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Al Roker and Craig Melvin talk about black fatherhood and raising sons

Al Roker and Craig Melvin spoke with three black fathers about their fears for their sons given the history of black men and law enforcement in America.
/ Source: TODAY

The protests against police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the death of George Floyd have also renewed the fears of many black fathers when it relates to their sons coming in contact with police.

Al Roker and Craig Melvin spoke with a trio of black fathers, Seith Mann, Ken Simril and Morgan Scott Tucker, on TODAY Tuesday and shared their own experiences of raising sons in a country where black men have had a fraught history with law enforcement.

"I know a lot of people do tell their children, 'Be polite, be respectful,''' Mann said. "And I will certainly tell my son that, but I also recognize that is not a guarantee of his safety."

Images of white police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes or of unarmed 25-year-old black man Ahmaud Arbery being shot in February while jogging have renewed the fears many black fathers have for their sons.

"There’s probably not a black dad who hasn’t imagined that being their son," Tucker said. "I’d like to say that I was outraged and grief stricken, but I think numb is probably what I really felt because we’ve seen it. We’ve seen this before.

"I didn’t expect (Floyd's death) to be so soon, hot on the heels of Ahmaud. But here we go again."

The deaths of Floyd and Arbery have put renewed emphasis on black fathers having frank conversations with their sons about being black in America.

"Those rules are different for you as a black male, and black fatherhood is to explain the rules," Simril said. "And then to explain how those rules either apply or don’t apply to you."

"It’s tough for me because I don’t quite understand if there’s even a right path to take," Simril's son, Carson, said on TODAY. "It could potentially be the last day of my life if things go very wrong."

Al has tried to impress on his son, Nick, 17, about how to act if police are present.

"If your friends are doing something, especially your white friends are doing something, you can’t do those same things because if the police come, you will be the one that’s targeted," Al said. "So my job as a father is to say, 'Yes, this is out there, but you've got to be aware of it.' You can't let it rule your life. And I’ve gotta help him find that balance."

The fact that these conversations even have to take place is also frustrating.

"It’s like we keep trying to figure out how to tell our children how to survive these attacks when the conversation really needs to be about how we get them to stop attacking us," Mann said.

The difficult conversations also have to start early in their sons' lives.

"I didn’t want to watch another black man murdered," Mann said. "I just saw Ahmaud Arbery get murdered, so I’m starting to have conversations with an 8-year-old boy. I have to start preparing him for things you shouldn’t have to prepare an 8-year-old for."

Craig knows he may have to have the talk with his son Delano, 6, in a few years. He has already spoken of the challenges of raising biracial children whom Craig said will be seen as black by the world.

"You can’t insulate them," Craig said. "I think that’s the one thing that this has revealed to a lot of folks, because at some point they’re going to come face-to-face with the reality of their blackness."

The panel of fathers also spoke about the stress of living as adult black men in America.

"I’m aware that I am a black man in this country, and that’s an awareness that you walk around with," Tucker said. "It tinges everything that you do in good ways and ways that you wish you didn’t have to think about. But you’re always thinking about it."

"I think there’s a reason that there’s such a disproportionate rate of high blood pressure in black folks," Mann said. "I’m not a doctor. But I guarantee you some of it is the stress of being black in America. Period."

They also reflected on an incident last month in New York City's Central Park in which a white woman was seen on video calling police to say a black man was threatening her life when he asked her to put her dog on a leash. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio called in the incident "racism, plain and simple," and the woman was subsequently fired by her employer.

"I look at that 'Karen' moment in Central Park," Simril said. "This woman weaponized her privilege.

"She knew exactly what she was doing and how society would respond to her at the disadvantage of a black male. That just tells me that we have a long way to go."

The fathers are hopeful that this time the mass protests can spark some fundamental change in the relationship between the black community and the police.

"I want this system of hatred and violence to black men and women and little black boys and black girls to stop," Mann said. "As far as I’m concerned, it’s all-hands-on-deck time. So if white people of good will want to help and help for real."

The protests have included people of all races speaking out.

"One of the things that’s given me the most solace (is) you look at the makeup of these protests, it’s hard not to be hopeful," Craig said.

"I see these protests as something being inevitable and like a long time coming," Carson Simril said. "And years of just society not listening to our cries for help and cries for justice has caused us to finally force them to listen and do something to make them pay attention to us."

An interview last week with a civil rights icon and longtime congressman who participated in protests during the 1960s in which demonstrators were violently attacked by police had Al optimistic for the future.

"I think we’re seeing the beginnings of real change," Al said. "I talked to Congressman John Lewis the other day. And he says, 'We’ve come so far. We are not going back now.'"