Acceptance Without Rancor: A Father-Son Conversation About Black Lives Matter

Acceptance Without Rancor: A Father-Son Conversation About Black Lives Matter

As millions rise up against police violence, a white father and his Black son discuss racism, resistance, and empathy.

A Mattson family portrait (Lyra Walsh Fuchs)

It’s uplifting to hear my son, Jay, talk to reporters. They wanted to understand how Black Lives Matter protests had erupted in Missoula, Montana, soon after the murder of George Floyd. Jay was facing down pickup truck drivers who brandished guns and flew Trump flags. Between speaking through bull horns and vigorous chanting, my twenty-one-year-old son answered a journalist’s query about why he was there: Just being a Black man, there’s part of me that . . . I have to. For my own personal safety, and the safety of my friends and future generations. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be here. His words sounded calm, cool, and deliberative, but I thought they might also cloak an anger bubbling beneath the surface.

There’s more complexity here than the typical dichotomy between “Black Lives Matter” protesters facing “Blue Lives Matter” counter-chants. It’s especially complex considering that though Jay is Black, his mother and I are white. He came to us in 1998 at just nine months old via the “Fost-Adopt” program championed by Hillary and Bill Clinton. It was intended to place kids likely to face a lifetime in foster care into adoptive homes. My wife’s father was abusive, and my father abandoned my mother and me; so we both agreed that blood had little to do with being a loving family. We also couldn’t afford a private adoption and felt there were too many kids without homes in the public system. We officially adopted Jay when he was four. Now that he was an adult helping to lead a BLM protest in Montana, I wanted to understand what drove him to this decision.

So I called Jay up to find out. In what follows, his words are in italics, mine in regular type. You’ll notice that his voice becomes more dominant as we get closer to the present.

Though we spent three years in New Jersey, our life as a family blossomed when we moved in 2001 to Athens, Ohio—a small college town in the middle of Appalachia. Jay spent his preschool years in a Head Start program. There we witnessed the white poverty the area is known for. My wife and I made a quick friendship with the only other couple who would turn up to volunteer. The void between our families was large. They lived paycheck to paycheck; we were a college professor and a stay-at-home (at least at that point) mother. We often talked about poverty with Jay, who probably didn’t really understand something so foreign to his own experience.

Things changed once Jay finished kindergarten and started to attend first grade. The class’s teacher had about twenty students, and the boys were getting diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) at an alarming rate. That included Jay, who she deemed not just ADD but also disruptive. At our first teacher-parent meeting, she confidently explained why she had erected a cardboard barrier on his desk. It would, she said, separate him from the other students and cut down on his disruptive tendencies.

As a historian, my mind shot back to an image that has always stuck with me. It’s of a Black man, George McLaurin, who in 1948 successfully lobbied for his right to attend the University of Oklahoma. (The Supreme Court’s decision in the case foreshadowed Brown v. Board of Education.) The photograph shows him sitting at a desk entirely separate from the younger white students, with a wall abutment that looked like it created another room just for McLaurin. Listening to Jay’s first grade teacher, the image burned in my head like fire.

My wife fumed—it was perhaps the first time I ever saw her angry—and back at home, we decided: Jay was to be homeschooled.

Some might call this a rash decision. Perhaps we could have kept him in public school and advocated for him—but we had already done that and had been brushed off by administrators (one even suggested Jay should be “sent off” to a school that catered to mentally and physically challenged students). We were driven by a profound hope that we might be able to protect our kid from things he couldn’t understand at the time.

Part of our interest in protecting Jay came from my rereading of James Baldwin’s 1963 book, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin had no children of his own, but he was incredibly insightful and empathetic about the relationship between parents and their children. “A child cannot, thank Heaven,” Baldwin proclaimed, “know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other. He reacts to the fear in his parents’ voices because his parents hold up the world for him and he has no protection without them.”

The protection worked, for the most part, and homeschooling with other liberals went fine. Jay got a classical education in literature, science, and math. My wife devoted her life to the process, knowing that we could rely on my salary from the university. She helped form a local homeschool “cooperative” in which Jay could hang out and play with other kids who ranged in age.

