Black Fatherhood in the Age of Black Lives Matter
At some time after 4:05 p.m. on August 9, 2014, Louis Head, Mike Brown's stepfather held up the hastily scribbled sign: "Ferguson Police Just Executed My Unarmed Son!!!" A day later, the St. Louis Post Dispatch would publish a picture of Head standing behind Mike Brown's mother, Lezley McSpadden with his head resting on hers and his arm around her neck. The caption read: "Lesley McSpadden is comforted by her husband, Louis Head, after her 18-year-old son was shot and killed by police earlier in the afternoon in the 2900 block of Canfield Drive on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson. Head is the step-father." In the hours that followed the shooting, residents of Ferguson gathered to bear witness to the killing and provide support for one another. To control the crowd, the Ferguson Police Department requested help from the St. Louis Police Department, who subsequently secured the perimeter in the area where the shooting had occurred. As it had done one August nearly sixty years before in the Emmett Till lynching, the NAACP began an almost immediate investigation into Mike Brown's death. The residents of Ferguson began protesting well into the night and into the days that followed, as an increasingly militarized police force escalated anxiety and tension with residents. Six days later, Head stood with family and others in attendance at a press conference held at the Ferguson Police Department. At the press conference, Ferguson residents learned that Darren Wilson was the officer who shot Mike Brown.
More than three months later, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that Officer Wilson would escape indictment in the Brown killing. After McCulloch's announcement, Lezley McSpadden climbed on top of a car to address the crowd. Video accounts show her "standing on a car, shouting that she'[d] never done anything to hurt anyone and breaking down in tears." Head is shown "[climbing] up on the car to comfort her" and "[wrapping] her in a hug." Shortly after, Head yelled "Burn this motherdown! Burn this bitch down!"
Speaking out of frustration and despair, Louis Head's message was one already felt by those insisting that Black Lives Matter. His remarks were to an overwhelmingly Black audience and through a Black gaze; they were not sanitized for a White audience and not the scripted lines for a highly-coordinated movement. Rather, they were an expression of the building rage in Black communities over the deaths of unarmed Black men and women by state and extrajudicial violence. Failing to recognize that Head echoed the sentiments of Black communities across the nation, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson chose to investigate whether Head intended to incite the riots and looting that began in Ferguson after McCulloch's remarks. Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Brown family and regarded as "[t]he most prominent civil-rights lawyer of his generation," condemned Head's statements in a press conference describing them as "triggered by raw emotion and ... completely inappropriate." The media quoted Brown's biological father, Mike Brown, Sr. as "call[ing] for peace". In the weeks that followed, attention shifted from Louis Head, who was there visibly (as documented by the press and social media) from the time of the shooting through the announcement of the indictment, to Mike Brown Sr., who remained largely absent from the press until Head's remarks. Louis Head's fatherhood was that imagined by the post-emancipation courts, depoliticized by Emmett Till's murder, and pathologized by the Moynihan Report. Like Harry Pope and fathers like him who after slavery sought to legitimate the children they recognized as their own, Head was excluded from fatherhood by one with a better claim, and denied the opportunity to offer his son protection.
Realizing that the route to political attention for the deaths of Black children was through Black motherhood, not Black fatherhood, Crump followed the pattern of his predecessors in the NAACP. To rehabilitate McSpadden's role as a mother, and legitimate Mike Brown, Jr. as a child, Benjamin Crump engaged in the dance of his civil rights forbears to make Mike Brown Jr.'s death relevant on a national scale. Mimicking their moves, Crump reconstructed Lezley McSpadden in patriarchal terms by restoring Brown's biological father to her side and refocusing attention to her pain as a Black mother. He shifted America's eyes from Louis Head's Black gaze to the White gaze that would politicize McSpadden's motherhood. Like Mamie Till before her, Lezley McSpadden wanted the whole world to see what they did to her boy. Like Carthan and Mooty had done for Mamie Till Bradley, Mike Brown Sr., as Mike Brown Jr.'s biological father, granted access for McSpadden to speak from a position of power and persuasion.
