A Letter To My Mother — Just In Case
A few years back, when I called Clemson, South Carolina home, I drafted a letter to my mother – "just in case" – leaving her instructions in the event of my death.
Despite being relatively healthy, death, at the time, didn't seem like an impossibility. As a Clemson University doctoral student, I had been receiving death threats and harassment because of my work highlighting the school's willingly whitewashed history. (For my dissertation album, I had written a song about how Clemson memorializes white supremacists while discounting the contributions of enslaved people and sharecroppers.) And as a Black man living in these United States of America, the more general possibility of being found dead, unexpectedly, with no explanation or rationale, has never seemed outside the realm of possibility.
On top of that, a teenager from a nearby town had recently been killed at the hands of police. Despite public outcry and evidence that seemed to indicate wrongdoing, nobody was charged with his death. That official explanation, a homicide with no culprit, was accepted by all but a few.
So I thought about what I'd want my family and friends to do if I were ever in that situation. And I began to draft a letter:
It was easy, albeit heartbreaking, to get a first draft on paper—local, national, and international stories provided instance upon instance necessitating such a communiqué. Not only was the case near campus present in my mind, but there was also the case of Michael Carter in my hometown of Decatur, Ill., who died while in custody at the Macon County Jail. And there'd been Michael Brown the summer before. And Sandra Bland that same year, who police said had killed herself while being held in a local jail cell.
Six years and countless deaths later, the words feel just as urgent. While a handful of names, like George Floyd, have made international headlines, there are hundreds of others you almost certainly would not recognize. In the past year, about a thousand people have been shot and killed by police, according to tracking done at the Washington Post. Black people make up less than 13 percent of the population, but are killed at twice the rate of white people. If America had a heartbeat, its pulse could be measured by this mundane frequency of Black death.
As both a rapper and an academic, I attempt to make art from the everydayness of my life. My most recent album, i used to love to dream, is the third in a series of "mixtap/e/ssays" titled Sleepwalking. The project is an attempt to expand the type of work that is considered to be "scholarly"—it builds on my dissertation at Clemson, and I chose to have it peer-reviewed and released with an academic publisher, University of Michigan Press. But make no mistake, it's still a hip hop album. I want people to engage with it as a text; I also want to hear it in the background of a cookout.
i used to love to dream contains a recording of that letter to my mother, now set to music.
Before the album was released, I hadn't actually planned to share the letter with my mother. I didn't have the courage to make the possibilities it portends part of her daily worries; she has enough of those already. I'd already warned her against reading the comments sections online about me or my work. I assure her I am doing everything in my power to be safe. In Clemson, I didn't leave home for much other than work, the gym, or the grocery store. I knew better than to show up somewhere unexpectedly, or to try my luck by driving at night.
Back then they would have called me a troublemaker, a rabble rouser, or worse—a rapper (code in the mainstream press for, "If you die, it's your fault.").
I graduated from Clemson in the spring of 2017 and began my current role as a professor of hip-hop at the University of Virginia.
The summer I moved to Charlottesville was the summer that white nationalists organized the "Unite the Right" rally there. The week I arrived, terrorists gathered downtown with tiki torches near the statue of Robert E. Lee. Two months later, there was a KKK rally at the nearby Stonewall Jackson statue. National media deemed 2017 Charlottesville's "Summer of Hate."
My new home, like my old one, is deeply invested in whiteness. And as I had in South Carolina, I immediately began trying to resist the everyday white terror that seemed to consume the town. My work hadn't changed, I thought, and neither had I.
But there was a barely perceptible shift in going from student to professor. The presumed authority related to my job has sometimes taken me by surprise.
In my dissertation, I wrote that a Ph.D. is "a bad document identifying the fugitive as a citizen." In other words, it pretends to give credibility and security to people like me, who have long been kept out of academia. But living Black in America is often coupled with intimate understandings of how little a title, a job, or education matter in interactions with people if they see you as a threat.
Besides, I wouldn't want that type of credibility or protection anyway. My work and life should not matter differently as a result of my credentials. Credentials aren't what make people people.
And yet: Living in Virginia I find it more necessary, but a bit less stressful to drive. Not because I think it's a safer state than South Carolina, or because the police or surrounding white community here are less hostile. But there are most certainly differences in the ways I feel, likely related to the fraught refuge afforded by my new job.
The first and only time I was stopped by the Virginia police came a little more than a year after that Summer of Hate.
There were two students in the car with me. We were on our way back to campus after a music conference we'd attended at Virginia Tech, a couple hours south of Charlottesville. Rather than leaving the night of the conference, we had gotten on the road at 7:30 that morning, as much daylight before us as possible.
It feels almost cliché to say I was driving the speed limit. I'd been warned by a friend not to speed (not even by five miles) and not to stop, anywhere. The same advice I'd received and given dozens of times before. So I was certain I wasn't speeding when a police officer turned his car in our direction from the median.
My stomach dropped.
