Dear 18-year-old Trey,
I am writing to you because this recent wave of police brutality feels like it's a part of a never-ending cycle of tragedy. Black people have been slaughtered for jogging (Ahmaud Arbery), for being in their homes (Breonna Taylor), and for suspicion of forgery (George Floyd). Black bodies continue to be lynched by police who wear a badge to protect and serve. And, yet, I see Americans and citizens from around the world united in an effort to dismantle oppression. I am skeptically hopeful.
What brings me hope are the protests and civil unrest that have overrun the streets and reflect a moment of nationwide mourning, even as a worldwide pandemic continues to take the lives of many. People of all races have been marching in solidarity to confront the historical and systematic oppression Black lives have endured. As your adult self, I now face two battles: I must advocate systematic change to show that positive celebrations of Black youths are vital, but I must also do the inner work to heal from harmful experiences caused by the education system.
And, so I want to talk about what's led me to this moment.
But before I speak to you about the pain you suffered, the hurt you endured, and what you kept hidden deep inside, I want you to know that you will be recognized and have a lot to be proud of as a Black man. You will win Teacher of the Year from the Texas Alliance of Black School Educators. You will be accepted into a world-renowned, equity-driven doctoral program at the University of Texas at Austin. And you will become a board member for Black Outside, a nonprofit organization crafting outdoor healing spaces for Black youths. Still, no accolade and no opportunity could explain the trauma, pain, and fear that led you here.
In 9th grade, you encountered your first damaging experience with police. After school, you and a group of friends decided to explore the campus of Texas Southern University, where your high school, Middle College for Technology Careers, was located. This was your first opportunity to explore a college and see the beauty of its campus. That beauty was short-lived. Before you knew it, the blue and red lights flashed your way. Guns aimed at your chest. Officers yelled at you to be still. I remember you feeling hopeless and afraid because your parents were not there to protect you. The officers forced you on the wall and checked your pockets. They said you were stealing computers. Your friend tried to explain how impossible it was. All you had was a cellphone. Still, the officer continued to search and frisk young Black boys.
Cars passed, slowly watching Black boys in police custody. You were embarrassed not knowing who saw you, what they thought, or why this was the experience you had to endure as a young Black boy.
Moments passed before another officer arrived. He saw the look of fear on your face and knew what happened was wrong. He emphasized that you and your friends did not fit the suspects' descriptions and told the other officers to release you. Still, you went home that night, fearing what could have happened and cried yourself to sleep.
A young Trey poses at kindergarten graduation.
Courtesy of author
I am sorry that you did not get the protection you deserved. A school is supposed to be a safe haven for students, and police are supposed to protect you. You should not have had to endure such pain and trauma, especially on a college campus, as a young Black boy.
Your grandfather made sure you knew you were Black as soon as you knew how to walk. He would say, "Always be aware of your surroundings" to emphasize that the world is not safe, that you must walk with caution. His past experiences were similar to yours. He grew up in a time where Americans lived by a "whites only" and "coloreds only" reality. Your grandfather attended all-Black schools, and the schools you attended were majority Black. He told me that a teacher said he wouldn't be anything growing up. I tell you this because his story continues to repeat itself, and I remember when that same statement was said to you, as a young Black boy.
Months before your high school graduation, several students were discussing their college acceptances. At least eight students, including you, mentioned going to the University of Texas at Austin that fall. Each of you recognized and honored your accomplishments and upcoming transitions to your classmates. Then, the history teacher told your class of mostly Black children that you all would be kicked out, expelled, or on academic probation your first year. His deficit narrative and damaging words scarred you. You were afraid to purchase UT clothing and celebrate your acceptance because you didn't want to fulfill his prophecy.
I wish that were an isolated incident.
But then a school police officer told you that you would be nothing growing up because you were "caught" leaving school early when you were actually participating in a school-work release program. And then there was the time your principal turned down an idea by you and your peers to create an organization on campus for your male peers because he thought it would look like it was gang-related.
You held tight to every negative experience you had from kindergarten until you graduated from high school. It helped you develop your navigational capital-the ability to navigate oppressive institutions and spaces where you felt powerless. The heartache you felt was not your responsibility. Individuals were taught to behave that way. Fortunately, there is kindness and compassion in many.
Remember the positive people who stand by you and support you. Celebrate your accomplishments and know that you have much more to achieve. You will become a teacher. You will become an assistant principal. And you will dedicate your life, so no other child will hear the same story you once heard and feel hopeless. These feelings and experiences we have helped me embrace care, love, and have compassion so that I can share that with all the students, families, and communities I serve and protect.
Malcolm X, who shares your birthday, said more than a half-century ago: "You can't separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom." If civil unrest continues, then we have yet to be free.
May this moment serve as a catalyst for lasting change, from the ground up.
I love you,
Trey, at 31 years old
Lebon "Trey" D. James III is a doctoral student in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Previously, he served as a teacher, instructional coach, and assistant principal in Texas.