Thus began the fiction of Mike Brown Sr.'s role as the head of a household where Mike Brown Jr. figured prominently. In actuality, Mike Brown, Sr. was an "away" father reconstituted as the head of his own nuclear family; this was the narrative that would play in the press. Esquire Magazine ran a story by John H. Richardson in January 2015 titled: "Mike Brown Sr. and the Agony of the Black Father in America." The story opens with Brown Sr. at his house on Thanksgiving with his new wife Calvina and extended family. Richardson recounts:
Brown's house is an ordinary ranch in a pleasant, safe neighborhood a few miles from where his son was killed, completely average except for one thing--down in the man cave the walls are decorated with photos of Brown's dead son, a tapestry of his dead son, a photo of a mural dedicated to his dead son. Hanging on the corner of the TV is a black necktie with his dead son's face peeking out at the very bottom, like a bit of sun under a long black cloud. Brown leans against a pillow bearing his dead son's face. Mike-Mike, they called him, as if saying his name once weren't enough to express their love.
Halfway down the page where the story appears is a painting by Tim O'Brien. In it is the dead body of Mike Brown, on his stomach, underwear peeking through the top of his pants. The caption reads "I Should Have Been There to Protect Him." Five paragraphs later appears break out text in bold: "When Michael was sixteen, they [Mike Brown, Sr. and Mike Brown, Jr.] had the talk about being cooperative with police." This was the expression of true fatherhood, the salvation for the Black family. This was fatherhood that sought to protect and taught Black sons their "place" vis-…-vis law enforcement--parenting like Mamie Till's when she taught Emmett to "know his place." Richardson's telling of the moments following Brown Jr.'s shooting makes Brown Sr. the male head of house for Brown Jr., Brown Sr.'s wife and their children, even as Louis Head was legally married to McSpadden and a resident of their home. McSpadden is described as her own head of house in the story, gathering with her family and turning over the events that lead to her son's death again and again with incredulity and horror. In Richardson's retelling, Brown Sr. remained the calm and vigilant patriarch even though McSpadden yelled at him when he arrived on the scene with his wife: "[Calvina's] not the mother. What does she need to be out here for?" Brown Sr. waited on the sidelines with his wife when a cousin informed him that the shooting victim was indeed Mike. It was Brown Sr. who watched over the body, afraid that the police would plant a gun at the scene to buttress tales of self-defense. It was Brown Sr. and his wife who "spent four hours and thirty-two minutes watching [Brown, Jr.] lay on the ground." Despite his primal desire to serve as a father, to protect his son, Brown Sr. reflected: "We [he and Calvina was treated like we wasn't [sic] parents, you know? That's what I didn't understand. They sicced dogs on us. They wouldn't let us identify his body. They pulled guns on us." In Brown Sr.'s tale, he was an involved father who was engaged in Brown, Jr.'s life, leading him through childhood into young adulthood with wisdom and guidance. His job at Brown Jr.'s death, according to Benjamin Crump, was to "fight for [Brown Jr.'s] legacy."
Lezley McSpadden's memory of her life with Mike Brown, Sr. is a departure from his own. McSpadden unexpectedly found herself a mother at sixteen, raising Brown Jr. with the help of her and Brown Sr.'s immediate and extended families. She and Brown Sr.'s coupling was a tale of impetuous love spattered throughout with accusations of domestic abuse and abandonment. From McSpadden's account, Mike Brown, Sr. did not contribute financially to his son's maintenance and took little interest in him, even though the family lived in his parent's house. Shortly after Brown, Jr.'s first birthday, Brown Sr. beat McSpadden for the first time, a cycle that would continue until their ultimate split approximately four years later. In McSpadden's telling of she and her son's story, Brown, Sr.'s mother and father were the constant in her son's life, not his father. However, in the months following Mike Brown Jr.'s death, Brown, Sr. was allowed his "rightful" place as Brown Jr.'s father. He would appear by McSpadden's side in television interviews and in their travels to speak to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. McSpadden's memoir came full circle to Medgar Evers and his report that sparked the investigation into Emmett Till's lynching; Myrlie Evers penned the Forward. In an homage to his mother and mothers primarily responsible for the financial and emotional support of their children, the rapper Common would write in the Preface:
Everything I know in life, my experiences of life, and what I know to be love and life came from my mother. She is the most consistent form of love I can identify beyond God and the first person that I really got to know fully and deeply. I didn't have the blessing of growing up with a father at home or a male figure to truly sit there and take the time to teach me life's truths. The stuff I learned about being a man, both the beautiful and the ugly, I learned from my male friends and the men in my neighborhood. But my mother taught me how to live. She did her best to teach me how to be a respectable, strong black man.
In Common's words rest the enduring narrative of the heroic Black mother, failed by the Black male patriarch, and the symbol of a failing Black family. There are no Black fathers here to protect and bring outrage to the murders of Black children; their roles have been silenced by patriarchal notions of family that have historically served to use Black fathers, mothers, and their children as political currency and exploit them for everyone's benefit but their own.