They did not know I was there. I stood in the backroom that housed the copier before the worship service. The door to the outer office swung open, and a father and his 14-year-old son came in. The father began to angrily castigate his son because the boy’s shirt was untucked. The father finished his tirade with: “You are not some dude standing on the street corner looking for trouble. Now tuck in that shirt and never go out of the house like this again.” The father walked out leaving his son behind. The son tucked in his shirt and left. I had witnessed a private moment between a father and his son, and I was surprised at the intensity of the father’s words.
I knew this father and son well. The father was a retired art teacher. He was, himself, an accomplished artist and had established the first African-American-owned art gallery in the city of Philadelphia. He was a soft-spoken man, with a gentle and reflective spirit. He had appreciative eyes that took in the world around him with curiosity and compassion.
His son attended a prestigious private school and was a dedicated musician. He spent most of his summer at music camp and math camp. Although he had a reticence around adults typical of boys his age, he was invariably polite, respectful and well spoken. He and his younger brother always wore a white shirt and tie on Sunday.
I thought about what I had witnessed and tried to make some sense of the father’s out-of-character angry reaction to his son’s untucked shirt. It just did not add up.
Not long after that, my own 2-year-old son ran into the street in front of our row house. I followed him into the street and abruptly snatched him up. I sternly reprimanded him and told him how dangerous that was and that he must never do it again. I then hauled him inside; play time was over.
A neighbor witnessing this scene might have thought that I was angry, but I was not. I was scared. My son could have been injured or killed. City streets are dangerous places for 2 year olds. That father who was so upset about his son’s shirt was not angry either; he too was scared. He knew city streets could be dangerous places for young black men.
As I follow the news stories coming out of Ferguson, Missouri and reflect upon the broader issues raised through them, I think about that father and his son with the untucked shirt. I heard the father died several years ago. I don’t know where the son is these days. I hope he is all right.