My dad always washed and styled my hair every Sunday when I was younger. It was his hands that would massage eggs and mayonnaise into my scalp and hold my head under ice cold water in laughter and shrills. His hands would pull through the kinks of my hair and make each strand obedient to its own braid. Hours would pass by and we would watch every football game before my hair was finished. His hands would ache and as always, I would say “You next, Dad.” His hair was much shorter than mine, but I loved spreading lotion over his hair and brushing through the tidal waves that flowed over his crown. I would always ignore the spot where his hair was thin and unwilling. I knew why it was there, but at that time he would not talk about the things that happen at the end of a baton.
My dad is a college graduate. Pushing his way through school and collecting student loans that refuse to go away, he raised two daughters and ignored the voices of his parents who told him he was nothing, would not be a good father, and that he would not succeed. But my dad has raised the only two children in the family that are compassionate, intelligent, and in college. We are a reflection of him. My dad is the sun; he has given me everything I’ve ever needed.
But there are still shadows I find myself stuck in. “Study, do your work, exercise, no you can’t hang out with friends, you won’t drive until you graduate college, those people don’t have good intentions...” He is protective and dominates the family structure. Yet my dad is my best friend, my hero, and the one person that I can tackle anything with. I hold on to him just like he does to me. “No one will hurt Baby Gold,” he tells me. And I keep my secrets and tell him “No one will hurt my dad”. I protect him, because I know what runs through his veins. I protect his belief that his daughter is unbreakable and he believes me. We both know that small flames like sexual assault, mental illness, abuse will shatter his vision of his perfect daughter. The only imperfection he knows of is that it runs through my veins as well.
After my first couple weeks at Vanderbilt, my dad came to get me and we began the two hour drive back home. There were only a few people I wanted to see and he was one of them. He had recently broken his phone so there was no way to know when he arrived in Nashville. I sat outside shaking from the cold and anticipating that every illumination of headlights would be my dad. Hours later when he pulled up, he scolded me for standing in the cold and I climbed into the car ready to tell him everything from my first weeks in college.
It was dark and we were racing down the mountain. The air was filled with everything I had learned so far in my African American Studies class and how I thought I knew so much. We contemplated the structure of our history, our nation, and our existence. There were no feet on the brakes. It was raining and I knew we could definitely fly off the side of the mountain. But that’s how we lived and the only thing that could stop us were blue lights.
Blue lights are the last thing you see when it gets in your veins.
I went into protective mode and I began recording on my phone. The officer’s flashlight darted throughout the car before he even spoke to us. His tone was one of suspicion and as if he was begging to find something. “Is there any illegal reason why you were going that fast?” No. My dad dug under the seat to find this one piece of paper for insurance as the officer walked back and forth, back and forth. And I couldn’t control the tears that ran. “Dad, do you have to find that paper? What is it for? I just don’t want you to look under the seat. Please, don’t reach under the seat.” I couldn’t feel my own heartbeat anymore, so when the officer returned with his hand trained on his waistband, I closed my eyes. “Oh, you go to Vanderbilt?” the officer asked. I opened my eyes to see his hand gesturing towards my shirt. I nodded my head and the officer became a different man. He let us go. No spark.
My dad has gasoline running through his veins. And at any moment, it could ignite and burn him or anything around. His tired eyes are gray from the smoke and no matter how much he tries to hide it, the vapors seep out of him. It’s a familiar smell. I’ve smelled it on many Black men and even a few Black women in my life. We aren’t born with gasoline in our veins. It is given to us by this nation. My dad had been carrying his gasoline around since he was in middle school. He wrote papers on police brutality throughout college and has been harassed by the police ever since, but he still tries to be positive. He never wanted his beliefs to be pushed onto his children. So some days he would even follow ambulances to show us that they were there to help people.
One of those days in early August, an ambulance sped past us and my dad tried to follow it, but we lost it within the neighborhood. As we were making our way back out, we passed my uncle’s pale yellow two- story home to find two police cars. My dad backed into the half paved driveway telling us to stay in the truck. He walked into the basement door next to the two car garage. My sister and I sat in the rusty, light blue, antique truck, our legs burning on the leather seats. The bed of the truck was closest to the house. I could see the entire house, the entirety of the driveway, and the backyard. We would later learn that my dad was concerned because at the time his brother was suicidal and that the screen door would slam startling the officers as my dad left.
