“I’m not going anywhere. I’m not even playing the lottery,” my father Jerry P. Jackson said to my startled ears.
It was the beginning of social isolation in March and he was taking every precaution against Covid-19. He had stocked up on food and wasn’t leaving his house in the Lithonia suburbs of Atlanta. I would drive by and sit in the car to talk to him and he’d wave from a fold-out chair under his carport. He wouldn’t hug me or even give me a fist bump. “I’m in the group that’s most vulnerable to this,” he said, as a 69-year-old who had spent his career working as a public health educator at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gambling is one of my dad’s favorite forms of entertainment. There is usually a stack of lotto tickets in his SUV, and he often enjoys a game of poker with friends and family. But the lottery and poker were things he had to give up in order to keep himself safe from the virus.
And truthfully his gambling is a habit I judged. The chances of you winning were slim, so why bother?
Which makes my realization even more perplexing: I, too, have been playing the lottery. But instead of scratch offs and powerball numbers, like millions of Black women in America, I gamble by loving the Black men in my life. And the stakes are much higher with our hearts on the line.
We roll the dice that they will come home.
We cross our fingers and whisper prayers that things will go as planned.
And then we grieve when the news serves us another reminder that our society isn’t safe for us. It feels like Black men—and women—are born with bullseyes on our backs.
The recent death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis is devastating and terrifying. His horrendous end under the knee of a sworn civil servant immortalized by cell phone footage and seared to our collective psyche pokes at all of the scars and scabs of the other Black men we’ve mourned. The fathers, brothers, boyfriends, husbands, baby daddies, uncles, cousins, neighbors, bosses, friends, classmates that we’ve loved.
And then there’s the sobering reality that many of the men we mourn are still breathing. Men who could be great husbands, fathers, CEOs, community leaders, if only they weren’t so bent and broken by this system. If only they had a chance to access their full potential.
These are the men who aren’t willing to risk it big by going for their dreams or opening their hearts fully because breathing while Black feels like a risk.
During Covid, I’ve heard from some of the Black men in my past who held their hearts so close they couldn’t see their cards. They text the obligatory, “just checking on you” and “how’s the family?” messages. One even sent a letter. (Yes, really. He had clearly sprayed it with his cologne before placing a stamp.)
“I’ve never met someone like you who had the ability to make me feel so loved, vulnerable and nervous at the same time,” he wrote, almost two years after we broke up. “You had a Black man shook.” We dated for a few months before I hit the wall he held around his heart. I got tired of fighting to get inside and stopped trying. Now I wonder if I can blame him for mitigating risk in a society that has oppressed African Americans since its inception.
I once dated a Black man who prided himself on never having been arrested. His dad had gone to prison for financial fraud, and his son had spent his life doing whatever it took to avoid the same fate. I saw first-hand how running so hard from what he didn’t want paralyzed him from going for what he desired.
In 2014, when Eric Garner, an African American father, was murdered on a New York City sidewalk in an illegal chokehold by a police officer, I asked my then boyfriend to join me at a rally. He declined and I was frustrated that he didn’t want to protest the egregious act. “I live this every day,” he whispered. In that moment, I sensed the impact the trauma was having on him and respected his decision not to join a rally or be active in organizing. I also knew in my spirit a man who wouldn’t fight for his own life, wouldn’t be able to fight for mine either. I soon after threw in my cards in our relationship.
Even more startling then acknowledging how I gamble by loving Black men, is the reality that I have been the dealer in the casino. I spent a decade encouraging Black women to freely love, especially on Black men. As Relationships Editor at Essence for seven years, the global media company serving Black women, it was my job to feed the hope that great love was available for our millions of readers. I took great pride in my role. I would research and report on eligible bachelors and inspiring love stories—the couple who met while both staying in a homeless shelter and now run a real estate company, the single doctors and lawyers who wanted a good woman by their side. But should those stories have come with a warning label?
Because being Black in America comes with unique risks. We are 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by police or arrested than our white counterparts. And that burden can be heavy.
Yet the rewards can outweigh the risks. Being loved and loving the Black men in my life has produced some of my sweetest memories and been one of my greatest emotional gyms. Like many women before me, it’s strengthened my hope, courage, resilience and self-respect.
My dad will eventually resume his lottery playing, but in my mind, he is already a walking winning ticket, like every other Black man in America. He has overcome many odds to still be breathing today. And the only way through this trauma and to a better world is love.
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