Ahmaud Arbery's Case Makes It Hard To Allow My Black Son to Just Be a Kid

A Black mom of four explains her frustration in simply not feeling comfortable letting her youngest son go outside to play—especially after Ahmaud Arbery's murderers were found guilty of hate crimes.

The author and her son.
Photo: SHARISSE TRACEY. ART: ANNA HALKIDIS

As my son and I traveled from our home in upstate New York to visit family in South Carolina's Lowcountry, as we've done many times before, something felt different this time.

It was the timing: our road trip came right after a jury found Ahmaud Arbery's murderers guilty of hate crimes.

I was scared.

Almost two years from the day he was killed for being a Black man running in a mostly white suburban Georgia neighborhood, two of Arbery's three killers were sentenced to life without parole, while the third has a chance of living life outside of prison after three decades in jail. As optimistic as I want to be after these verdicts, the continued and senseless killings of us Black people—particularly young Black men—makes it impossible and unfeasible for me to allow my 14-year-old son to just be a kid, especially on this trip down South.

He's my youngest of four and I live in fear every second of every hour in the day. My son is by description and testimonials from people who know him, or even meet him briefly, a walking advertisement for Black Boy Joy. It's a trending hashtag made popular with beautiful images of highly melanated Black males of all ages, living, loving, and largely laughing—unbothered as they should be allowed to be all the time. And while it goes without saying that all parents want their child to be free and feel joyful regardless of skin color, the hashtag has been used over 1.7 million times on Instagram alone. That says something.

Despite his almost 6-foot frame, deepening voice, peach fuzz on his upper lip and chin, adolescent strength, and emerging muscles, my son is a kind, trusting, loving, and curious child. He has been raised on or near military installations and diverse suburban neighborhoods for most of his life. He thankfully was allowed to roam free—walking, skipping, and even running when he felt like it—without anyone bothering him. In most places we lived, he was greeted by anyone who passed him like Norm on the '80s sitcom Cheers. Everyone knew his name and loved him.

This trip, I found myself infuriated when I was forced to explain to my son why he couldn't just go outside and play and explore a suburban neighborhood multiple family members of ours live in, without first having yet another slimmer version of the coming of age "talk" (a conversation eloquently explained in Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and on the television show Blackish). It's one all Black parents have with their children, and that I had to have before he could bounce a damn ball or run around the neighborhood to release pinned up energy after our 12-hour drive.

I thought I could take a short break from being on guard, as I had to be on our drive through former Confederate states and the more recent reemergence of the white supremacists. I also had to plan where we could stop to eat, get gas, and use the bathroom, in order to arrive in one piece. The thing is, Black families don't get a break, not even in our own homes. If you don't believe that, ask Breonna Taylor's parents.

"Yes, you can go outside Son, but carry your phone, make sure the ringer is on high, and call me immediately on video if anything happens; don't talk to anyone; don't run, just walk; only stay on this side of the street; don't turn the corner; don't pass the stop sign; don't look intimidating (as if); remember your 'yes, sirs' and 'yes, ma'am's," I told him along with a ridiculous list of more dos and don'ts. That's all to help prevent him from being seen as suspicious or a threat even though he's just a Black boy harmlessly playing. Or any of the other simple actions that allow us to be hunted, hurt, and killed, such as birdwatching, walking home from a convenience store, buying skittles, playing with a toy, wearing a hoodie, or even sitting in our own apartment.

It's just not fair and I'm exhausted, but life isn't fair and as a Black mother, I don't have the luxury of breaking down at all while my children are potentially in harm's way. The problem is our Black children and family members are born with a target on our backs.

The next day I sat my son down to discuss my strong reaction to what should be a normal question from a child, "Can I go outside?" I apologized for possibly overreacting and then went on to have more of a difficult conversation I had been able to avoid for most of his life. I asked how much he was aware about the news about Black people? "You mean Black people being abused and killed? I know that from you, Mom." I explained that our people are being killed, even ones younger than he was and older than his father—the large age range seemed to surprise him.

The conversation continued, "We are someplace new, and people don't know you here, and we can't risk you being mistaken for anything or anyone."

"Kay," he answered.

"Do you remember learning about the Civil War? Well, it actually started here and even though that seems like a long time ago, there are still people here that think Black people shouldn't be free. Remember that ginormous Confederate flag we saw driving in? Some people here see you as a threat because of your skin color, and you must always be mindful of that," I continued.

We sat silent.

"Dad told me that, too, and I've wondered why people look at me when I'm walking but it is not always bad. The people at the library in town know me."

That seemed to make him feel better, and I was relieved because he was.

He started to open up more and said, "If the police talk to you, you can get killed for no reason."

I asked, "What would you say if the police asked you questions like, 'Why are you there? What are you doing?'"

"I'm just walking down the street."

"Why?" I asked as if I were an aggressive cop.

"To explore the neighborhood and make new friends," my son answered, annoyed as if that was a no-brainer.

"Try saying that you live around the corner and your father is a professor at the military academy. Say something that will resonate with them," I responded.

We talked about the importance of having proper identification at all times, and he reiterated that having an ID would make him feel safer than simply carrying his library card.

I'm grateful that my youngest son has had positive experiences with people, and he was proud of the fact that he wasn't seen as a threat—yet.

"It is so stupid, Mom—racism. I get mad about it."

I reminded my son that hating anyone because of their skin color is in fact, stupid, and he was smarter for knowing that.

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