Just over a year ago, under a midnight sky, African American artist Cbabi Bayoc stood alone, painting at the cross-section of Canfield Drive and West Florissant Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri, not far from where police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American male, just a few weeks earlier on August 9, 2014. A single streetlight spread its amber hue on the canvas while Bayoc worked.
Bayoc finished the painting on November 24, 2014, the same night a grand jury in St. Louis County decided not to indict officer Wilson for the killing. In the completed artwork, entitled R.I.P. SON, a black man stands in front of an American flag imprinted with the word fear in capital letters. The man is bald. He has a beard. He looks straight ahead. “RIP SON” adorns the front of his yellow T-shirt. A young black boy hugs the man’s’ upper body from behind, resting one hand on the man’s chest, the other on his shoulder. The man holds the boy’s feet. Another boy stands in front of the man. He is young, reaching only the tops of the man’s legs. He wears a black T-shirt with concentric circles on it like a marksman’s target. Bayoc printed 1,000 posters of this painting and gave them away for free to members of the St. Louis community to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. At the bottom of each poster are these words: “We must continue to fight for a world where no parent need bury their son (or daughter) because of an untimely death due to unjustified lethal force by police officers.”
Bayoc was inspired to create the work because he “wanted to speak to [how] too many parents [were] burying their children due to a history of fear and anger towards the black body” (interview August 5, 2015). Indeed, too many black parents have endured the loss of loved ones at the hands of law enforcement officers, and while we often hear about the grieving mothers, rarely do we hear stories of the fathers’ heartbreak. The stories of black men who love their children and try to be the best father they can be find little space in many media outlets. Bayoc recalls a professor telling him he should not create paintings with fathers as a central figure because customers would not be interested in purchasing art on such themes. Needless to say, Bayoc didn’t heed the professor’s advice. In fact, his artwork celebrates and promotes fatherhood. In his art series “365 Days with Dad” (http://cbabibayoc.com), Bayoc created “365 [portraits] of Black fathers as a metaphor for the necessity of [a] dad’s presence in his kids’ lives ALL OF THE TIME! The project began January 1, 2012, and ended March 2014” (Cbabi Bayoc, 2015). His conviction runs deep. When a local newspaper published photographs of him painting with his daughter and youngest son with the caption “Cbabi Bayoc seen here painting while babysitting” (Cbabi Bayoc Bio, 2014), Bayoc took issue with the description, saying, “Babysitters are temporary caregivers. Dads’ love, presence, and guidance [are] needed 365!” (ibid.). Bayoc even has “Dads Don’t Babysit!” tattooed on his left forearm (ibid.).
Though black men in the US reside in a nation that, on the whole, does not cherish black lives, there are countless black fathers who refuse to treat fatherhood as a form of babysitting or as a casual pastime activity. These men treasure their role as fathers. In turn, children who celebrate their fathers’ lives through oral and written testimonies highlight that the existence of attentive black fathers is not a phenomenon but is, instead, a common experience. On the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s passing, I want to honor the black men whose role as parents is often overlooked, ignored, or even vilified in the social media. We cannot allow disparaging and one-dimensional views of black people to whitewash the violence being inflicted upon unarmed members of the black community; nor can we allow depictions that ignore the complex humanity of black lives to quash the black voices of those who share their love for their fathers and children with the world.
“[We] will always remember”
As Michael Brown, Sr. prepared himself for his first Father’s Day without his son, he shared, “I was always in Mike’s life. He lived with his mother or me throughout his years. Mike was the best man at my wedding. We stayed in constant contact and talked about everything and anything” (Michael Brown, Sr., Esquire, June 21, 2015). As many in the nation observed the one-year anniversary of his son’s death, Michael Brown, Sr. continues to struggle with his grief, even as he seeks to “empower youth and strengthen families” through his nonprofit foundation, Chosen For Change, which he established in memory of his son’s life. He laments, “I hurt every day… I have to stay moving, going, running, just to keep me from going insane” (Jon Swaine, The Guardian, August 8, 2015). Lesley McSpadden, as the mother of Michael Brown Jr., has also endured unimaginable anguish during this difficult year of racial strife. At the same time, she has sought to prove that her son was the victim of a wrongful death. Similarly, Michael Brown Sr. tells how he keeps on moving by remembering how, as news of their son’s death spread, “disparate groups” came together in unity in order to secure justice for Michael (ibid). As Brown notes, “We just came together to make a movement, and that was beautiful” (ibid.). And yet, he shares, “I lost my boy. Ain’t nothing been accomplished for me… There’s some families that have got justice off Michael Brown Jr’s legacy, and that helped them. But I’m still trying to get through” (ibid.). His witness and desire to confront injustice in the midst of his grief has inspired many. Indeed, Captain Ron Johnson, the Missouri Highway Patrol commander, shared his admiration for Brown when he commented that:
I think for a father to keep the legacy of his son alive for the betterment of our community and really the betterment of the nation is commendable… As a parent I can imagine the pain of this time right now, this upcoming anniversary… and so I definitely have admiration for him, sympathy for him and his family and pray that God gives them the strength to make it through this weekend (ibid.).
And what of the black children who have to “make it through” each day without their fathers? For the young people whose fathers are now dead because they were victims of racial violence, the challenges these beloved ones face as they try to come to terms with never seeing or touching their fathers again, or hearing their voices, or talking to them or playing with them, is just as palpable and just as raw as it is for the parents who mourn the deaths of their unarmed children who were killed by police officers. And yet, children who have lost loved ones to racial terrorism sing love songs to their beloved parents through their testimonies.
