Reflections of a black father while teaching his son to drive

I wish we could just talk about traffic, but we both know this is a higher-stakes lesson about civics, rights, and being a young black man in America.

by Marc Bamuthi Joseph


My kids are of an age where I have to re-consider freedom…

My 16-year-old son recently earned his learner’s permit at the DMV. The occasion came with a Dad-imposed set of qualifiers. We had to agree about the difference between license (which the state gives him), permission (which I am reluctant to give him), and right, which may be granted by the cosmos, but still is toothless unless I hand over the keys to my car.

At my house, these are the days of Black kid rites…
A more fully exposed position in the system’s predatory sites…

As I sit in the passenger seat while he gets on the freeway, my life is in hishands. That said, driving with my son is just as much about physical mechanics as social ones. In talking him through the cues the road presents, I point out the police car two lanes over. His hands on the wheel are at two and ten, like a boy in Missouri with his hands halfway up to surrender. Our communication is explicitly laced with the vocabulary of the new Jim Crow, and it is intuitively silent, like the posture of someone who’s been wronged for generations. We’re not just driving the freeway. We’re moving into a new, semi-permanent status in his life: the profile of potential suspect. For all our country’s brave talk about democracy and freedom, this public act of driving while black is the highest-stakes lesson he might ever receive in American civics.

Adverse confrontations with police aren’t inevitable. Despite the privileged shelter of class and family structure, however, my kids are statistically likely to be engaged and harassed by the police nonetheless. So then what of kids of similar heritage but dissimilar means? For so many young people, the violence of poverty is the strongest indicator of the pipeline to prison.

Correlatively, according to the Haywood Burns Institute, African-American youth are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, Native American youth are 3.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, and Latino youth are twice as likely to be incarcerated than white youth — and in some individual states, this disparity is profoundly higher. For example, criminal justice system watchdog The Sentencing Project reports that Connecticut and New Jersey maintain rates of confinement that are less than half the national average, but both states confine African American youth at 24 times the rate of white youth.

“For all our country’s brave talk about democracy and freedom, this public act of driving while black is the highest-stakes lesson he might ever receive in American civics.”

Not only are youth prosecuted as adults more likely to be black or brown children, but these youth are more likely to commit suicide while in adult jail, more likely to have psychiatric symptoms than youth housed in juvenile facilities, and more likely to reoffend once they are back in their communities. Cycles of violence in this country move faster than Floridian bullets, but not nearly as fast as how we systemically abandon traumatized youth.

Onthe road, my kid learns to signal before switching, just as he learns the frightening numbers that mark him unwittingly as a target. We talk about license, and permission, and rights. We talk about extracted wealth and stolen labor and the legacy of a nation whose plunder of black people is central to its own existence. I wish we could just talk about traffic, but the context of his mobility is a thin membrane of skin and domestic traditions of justice.

Freedom, however, is different from mobility. Driving is a gift and a convenience—but freedom is a destination of birthright. In my family, the vessel most likely to get us there is artistic practice.

Artists are the leaders among us, generally more driven by mission than market, whose job is to codify inspired thought for public consumption. Their ideas intersect with our political world, but they design experiences that ask us to imagine ourselves conjoined in the politics and physics of a creative moment. Through art, we imagine ourselves at the synaptic second of inspiration, or at the specific frequency of a black woman rocking out on her guitar, or as collectively vulnerable—but a collective unit nevertheless.

Through art, we ask the lawmakers who steward our social context to reach a little higher than the plane of a prison keyhole when considering “justice for all.” We ask, “Where is our public imagination?” Who would we be if we spent even 1% of the Pentagon’s budget on a Department of Inspiration? How might we envision Kennedy’s moonshot speech if his aim had not been space, but education, or public health, or equity? If Kennedy’s “moon” was actually the abolition of prisons, what would be the role of art in getting us there?

Iam at an intersection where parenthood, structural racism, juvenile justice and creative practice all meet. I am on this road with leaders from Carnegie Hall, the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network, and legislators, advocates, educators, philanthropists, and artists from around the country. Our collective path leads us through a national convening called Create Justice that considers creativity as a cornerstone of enfranchisement for all youth, whether involved in the criminal justice system or not.

About two years ago, after collaborating on a number of projects involving youth empowerment, the leaders of Create Justice thought it best to begin convening thought leaders—folks like Gina Belafonte, dream hampton, Sabra Williams, and Clinton Lacey—along with young people under the age of 24 to think strategically about a pathway from reform to abolition. Over the last year, we’ve convened in New York and Los Angeles as a body of 200 concerned, cross-generational and cross-sector advocates imagining arts as both a tool and a strategy to transform a system that continues to marginalize young people.

In this effort, I serve as the lead conference facilitator, helping us to land on the right questions that will hopefully inspire visionary responses. This means creating a safe space for making art, discussing policy, and exchanging best practices in an environment that includes young people.

“Our challenge: to create experiences that allow young people to understand that the world is not a utopia, but theirs is the right to justice and to joy.”

This March, the Create Justice project will transition from an exploratory phase into an annual gathering during which participants will form working groups, develop communication strategies and experience collective art moments, including a youth-centered concert at Carnegie Hall called “A Time Like This”. The goal: to produce a tighter network of youth-led change makers.

While the conference itself is closed to the public, the repercussions and reverberations of the work are directly in line with the public good. Our challenge: to create experiences that allow young people to understand that, while the world is not a utopia, theirs is the right to justice and to joy. We can’t undo history, but we can help create conditions for young people to inscribe creative freedom and movement in their expectations for the future.

Meanwhile, off the freeway and close to home, I am still holding my breath as my son turns the corner. The radio’s been on during the whole trip, but I’m just now hearing the music. There’ll be times in my son’s life where the opposite is true. He’ll be safely on his way to someplace familiar, and then get totally redirected by a song that easily snaps his heart. In my mind, I’m drawing a map to that place. The terrain is paved by reconciliation and creativity, and if he doesn’t make it home from there, it’ll only be because he got lost in inspiration.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph is an Oakland-based poet, artist and curator investigating cultural erasure through performance. He serves as Chief of Program and Pedagogy at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.