I cried for George Floyd, but I couldn’t be out there for him. I’ve been glued to my phone for weeks. Since May, social media has given me 24-hour access to the protests over systemic racism.
The barrage of camera footage and live feeds have bookmarked my Groundhog Day–esque shelter-in-place routine; these check-ins are as much a part of my day as brushing my teeth or tucking my kids into bed.
Watching the protests against police brutality day after day, I’m reminded of Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix special 8:46. In the act, Chappelle shares gratitude for the African Americans out on the streets protesting police brutality and the eight minutes and 46 seconds that killed George Floyd. “I’m very proud of you. You kids are excellent drivers,” says Chappelle, who is just a few years older than me. “I’m comfortable in the back seat of the car. So, carry on, young ones.”
Except I’m not comfortable. In fact, many of my friends aren’t comfortable, either. It’s like we’re missing a cultural revolution, and it may fail or, just as frightening, succeed without us.
I have never been a passive observer. I spent my early years as a newspaper reporter working to expose discriminatory policies on university campuses. Speaking up is in my blood: My young East Coast inner-city parents yelled “Black Power,” grew big-ass afros, and taught me Nikki Giovanni before Dr. Seuss. Swahili words, the Last Poets lyrics, and James Baldwin quotes were so woven into the fabric of my childhood that I assumed other African Americans grew up the same way.
But as the long-building Black Lives Matter uprising continues to sweep through the United States, I find myself bunkered in my cozy Las Vegas house with my wife and two young kids, stressed not about tear gas and rubber bullets, but by grocery runs and homeschooling.
I cried for George Floyd, but I couldn’t be out there for him. I could not be out there for them.
With my wife, a doctor on the other front line, I’ve decided that I can’t afford to go out to protest. Not when my four- and six-year-old sons are still homebound. Yet I see Black, Brown, and white faces, masked up on the street, and I know that some of them can’t afford to be on the street, either. They just chose differently.
I am living a life my ancestors could only dream about: I am a bestselling author and a successful entrepreneur and business coach; my partner is a strong female POC pediatrician. My kids have not and will not ever go hungry. I will almost certainly be a Black man who lives into middle age and hopefully beyond.
And right now, what I and others I’ve spoken with are feeling is a collective sense of survivor’s guilt. By the time I reached 25, I was more likely to be dead or in jail than to be enrolled in a college. I was four times more likely to be pulled over by the police and much more likely to experience state-sponsored violence during that interaction. I am still openly called a violent, angry slur by ancestors of the very people who “relocated” my family to America.
I am fully aware of the urgency of the moment, and I keep telling that guilty voice in my head that change doesn’t need to only come through protest.
I represented Black men when I got my master’s from Northwestern at 22, when I did my first TED Talk a decade later, and when I bootstrapped and sold my startup shortly after that.
Former Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth writes in her book More Than Enough, “When you exist in spaces that weren’t built for you, sometimes just being you is the revolution.” I represented Black men when I got my master’s from Northwestern at 22, when I did my first TED Talk a decade later, and when I bootstrapped and sold my startup shortly after that. I have done three TED Talks in front of thousands of millionaire and, in some cases, billionaire entrepreneurs, the 1% and even the 0.1%, mostly white and Asian. Some became friends. All gave me their attention. They see a young Black male primary caregiver guiding his baby son or a passionate veteran entrepreneur spouting Langston Hughes as if it were Shakespeare. (No, it’s better.)
Yet sometimes, when I look in the mirror and see more black hair turning gray, I can see my role shifting from frontline instigator to strategic sage. I think about Tupac Shakur’s words: “I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” Shakur, who was murdered at 25, said we lose a certain vitality when we turn 30. We get too tired, or we assimilate too much. Perhaps we get lazy.
At a certain point, is it just as powerful to ignite change in others as it is to be the firecracker itself? What happens when you have knowledge to pass on, a platform on which you will be heard and respected, and understand that you have something to lose? Perhaps it is when you see the long game, when you are insightful enough to know your worth and understand exactly where you are most valuable on the chessboard. It is when you know how we can make the biggest impact, not just now, but well after we are dead and gone.
The late civil rights icon John Lewis talked about causing “good trouble”: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something,” he said. “To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’” How we define this good trouble, though, seems to be up to us as individuals.
For me, that good trouble also means being a good father during these uncertain times, quieting the call from outside. I know my presence, safety, and availability will help create the security my family needs at this very moment. Good trouble is doing what I have to so that my own two Black sons will spark a mighty flame.
And good trouble means speaking to the congregation of injustice, as a writer, as a speaker, and as an entrepreneur, fully exploiting my access to those who have passively or actively supported a suppressive system.