I did a mental checklist of whether my seat belt was on, if my hands were at ten and two, if I had a current insurance card in the glovebox. I had the typical, paranoid thought that maybe the speed limit had unexpectedly changed, and I'd missed it. But there were definitely cars going faster than mine when the lights started flashing behind us.
I distinctly remember the dull gray of the officer's uniform when he got out of his vehicle, and the K-9 patch pinned to his chest. I vividly recall the silver car with its blue lettering. It was mid morning, and the sky was clear and sunny. But I don't remember the officer's name or badge number. I didn't record the interaction. On everything that might have mattered later, I blanked.
In front of my students, I was trying to pretend I wasn't afraid. As I reached across the front seat to hand over my documents, my hands trembled. I tried to keep them on the steering wheel and appear unfazed. I'm certain at one point I addressed the officer as "sir," which, despite my years in the South, still felt unnatural.
The student I had reached across, nervous as well, interjected through the silence, "We're coming from a conference at Virginia Tech. We're students at the University of Virginia, and he's our professor."
Professor. The title bestowed by that bad document. This was information I would not have offered, but I assume the student thought it would make the exchange go smoother. Perhaps he understood something about authority that I hadn't yet registered. It was too soon to tell.
I'm not sure the cop made any outward acknowledgment of the student's divulgence. I only remember him, blank-faced and blue-eyed, speaking directly to me: "I'm gonna have you get out of your car and come sit in mine."
It was such a strange request; he must've sensed my reluctance. "So I won't have to keep coming back and forth," he offered as he gestured toward his car and the highway behind him.
After barely a beat, I agreed. I figured that my questioning or resisting could only make things worse for me or my students, though it seemed beyond peculiar to me. I assumed a large part of what officers do, especially during traffic stops, is go back and forth between cars. It also seemed unsafe to have me exit my car – on the highway side – for his convenience.
As I walked alongside speeding trucks to his car, I thought of the letter to my mother: If I die...
I sat in the passenger's seat of the car. Behind me, I could see, smell, and hear a dog in the back seat.
"So, you teach at UVA? Are you a resident of Virginia?" the officer asked while inspecting my South Carolina license.
"Yes." I replied. "This is my first year here."
"And the car is registered in Illinois?" he questioned.
"Where my dad lives. This is his car." I told him I was in the process of buying it from my father.
"Well, does he know his tint is illegal?"
"I have no clue. I never asked." I replied, knowing full well how often illegal tints are used as a pretext to pull over Black men.
"It's illegal in Illinois and in Virginia."
I didn't reply. He told me the tint percentage limits for both states and told me he intended to test the windows when we got back to the car.
He asked, "Do you plan to register the car in Virginia?"
While telling him I hadn't decided, I wondered what might make this exchange escalate from banter to brutality. I wondered how I could avoid it; tried to believe that I could avoid it—that I had some control over the matter.
But the second line of the letter kept repeating in my head: in police custody...
The officer proceeded to ask me what department I worked in, and what things were like at the university. I thought about Charlottesville, the riots of the past summer. And I thought about my home there—the recliner I sit on under a blanket, the tree limbs that lightly tap against my window. And for the first time since moving, I wanted to be back there.
The students were quiet as I got back in the car. We waited as the officer tested the windows and confirmed his suspicions—the tint was darker than the legal allowance.
"You should get it removed," he warned. "If you plan to continue driving in Virginia."
Please ask questions. Please ask questions.
He left us with a verbal warning.
I didn't turn my music back up as we pulled away. Nor did I let myself feel panic, or relief, or anger or release. It had never been more clear the ways my identities were overlapping; in that moment, I was still in front of my students. I still had to perform "professor." So I engaged them in quiet conversation, about why we thought the officer had asked me to get into his car with the dog and if that was legal, whether mine was the kind of car a cop might profile, all the ways a stop like that could've gone worse, about my certainty that if I had been alone it would have gone worse.
The American dream is a hustle. It doesn't exist for most white people, but it especially doesn't exist for people of color. Black folks are asked all the time to believe that a certain degree, or credential, or amount of money, or style of dress can protect us. We're asked to believe that those things should protect us, that we have to earn protection at all. That citizenship makes us human, and that we are, indeed, citizens.
In my case, in that moment, maybe it worked. Maybe the version of me that's a professor outweighed the version of me that the police officer first saw: Black man with tinted windows. Or likely just, Black man. The bad document was accepted; I got to drive home.
And then, within the walls of my house, I didn't have to perform any identity. I could be invisible.
So instead of doing anything else, I got into my bed and went to sleep. I knew it wouldn't be a new day when I finally woke up, nor would any dream erase the reality. I would be the same, and I would be different—from all the moments, here and there, then and now. Not much would change. It would be as it has been. But it would be nighttime – dark – and I wouldn't have any place I needed to be but home. And my mother wouldn't yet have to read the opening line of my letter.
A.D. Carson is assistant professor of Hip-Hop & the Global South in the Department of Music at the University of Virginia. His most recent album i used to love to dream is published by University of Michigan Press. You can stream or download it here.
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