We paid particular attention to African-American history and civics. One of the memories Jay has is of his parents’ engagement in politics, which provided a concrete civics lesson. When we talked, he told me that he felt like he had

grown up in a campaign office. Remember how you got walking pneumonia and mom got strep throat and I was really sick in 2004, working on the John Kerry campaign? I learned a work ethic from you guys. I learned defeat too and how you give it your best shot even if you lose.

He told me of his ability to see the bigger picture and to see the pessimistic side and the hopeful side.

In 2008, Jay, age ten, joined us as we worked on the Obama campaign. We canvassed in rural areas in southern Ohio. Jay remembers Obama’s later visit to my university, when he came close to shaking the president’s hand amidst a roaring crowd that pressed upon us. He now says he was proud that America had a Black president, while admitting that Obama’s accomplishments in office were not all that thrilling. When I asked him if he thought Obama’s election represented a transition to a “post-racial” society, he laughed harder and louder than I had ever heard before.

A turning point came when Jay was about sixteen. While still being homeschooled, he joined the public school’s track team. Although his mother and I didn’t know it at the time, that’s where he first heard the n-word, hurled at him by athletes on opposing teams. Before that, he traveled with my wife and her friend down south, where a white waitress literally threw his plate of food at him, snarling while she did it. The real world was opening up, quickly erasing the protection we had hoped to create for him.

Then came Ferguson. The summer of 2014, we had traveled west to backpack and run wild rivers as we always did (see my article in the last issue of Dissent). We were staying in a hotel room in Kansas on our way back to Athens, as Jay’s sixteenth birthday approached. Scenes from the unrest—prompted by the murder of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown—were on television 24/7. When asked what he wanted for his birthday, Jay said, much to our shock, I want to go to Ferguson. I responded, “I’m a bit worried about being safe with all the violence, with the tear gas and . . .” He cut me off: I want to be part of the protest, and if we went during the daytime, the danger wouldn’t be that big. He was right. My wife and I looked at one another with a mixture of uplift and anxiety.

When we arrived in Ferguson, we found an interracial crowd being organized by church members. Journalists swarmed. I was uneasy when an NPR reporter approached us; he obviously saw something interesting—a transracial family waving signs against police violence. After he asked me some questions, he inquired if he could talk with Jay. I shrugged and said OK.

What resulted was a remarkable statement about why Jay had demanded we go to Ferguson:

It’s really more of just being African American and seeing a kid that’s only two years older than me just get shot for what seems like no reason. And it’s really just sad. And it makes me worry about how I’m going to act when I leave the small town that I live in now. Because everybody grew up with me. And they know who I was. But when I move away, I don’t know how other people are going to react to me.

His comments were sadly prescient. Just two weeks or so later, Jay received the true pass to young adulthood in America: a driver’s license. Here’s what happened next:

Having just gotten my license, I was driving back from track practice and the car overheated. I went to one of your friend’s houses that was close to where I stalled but no one was home. So I walked back to the car and unexpectedly there were a whole lot of local police. They screamed, “Get the fuck away from the car! Put your hands up!” They pointed their guns at me and then handcuffed me and slammed me down to the ground. At that point, I went from being a human being with hopes and goals to being a potential statistic. The police went from being people who helped me to being a danger. I’m still dealing with that mind shift.

I asked him if that experience led to his more recent BLM protests. He said, It left me sad and angry. Every time I see a cop or highway officer, I go back to that experience and it never leaves me. From then on, I witnessed more fear and anxiety in him, but also an anger that animated him personally and politically.

As much as there was anger here, there was also confusion about who he was. He explains,

The people who did racially charged things against me were the same color as my support network—you and mom. But I always knew that I was different—that I had a weird identity thing going on. I grew up looking different from my parents and that was always there. I didn’t really understand it but I knew it. . . . I’ve always felt uncomfortable and not the norm. I’m able to converse with a lot of people. It’s interesting to live with this as me being me. I’m able to connect with a lot of people, because I can put myself in other people’s shoes (as long as they’re not waving a gun in my face). I’m very outgoing about people who look sad. . . . I just love being the way that I am, but there are always so many struggles that come from that complexity.