I was gazing out the back window of the truck when I saw my dad sprint out the house. I couldn’t make out all of what he was saying, but I could hear him saying STOP. Two pale arms slammed him to the ground. One officer’s boot was pressed on my father’s red face. The other officer was bending my dad’s arms- in ways they couldn’t bend- into handcuffs that would dig into his flesh. And I could hear my dad screaming. Screaming and screaming in pain as my big sister, who was nine then, held me down from crawling out the back window of the truck. “Stop hitting my daddy. He ain’t do nothing.” I struggled against my sister’s grip as I tried to convince her to let me go. I was crying and screaming trying to drown out my dad’s screams. He was laying on his chest, handcuffed and gasping when they began to beat him. One officer stood over my dad’s face and sprayed yellow- orange fire into his eyes. Handcuffs too tight, burning eyes closed in pain, he wasn’t able to see where the next punch or swing of a baton was coming from. My dad was coughing in attempts to breathe and his body was shuddering in pain. They drug his body across the gravel, stood him up, and tossed him into the back of the police car. He tried to talk to us as he was ushered past the truck. He handed us his cell phone and the police drove away with him in tow.
We were alone, as our uncle had left, too. The engine was still running as we sat in the truck being cooked alive until my skin broke out into a heat rash and I got dizzy. Hours later, we were knocking on doors in the neighborhood until someone helped us reach our mom and aunt.
I went back to my mother’s house while my dad was in jail, but even when he got out, he wouldn’t see us until the bruises went away. He was not able to protect us as our father. He thought he seemed weak to us. And he was angry, but there was nothing he could do. Suing the department when an officer slammed my mother forcing her to have a miscarriage didn’t work, so why would this? We would just have to live with it. And now I had gasoline in my veins.
I watch Black faces flash across television screens. 12. 14. 18. 23. 58. 65. And I can’t look at them without seeing my father. Will his face flash across the screen next? Will they drag his name in gravel turned dirt and say he was a hot head with gasoline in his veins? Will they blame him? Or me? I am his peace and when I am not by his side, will he keep the fires down? I watch him get frustrated at restaurants when we’re ignored or at stores when the employee isn’t hearing what he’s saying. He looks at me with the same tired eyes that speak into empty rooms begging someone to listen to him for once. The magnitude of pain that his heart holds sits like a refinery pumping out gasoline. And the smallest sparks can engulf him in flames. So my job is to prevent the fires and to never add any more pain.
I remember bragging in school about my father. I was insensitive at a young age to all of my friends whose fathers died or never showed up. Although my father was there, handcuffs snatched him from me and jail cells spit him back out to me as a man who would no longer be vulnerable or care about things other than his daughters. He would instill those things into us. The entire way he planned to raise us transformed into a plan that would protect us from the things he suffered through and if it didn’t, we were prepared. I would learn how to take a hit and get back up as if nothing happened, just like my daddy. He would teach us to never depend on anyone especially if we could do it ourselves. And he will never know that he was preparing me for the tragedies my life holds. Through him, I would learn how to protect myself and cope when I couldn’t.
I stand alone and deny any significance in having friends or trust. I handle things my own way and watch out for my own back. All of my fears are replaced with paranoia and daring anyone with a match to ignite me. I hear it in my voice and see it in my face, like an out of body experience, when I am angry bursting into flames. I am stronger, confrontational, and even violent. I long for my peace of mind and optimism. But instead I question everything. Can I trust this person or will they tell my secrets? Will they make me lose control of myself? Should I go into this store or take everything out of my pockets first? Should I tame my afro hair? Why is that officer staring me down?
I lean into my dad on the days I feel the most afraid or upset. Those days where new videos are released and I watch a Black body fall, but no one seems to hear. With every video my dad and I share with one another, he becomes more pessimistic. Therefore when we talk about the police shootings and the killing of unarmed Black people, his response is always the same- “They can do whatever they want to. It’s just a big gang, a brotherhood, a fraternity; they can’t be touched”. Similar to him, I have lost hope in the search for justice, yet I still manage to speak up from time to time. It is tiring to know that any amount of effort I put in only affects people for a moment. I can shout, paint pictures, and project videos of injustice or Black people dying, but they will only be remembered for a moment. Those that don’t have to live through it, do not have to see it, feel it, or even know of it. They get to live freely and safely-physically, mentally, and spiritually; that is the greatest privilege of all. I long to not feel the heat of racism and to experience happiness without the backdrop of danger around every corner. I live in fear because what if they kill my father? My sister? My boyfriend? Me?