you’ll still be measured by it. You will be undervalued because of it, and treated poorly as a result of it.
There’s a long history of how this reality came to be that I’ll share with you when you arrive, because by then it will have been all but erased from the American history you are likely to be taught in school. Nonetheless, please know that because of your predetermined race coupled with your gender, you will enter this world predisposed to the wrong side of disparity including poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, poor health, mass incarceration, fatherlessness, gun violence, police brutality, and racial profiling. Your ability to stave off many of the aforementioned disparities will be my responsibility through your upbringing; however I will not be able to guarantee that you won’t someday be victim to racial profiling. Since neither you nor I can control this, the best I can do as your father, is prepare you for what’s to come.
From the moment you take your first breath, you will be perceived as a threat, so there will be certain things you must manage to seem less menacing, starting with your outward appearance. Hoodies, baseball caps, baggy jeans, and sneakers should be off-limits apparel, especially if all are worn at the same time, and especially if worn at night. But don’t be surprised if you are patrolled in a store while shopping for “high end” clothing more suit-able to society, either son. Ironically, the employee following you will likely have less capacity than you to purchase the items of your interest, but your melanin rich pigment will cancel out that fact. You are not to wear your hair too close because society will say you look aggressive, but you also should not wear braids or dreadlocks, because you will immediately be associated with gang culture.
Speaking of gangs, do not make hand gestures beyond the standard 5-fingered wave or 2-fingered peace sign, although even that can be risky. If you find yourself walking in close proximity to women at night, kindly create distance between yourselves, or better yet, cross to the other side of the street entirely; that will make everyone more comfortable. Always smile, and never exhibit emotion to the contrary even though everyone else has free reign to do so without judgment; you don’t want to be labeled an “angry black man” even though you’ll have more right than any to be mad as hell. When speaking to others, prepare to be called “articulate”, because you are eloquent in your speech and being both Black and well-spoken makes you a unicorn – a mythical creature. Sure it’s meant to be a compliment, so say thank you son, but after hearing it over and over…and over again, it will quickly shift from compliment to constant reminder that the majority does not expect you to be “articulate” as are your white male counterparts, and any aberration from that assumption is noteworthy.
You will also not be expected to have nice things son, so if the house you are born into is “too nice” or in a neighborhood that hasn’t been pre-approved for your predisposition to the wrong side of unequal living, again I apologize. I apologize for the number of times our neighbors will phone the police as a result of your presence rather than in defense of it. I apologize for those same police officers that swore under oath to protect and serve you, who will instead follow you home in suspicion of you, rather than in support of you; they too will have preconceived notions about where you can and can’t live. No worries though son, I will reduce some of that negative attention toward you by making sure your first car isn’t too shiny or too fancy, otherwise you may be mistaken for a thief or drug dealer. It will be your responsibility however to play your music at reasonable levels and keep the number of passengers who share your predisposition to a minimum as not to draw more attention to yourself. If you do happen to be stopped by the police for any reason, always refer to him or her as sir or ma’am, keeping your hands visible, preferably on the steering wheel or dashboard in front of you. If you are asked to step out of the car, never and I mean NEVER put your hands in your pockets, and under no circumstance do you EVER resist arrest even if it’s completely unwarranted; this may be the most important lesson of them all son.
I know this all seems like a lot to consider even before you come into this world, but they are lessons that reinforce your God given right to exist as a young Black man in a society where you have been marginalized before you are even thought of or conceived. The bright side is that by existing – by surviving, and then thriving, you will have the unique opportunity to shift the paradigm; moving society closer to the equal and equitable haven God intended His creation to be, before we disturbed its divine balance with our struggle for power waged in a war between prejudice and privilege.
Ulysses, know that you are special even if society sends a contrasting message. Know that your black is beautiful but that your humanity is even more precious. Know that you are of priceless value, and if there ever comes a time in your invaluable life when you doubt that, just ask your old man and I’ll remind you.
*In memory of all the black sons taken by state sanctioned violence and racism.
A version of this letter originally appeared at The Salt Collective.
A native of Houston, Texas, Ulysses W. Burley, III studied at Morehouse College and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine (FSM). Ulysses previously held an associate position at Northwestern University FSM Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Clinical Research Unit and a position as Program Director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Strategy on HIV/AIDS. He is the owner of UBtheCURE LLC, a proprietary consulting company on the intersection of Faith, Health, and Human Rights. Facebook—@ubthecure; Twitter—@ulyssesburley; Instagram—@ubthecure www.ubthecure.com.