GQ's Mosi Secret talks to the fathers and uncles of those Black men lost to police brutality and how they dealt with burying their sons, and what it means to raise a Black son in America in the age of Black Lives Matter, in a country that violently hates us, and wants us dead every day.
Six months have passed since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Perry Floyd Jr., and already the subsequent storm of fury and hope that spawned so many anti-racist dreams seems to have lost its charge. A recent Pew survey points to a decrease in support for the Black Lives Matter movement among all racial groups except Black people since June, a reflection of the American, and perhaps human, tendency to return to life as normal, even if today's normal is very weird. One hopes, at least, that a new awareness has been brought to daily life.
For a dedicated few, though, Floyd and the other Black people killed and wounded by police will forever remain front of mind—for those activists and civil rights lawyers and family members with a heroic, if sometimes tragic, resolve. Notable among the steadfast are the men who raised the injured and slain, who tend to be Black and are themselves more likely to have been battered by the forces that undid their kin. It is not possible for them to quit imagining a more just future for the United States.
Yet as the movement lulls, they are an easy group to overlook. One could be forgiven, for example, for thinking that no man helped raise George Floyd. Postmortem profiles in the press took us back to Floyd's youth in the public-housing projects of Houston's Third Ward, where his single mother, Larcenia Floyd, did her level best to help raise him and his siblings. Some accounts, searching even deeper for the causes of Floyd's demise, went further back, to his family's roots in the sharecropping South, where his mother grew up as one of 14 children in a small house in the tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina. There was a way in which Floyd's story seemed to adhere to a very old myth, hardly questioned now, of the fatherless and thus doomed Black child. That Floyd in his final moments on earth cried out for his mother, already deceased, was a kind of heartbreaking capstone to this tale. The big man that Floyd was—six feet four inches, 223 pounds—without a big man in his life. This was rendered an implicit part of his tragedy.
But Floyd's mother had a brother, Selwyn Jones—or Unc, as Floyd called him—a man large in stature and spirit, and a fixture in Floyd's life. Jones is remarkable in the family for having evaded the traps awaiting poor Black men, through pro sports and later a career in sales and hospitality, and he tried to lay a path for Floyd. “I talked to his ass often,” Jones told me. “ ‘Yo, man, you know you need to get your butt right.’ ” Jones, who lives in central South Dakota, a six-hour drive west of Minneapolis, visited Floyd frequently when his nephew moved north from Houston. “It breaks my heart to know that happened to one of mine,” he said. “And I just… I cannot stop.”
So here we explore Jones's role as a father figure, alongside the stories of five biological fathers of police-brutality victims—men who have persisted in the face of harrowing loss, fueled in part by memories of the times that were. The Reverend Joey Crutcher smiled as he reminisced about singing gospel in church with his son Terence. “You always wanted the best in your choir,” Reverend Crutcher told me. “So I just nurtured him into being a great male soloist.” Terence was unarmed when a police officer in Tulsa killed him in 2016, at age 40.
Larry Barbine, a maintenance man who has survived three open-heart surgeries, regained his health just in time to meet the 26-year-old son he'd never known, Rayshard Brooks, who had come from Atlanta to Toledo to see him. Soon they were living together, and their love was as intense and youthful as it was short. “I felt that he was still a little kid at heart,” Barbine said. They had known each other for just 14 months when an Atlanta police officer shot and killed Brooks in a Wendy's parking lot in June; protesters would burn down the restaurant one night later.
Joe Louis Cole, whose son Daniel Prude was killed in March by police in Rochester, New York, thinks about the two years when he and his son lived together in Atlanta, working side by side at a UPS warehouse. “The old man and the young guy,” Cole recalled.
The son of Jacob Blake III, who shares his name, still lives. The younger Blake was paralyzed after a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot him seven times in the back. So the elder Blake's sacrifice is different. “My option,” he said, “was to stand for my son that cannot stand.”
Michael Brown Sr. often reflects on the promise he made when his son was born—that he would never let tragedy befall his namesake. In the six years since Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Brown senior has emerged as a kind of patriarch for all grieving parents. Giving speeches around the country, running a foundation for families who have lost loved ones to police and community violence, traveling to memorials for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, he is driven by the belief that he has been called on to prevent more bloodshed however he can.
Each of these men, like all Black father figures, fights against the still pervasive stereotype of the absent Black father. It's a notion that gained currency in the 1960s as the political advancements of the civil rights movement failed to translate into economic and social progress for everyday Black Americans, and social science research turned away from structural explanations for inequality toward a search for behavioral causes. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, delivered a report to the Johnson White House, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, arguing that the plight of Black American communities was in decline due to a simple factor: the crumbling of the family unit and, in particular, children being raised in fatherless homes.
Just weeks after the study's release, riots broke out across the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles and critics latched onto the report to blame the ensuing violence on what Moynihan called “the deterioration of the Negro family.” The number of fatherless families, Black and otherwise, would rapidly grow in the following decades—a trend partly driven by the nation's primary welfare program, in which for a period some states considered families ineligible for benefits if an adult male was a member of the household. The legacy of that policy and Moynihan's report continues, and the notion of troubled, fatherless Black men has resurfaced after each national reckoning with racial injustice, including in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing. In August conservative commentator Larry Elder, in an op-ed for Fox News, wrote of the unrest in Minneapolis and around the country: “Many of the protesters decry income and net worth ‘inequality.’ But the most serious ‘inequality’ is the unequal percentage of fathers in Black households.”
Such sentiments mostly assign blame to Black men and serve to deny the headwinds they face as they advance toward self-fulfillment in the United States—gusts that sweep a disproportionate number into jails and prisons, into ghettos, into the criminal justice morass, or off the face of the earth altogether. These myths obscure the deep and enduring roles these Black fathers and sons played and continue to play in each other's lives. There is a bond there, among Black men surviving in the United States, which crosses generations and even the boundaries between life and death.
If those bonds weren't convincing enough, a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among fathers living with children under the age of five, Black fathers were more likely than Hispanic and white fathers to have bathed, dressed, diapered, or helped their children use the toilet every day, and that among fathers who live with their children, a greater percentage of Black fathers than white fathers took their children to or from daily activities and assisted their kids with homework.
It's true that such data coexists with other, more sobering statistics: More than half of all Black children live in homes headed by one parent, and Black children are more likely than white and Hispanic children to be born to unwed parents. But most Black Americans are aware of the myriad factors shaping these demographics. I'm reminded of something the late Toni Morrison said in an interview, about Ralph Ellison's great novel Invisible Man, which distilled the Black urban experience for 1950s America. “The title of Ralph Ellison's book was Invisible Man,” Morrison said. “And the question for me was ‘Invisible to whom?’ Not to me.” Not to these men, either. They already see one another.
So we asked them to tell us what they know: Joe Louis Cole, Larry Barbine, Rev. Joey Crutcher, Selwyn Jones, Jacob Blake III, and Michael Brown Sr. What a strange experience they share.
This made me tear up, and I had to stop at least twice to get through this, but I thought how lucky I was to have a father that chose me to be his son when he did not have to, and did not hesitate to do so when offered the opportunity.
You did good, Zandardad. It's a bright light and a long shadow you cast, but I strive to be worthy daily.
45 years ago, he knew that Black Lives Matter. And he did something about it and continues to do so to this day, and I won't let myself forget that fact.