The murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, immediately took me back to a little more than a year ago, when I received a text from my then-16-year-old son. The text contained only two words, but I’ll never forget them: Not Guilty. At first, it didn’t make sense to me. And then I slowly understood them. When the meaning finally hit me, my blood froze and I could barely breathe.
My son had just delivered the news that George Zimmerman, a white man who murdered an unarmed Black teenager named Trayvon Martin the previous winter, had been found not guilty by a jury of his peers. Part of me wished I’d heard first and had told him about the verdict. But the fact that my son instinctively knew that I needed to hear this news directly from him proves that our ongoing conversations about this issue have penetrated that stubborn, wacky, teenaged brain of his.
I’m a single, Black mother with a son who’s in that strange and exciting space between childhood and adulthood. But I know the deal. People won’t look at him and see that he barely needs to shave and still leaves his underwear on the bathroom floor. They won’t see that I sometimes have to remind him to brush his teeth and do his homework, and that he still has a curfew. Instead, people will take one look at his husky size, dreadlocks, and huge feet and see a man … a Black man. And for many, that’s a very threatening image.
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Anyone raising a Black child in America has to have The Talk, especially if that child is male. I’m not talking about the requisite birds and bees talk. I mean The Talk about how to survive being Black in this country.
We have to teach our children that not only do they have to follow the general rules of society, but they also have to abide by a special set of rules set up specifically for them because of their race. And we have to walk a thin line between teaching them how NOT to be killed by the people bound by law to protect them, and at the same time how to maintain their dignity and command the respect they deserve. It’s a very delicate balance.
I don’t remember exactly when I began having these talks with my son. I do know that it wasn’t too long after he’d seen a documentary on PBS about American slavery. I still remember his shocked expression when he turned from the TV and asked me, “You mean kids were slaves, too?” He just couldn’t fathom that people as young as him were subjected to such horrors. I believe that’s the moment I realized that he was ready to learn even more about the reality of being Black in a nation founded on the notion of freedom and equality.
My son still believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy when I began to chip away at his innocence. Of course, I kept the conversations age-appropriate, but still, it’s heartbreaking to know that in order to keep your child alive, you have to be the bearer of the harsh truths that will end their childhood way too soon. There’s something inherently wrong with that.
I remember reading a bedtime story to my son when he was still very young. I can’t remember what books we were into back then, but one story involved the police. At the end of the chapter I’d designated for that night, I remember cautioning my son about the police. He was confused: Aren’t the police the good guys? Not always …
And now, a year after the Zimmerman verdict and mere days after the horror in Ferguson, Missouri, my son is 17 years old. Our conversations are shorter, more to the point, and, if possible, even deeper than before. And in an odd twist in the narrative, my son is often the one to initiate them. Now, he has his own stories to share, though thankfully, none of them has been too bad. But he knows the rules: Always speak in a well-modulated voice, be respectful (even when you’re being disrespected), keep your hands empty and visible at all times, do not resist or “talk back,” etc.
Most importantly, he knows that these rules are in no way a negative reflection of who he is. Rather, these rules are a reflection of where our country is with regards to race: We may have come far, but we still have far to go.
Mind you, I don’t want my son to be bitter and fearful. I don’t want him to hate even those who would hate him. I want him to continue to embrace everyone with love. Right now his circle of close friends has some of everything: Black, white, straight, gay, Christian, Jewish, Taoist, atheist, Jordanian, Muslim, Indian … and that’s just off the top of my head. I don’t want that to change. But I can’t afford not to continually remind him about the realities of being a Black man in America. I can’t afford for him to be naïve. I don’t want to be the next mother you see interviewed on the news, the women like Trayvon’s mother or Michael Brown’s mom, all of whom have that grief-stricken look in their eyes—their unspeakable pain is palpable. I ache for them because they represent everything I fear. They are the embodiment of my very worst nightmares.
I wish I could wrap my arms around these mothers and offer them the comfort I know they’ll never feel. In my mind, I draft letter after letter filled with words of encouragement and hope. But I never send them because for these mothers, there is no more hope. And then there’s the embarrassing fact that in the deepest, most selfish part of my heart, I’m just so grateful that it didn’t happen to me.
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I also can’t afford for my son to buy into the stereotypes of Black manhood that still persist today. And so my son knows his value and his worth. He knows he deserves respect. He’s made a conscious choice not to live in constant fear. He’s proud of the melanin in his skin, his dreadlocked hair and the rich and beautiful heritage that both represent. The problem isn’t with how he looks, how he wears his pants, or what kind of music he likes. He gets that the problem is an insidious one, woven into the fabric of our country, and that it rests squarely upon the shoulders of those racists who allow it to continue.
Parenting a Black male child in America today is to know a level of fear that other races don’t experience. You know that every single time your son leaves your home he has a target on his back. I can only speak for myself when I say I’ve tried to harness that fear into practical lessons for my son. I’ve tried to channel that terror into conversations, which prepare and uplift him for a healthy, happy, and productive future. But I’m still scared.
And so, The Talks continue.