My wife remembers Jay attending a Black Student Union meeting on our local campus. She left the meeting early, and one participant approached Jay and said, “Who was that old white woman?” To which Jay said, shyly, it was his mom. This young Black inquisitor looked at him with a profound sense of doubt about whether Jay belonged in the room. Which led to the next question: “Who are you?” It sounded ominous.

Then came BLM and the protests in Missoula, where he had moved for a Student Conservation Association program building trails in national forests that came close to the town. At the BLM rallies he helped organize, he had to deal with Trump flag wavers but also a young Black militant.

We had been protesting every day for a month. So I left to go home because all I was eating was scraps of protest food [cold pizza]. I was worried about my health. When I came back to another round of protests, there was this Black guy and that made me kind of excited to see someone like me. He had come from Seattle, where I think he was active in BLM. We were chilling and then he starts getting passionate about being more militant. He pointed at me and went off on me: “You ain’t being vocal; you’re not Black.”

Jay continued: Where were you for the last month?” I asked him. “Yo dude, don’t tell me I’m not Black.” For Jay, this wasn’t just about identity but strategy. He was trying to turn Missoula into Seattle—he didn’t get the difference and the reason for different tactics. What worked there won’t work here, and I think he got madder when I told him that.

There was something psychological to all of this. There was also anger:

You need to have self-control and not be a slave to your emotions. I try to curb my anger or at least acting out upon it. I try to not go into a complete rage, although I’ve come close to it. But the reason I haven’t is because you can’t look like a Black man who loses control. Once you lose control you become the angry Black man who creates terror. You shut yourself off from other people.

This seemed a dilemma, and I followed up with another question about BLM activism: why had the movement made it all the way to Missoula, a college town whose population is mostly white?

People wanted to be angry out there in public and seek out others to express their anger together. They wanted to move out of their [COVID-induced] isolation. Some were there just to be there, but you should be there to try to change things. I find myself making the case that a minority can’t change things on their own.

That last point struck me as a core of Martin Luther King Jr.’s argument against Malcolm X. King was a realist who saw the necessity of alliances with others, including those who have political power. I remember reading King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to Jay at an early age. Maybe something got instilled then? Or maybe he was just discovering on his own the strategy and ethics of nonviolence.

In reading about transracial families, I came across the research of the sociologist Darron Smith. He appears in the documentary Black, White & Us where he makes what sounds like an ironic observation. Usually the act of white parents raising Black kids is frowned upon; it’s seen as a form of stealing African Americans from their own culture and sense of heritage. Smith disagrees, arguing that transracial families can (not will) become part of an alliance that confronts and fights racism. White parents of Black kids see and feel racism in everyday life by simply being with their kids. In the South my wife noticed the racist treatment of Jay, while her white friend who was at the table when his food was flung at him remained oblivious. Much like Jay himself, I’ve tried to practice empathy, not getting inside someone’s mind but rather recognizing what Baldwin called “the merciless . . . nature of power” and the “unbelievable cruelty” that inhabits our society. My concern for what Jay called his own “well-being” makes arguments about oppression less abstract for me.

I’ve realized that what I can do as a father now is listen to my son’s anger. One night he left the protests after another conflict with the militant young man who charged Jay with not being Black enough. Jay was fuming, and I listened as he raged. And then I grabbed my copy of Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (1955), a book that provided a sort of secular version of King’s theory of nonviolence. When Jay had fumed himself into exhaustion, I read to him my favorite passage from the book:

It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power; that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.

As those words rolled off my tongue, I realized they probably wouldn’t calm Jay, and they did not. But they did state more fully what he was discovering on his own, and I hope, what he was helping me to understand as well.

Kevin Mattson serves on the editorial board of Dissent and is author of We’re Not Here to Entertain: Punk Rock, Ronald Reagan, and the Real Culture War of 1980s America.

Jay Mattson lives in Missoula, Montana, where he has worked on numerous trail building crews and has helped organize BLM events.