“When someone loves you they care”
Nine beloved saints of God were massacred while attending a Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on June 17, 2015. The pastor of Mother Emanuel church, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, was killed on that fateful day. He was the father of two beautiful and smart daughters. His children, Eliana Pinckney, 11, and Malana Pinckney, 6, spoke words of love when they wrote the following eulogy about their father:
To My Daddy:
When someone loves you they careDear Daddy:
Even if they are not there
They motivate you to prosper and believe
In any of your dreams
They watch over you day and night
To make sure you are doing alright
They believe in you and treat you well
And I may not show it but he won’t care
This person I am talking about here today
Is my dear father who passed away
And although he may be gone
He’s there with me all day and night long
I will always remember and love you.
I know you were shot at the Church and you went to Heaven!
I love you so much!
I know you love me and I know that you know that I love you too.
You have done so much for me.
I can’t say it all. You will be watching over me and you will be in my heart. I love you!
Love your baby girl and grasshopper,
Malana (DeNeen L. Brown, The Washington Post, June 26, 2015)
Like Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Sr. leaves a legacy of love to the world. He was a father to Daniel Simmons Jr. and Rose Simmons. He cherished his grandchildren, Alana, Daniel III, Ava, and Anya Simmons. His love is imprinted in the hearts, minds, and souls of those who knew him. As his family note:
Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr. He was a distinguished man who served his God, country, and community well. His dedication to his profession and the AME church left a legacy for many to follow… Although he died at the hands of hate, he lived in the hands of love. We believe Rev. Simmons would want people to celebrate his life in love and peace. Please continue to pray for our family and the families of the other victims (“These Are The Victims Of The Charleston Church Shooting”, BuzzFeedNews, June 19, 2015).
And then there is Tywanza Sanders. Though not as seasoned in years as Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, or Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., I have no doubt that 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, the peacemaker in his family, a college graduate, and a poet who possessed a beautiful smile, would have been an exceptional father. To the world he left kindness and a desire for peace. So many unarmed black people who “died at the hands of hate… lived in the hands of love” (ibid.). Love triumphs because those who cherish these precious souls continue to “liv[e] in the hands of love” while seeking justice for the injustices their beloved ones suffered (ibid.). Though their efforts may not always make nationwide news, black fathers — alongside mothers, other family members, friends, and allies — sing, through their words, service, and actions, a love song to humanity: a love song that declares that love cannot be diminished by hate. And these love songs praise the presence of black fathers who were, and indeed still are, present in the lives of their children.
Passing on the blessings
Scores of black children can testify to the significant role their fathers played, and continue to play, in their lives. A beloved sister, Grace Gilliam, posted a picture of her father on Facebook. He is holding her on his lap on her second birthday. Grace is wearing a birthday crown on her head. She is smiling at the camera. Her father is looking at her, oblivious to everyone around him. Though this black and white photo is now faded and a little creased, Grace maintains that it captures her and her father’s “total joy in one another” (Grace Gilliam, Facebook). She writes, “I can still feel the way his laughter would rumble against my back as he held me like this” (ibid.). A gifted young black male adult, Andrew Roby, has this to say about his father:
My father, Theron Roby, is an African American who has given the most powerful thing any father can give to his child. Recently I joined a Torah Study group, organized through Christ Church, Berkeley. In this study group, we studied the priestly blessing God gave to Moses to pass on to Aaron and his sons so they could, in turn, pass the blessing on to the children of Israel. This blessing gives God’s favor unto to His children. This blessing has been passed through the ages, and Christ, our Savior, extended this blessing to all of God’s children. Therefore my father inherited this blessing, and was certain to pass on the blessing to both his children. My sister and I are a product of our parents’ unfailing love. This love is what has given me confidence to see the world in a unique perspective of love and respect. This love is what gives me power every day to dream new visions and the strength to bring my dreams into reality. My father is a man who does not fail to ask God to strengthen him. His reliance upon God fosters humility. For this singular quality of humility I am the most appreciative, and thankful to God. My father is my role model.
Like Andrew Roby, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney’s daughter Eliana reminds us that black men who treasure their children show us that “when someone loves you they care” (DeNeen L. Brown, The Washington Post, June 26, 2015). Though the open wounds of racial injustice fester in the US, and while the vilification of black men pervades the conscience of this nation, many black men remain firm in their love for God, themselves, their loved ones, and those whom they encounter. And in the midst of their strengths, weaknesses, and their shortcomings, God’s love encircles black fathers. The love song lived out by black fathers who are devoted to their children can become our love song. Together, we can declare that the lives of black people ought to matter to our nation and to the whole human family because black people — whom God created in his image — matter to God. So let us sing with our feet, with our choices, our prayers, and with our service to others. Let us stand against the violation of black human life. Let us be thankful for those who refuse to stand by as others treat black people as a marksman’s target. Let us ask God to teach us how to experience his love even as we ask him how to love him “with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] strength, and with all [our] mind; and [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (Luke 10:27, nrsv). We must honor the vision of Rev. Simmons Sr. who “would want people to celebrate his life in love and peace” (ibid.). So let us relish the lives of black fathers who embrace the value of their own lives and those of their children “in love and peace” (ibid.). Amen.
Dr. Claudia May is the author of Jesus is Enough: Love, Hope, and Comfort in the Storms of Life. She is a specialist in African American and Caribbean literature, popular culture, and Reconciliation Studies, and a spiritual director (see http://www.claudiamay.org/) . Dr. May is a visiting scholar in the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a passionate follower of Jesus, a woman of prayer, and a lover of biblical stories and wisdom. You can follow her on twitter @ClaudiaMayPhD