A letter to an American kid
I will never forget the day you were born. I will never forget the day you turned ten years old. They were both days that scared me until I could feel the fear in my gut. They were days that made me so blindly hopeful, I found myself believing everything might just be okay.
On the day you were born, the biggest news was a hurricane battering the Florida coast. It was a mere distraction as I waited for your little blue body to take its first breath. You made me wait too long, but you coughed, you cried, and you breathed. I developed a hope I’d never known.
Today, I woke up afraid that America was suffocating and that it was going to smother you and your brother with it. I watched St. Louis sit under a cloud of tear gas as a militarized police force called the people of Ferguson animals and arrested members of the press. I couldn’t imagine a much more hopeless looking situation in my America.
So, I watched you eat your birthday pancakes and tried to remember what it was like to be ten years old in America.
And, man, I remember it being great.
When I was ten in the early 1980s, everyone taught me that America had earned a certain moral authority. Our country had turned corners on civil rights. We were making inroads on the roles women played in society. We were a democracy of equals, and no matter where we might fail, we were still better than other countries because of that.
Honestly, buddy, that was a pretty great way to grow up. An exceptional way, actually. No matter where we might stumble, no matter what trials we may have faced, we were led to believe there was still no better place to live than in America. We were so much better, it was said, it was actually unpatriotic to believe that any other country might do things better than we did. “Love it or leave it,” or so the saying went.
On the day I turned ten years old, Israel bombed Syrian strongholds near Beirut after an Israeli soldier got killed in an ambush. U.S. Navy Lt. Robert Goodman’s plane got shot down over Damascus and he spent one month as a hostage. SAS soldiers killed two members of the IRA. There was a solar eclipse. I don’t remember any of that.
But I believed in America’s moral authority. Even without knowing the phrase, I believed in it. As I grew older, I believed we stood against suffering when other leaders made their people suffer. I believed we stood against inequality when other governments valued one class over another. I believed we stood against surveillance states when governments would invade their citizens’ privacy in the name of state security. I believed we stood against torture in any form. And I believed we stood against authoritarian rule and tanks in the streets on their way to run over or shoot down protestors who believed what we believed.
It was a great to be a kid, because all of that was so easy to believe.
So, today when you woke up, I wanted terribly for you to have that peace that I had when I was your age, a peace that let us believe that our only enemies were foreign, that they could only reach us with nuclear warheads, and that we could hide under our desks if the bombs started to fall.
Someday, maybe when you have a ten-year-old of your own, you might look back to see what was happening on your tenth birthday. When you do, you will see that a city about two hours from where your daddy was born had huge war machines rolling through its streets. You will see video of American citizens with automatic weapons pointed at their faces. You will see members of the media—people your dad knew—running from tear gas as SWAT officers rolled in to tear down their TV equipment. You will see a community grieving because an unarmed man not too much older than you were at the time was shot dead in the middle of the street by a police officer.
When you will see all this, you will have the benefit of knowing what I did not know this morning when you opened your birthday presents. I wanted to rip you away from it all and preach to you about the lies I was taught when I was your age. I wanted to tell you the truth.
I wanted to tell you that you can’t know what it’s like to be a minority. You aren’t one, and you won’t be in your lifetime. So you won’t know what it means to suffer the double punch of both being called a savage and treated like an animal.
I wanted to tell you that most cops are good, but some cops are bad, and that unlike a bad barber or a bad bartender, being a bad cop can change lives, and, sometimes can change an entire country.
I wanted to tell you there is nothing un-American about questioning America.
I wanted to tell you that you can support the men and women who fight in our battles without believing in the cause for which they are fighting.
I wanted to tell you that the America I grew up believing in was a myth.
I wanted to tell you there is a gulf between authority and moral authority, one that plays a trick on the eye such that when you go from the former to the latter, everything gets brighter, and when you go back the other way, the world goes dark.
I wanted to tell you…so many things that I didn’t. Because it was your birthday. And because you’re ten years old. And because there was a giant cookie with your name on it.
As you put on your pajamas tonight, I turned back to the news from the Ferguson community. I saw a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper in front of a peace march in memory of Michael Brown. The trooper had come in to take over for a militarized police force, one that treated a community of people like animals in need of herding.
“I’ll march with you,” the trooper said. And he did. He led that march through every one if its peaceful steps.
Nothing will ever compare to seeing you take your first breath, but I’ll tell you, son, what happened on the night of your tenth birthday in Ferguson gave me hope.
Yes, this was just one hopeful moment in a decade where hope has been at a premium. There is so much more to do. But, still…
It gave me hope that in the face of terror, greed, and authoritarianism, the real people of America, the people who truly believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that those people can still stand up until the tyrants sit down.
You’re in bed now sleeping off the sugar, so I won’t wake you up. But someday soon, I will want you to know one of the most important things I’ve learned in the 30 years since I turned ten.
America may never have had moral authority I once naively believed in, but that doesn’t mean we should stop working for it.
Put another way: there is nothing un-American about standing up for that America.
Son, your heart and spirit make me proud every day. You believe in justice, fairness, and love. You practice it.
You’re an American kid, and if there are many more kids like you, I’ve got a lot more hope for America than I had this morning.
I love you,