America is a serial brutalizer of black and brown people. Brutalizing them is what it does. It does other things, too, yes, but brutalizing black and brown people is what it has done the most, and with the most zeal, and for the longest.
In the days between two grotesque and revealing grand-jury decisions not to indict the killers of two unarmed black men, a photo of a white policeman embracing a weeping black boy kept popping up in my Facebook feed. Posted and reposted and liked and re-liked by not a small number of my friends, the image was like an oxygen mask for certain suffocating masses. And I get it: I cant breathe, either.
As legend goes, a black boy the same age as Tamir Rice—shot dead by a policeman in Cleveland three days earlier because he was holding a toy gun—stood at a rally holding a sign. Free hugs, it read. As legend goes, a white cop asked if he could have one of Devonte Harts free hugs. As legend goes, before they embraced, the white cop offered an apology. And doves flew down from the sky and peace ruled the land and we all lived happily ever after.
Some people who witnessed the hug event believe the photo was staged. Despite this possibility, people need a salve even if its a lie, because reality, as weve been experiencing, is too painful. Without the fairytale white people choose to live, how can we get out of bed each day?
According to a gushing article accompanying the photo on inquisitr.com, the image became something of a symbol of hope in the midst of the anger surrounding the Mike Brown shooting. The Oregonian (and, later, CNN) called it the hug shared around the world. Bustle.com said the image was crushing and heartwarming and hopeful, all at the same time. And it really says it all.
Except it really doesnt say it all. Devontes story does that.
People the globe over now know details they shouldnt about their new favorite black person (move over, Lupita). For millions, Devontes a safe black person because hes being raised by white people—who generously let us all know that he was born drug-addicted in the projects. His moms shared with the world that by the age of 4, he had experienced a whole list of traumas that I simply dont feel comfortable repeating here.
Who needs a black Annie when we have Devonte?
I know this Lifetime television backstory makes a great many people feel somehow better about the vile racist society we cultivate, perpetuate and continue to tolerate. So, forgive me when I ruin the moment: To quote activist and writer Awesomely Luvvie from her must-read piece The Stages of What Happens When Theres Injustice Against Black People, adoptive parents everywhere need to shut the ENTIRE COMPLETE ABSOLUTE fuck up when it comes to sharing our childrens stories. Their stories are theirs to tell, if and when they choose to tell them.
It is nobodys business if your child was born addicted to drugs. Its nobodys business if your child was left at a baby hatch in China. It is nobodys business if your child was sexually abused in an orphanage in Ethiopia. It is nobodys business if your child was born addicted to crack or was taken from his mother by the state or was the product of rape.
Adopted kids of color are not mascots; they are human beings who had no choice in their circumstances. And while I have little doubt that Jennifer and Sarah Hart love all their children like I love mine, they over-shared about Devonte to a breathtaking degree and propagandized their son.
Not only have they betrayed his privacy; theyve also implied—whether they intended to or not—that they saved this child from his first mother specifically (perfectly feeding into white Americas stereotype of black women) and from the perceived ills of being raised in a black family and community in general. The image and story combine to reinforce the American white-savior complex and our white-supremacist social structure. In a society that routinely goes out of its way to assassinate the characters of black people dead or alive (he had pot in his system, she was drunk, his test scores were low), Devontes parents have ensured that even a prospective employer can do this.
Moreover, they forget—and, widely, audiences fail to understand—that, very soon, this loveable kid in a jaunty hat will be perceived as a grown man, likely well before he is one, as often happens to black male youth. And when Devonte goes into the world looking like an adult, neither his adorableness nor his mothers white privilege will go with him there. Cops wont hug him; Internet viewers wont fawn.
Im confident that Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd and Amadou Diallou were all huggable black children once. But then they grew and their humanity was stripped from them, like it will be with Devonte.
The future is coming for Devonte and black kids like him—like my daughter—and the straight-up depressing fucking fact is that it wont matter if theyre star students or college professors, if their parents are black or white, if they stroll in the street or run in the rain, if they remain silent or talk back, if they wear hipster hats or hoodies.
The terrifying future will look a lot like right now. And right now is solar systems away from a simplistic, viral, fairytale image of a white cop and a black kid embracing.