As a Black Mother, I Ask: Can We Actually Change for Good This Time?
My ancestors likely felt hope when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, but lynching and murder continued for decades. As I stay conscious about how I teach Black culture to my 3-year-old daughter, I wonder if I am too optimistic for the anti-racism movement we are in right now.
I am raising a beautiful 3-year-old daughter and stay conscious of putting images in front of her that look familiar. I’ve taught her to love her curly hair and compliment the color of her skin. I show her Black princesses and read books with Black characters that are celebrated, smart, funny, and kind. She must know that worth is not a place you get to, it is a place you come from. I am also conscious of differences; I want her to understand that everyone should be accepted. Period. Let people be who they are—they have that birthright. But I have trepidation for the day she meets racism and how that will affect her. This is one of the many reasons why I am overwhelmed and entirely wrought with varying waves of emotion surrounding George Floyd’s death. This unspeakable murder has made the country regurgitate the strange fruit it’s fed us. As tragic and horrific as his death is, it seems it will not be in vain. I see police breaking the blue wall of silence as they support protestors, while some governors and mayors balk at the injustice and demand law enforcement reform. I feel optimistic and grateful that so many people are answering the call to action.
But then I wonder. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, didn’t my ancestors feel hope, joy, and optimism? Yet the war would continue for another two years and even after the ratification of the 13th amendment, there were decades of lynchings, mass murder, and endless other racist atrocities. Generations of potential destroyed, fear, and trepidation abound with every step taken as a “free man.” No integrated breaking of bread, education, hospitalization, or transportation for nearly one hundred years.
But then there was the civil rights movement—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led marches, some government officials stood on our side, and the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964. Didn’t people exhale and feel optimistic? Yet Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 and decades of injustice, racism, white flight, and hatred continued.
Twenty years later, I was called the "N-word" for the first time. It was 1988 and I was 13 years old. My family was looking to purchase a house on Long Island and our would-be neighbors made no secret about how much they did not want that to happen. They shouted the "N-word" at us while revving chainsaws and their motorcycle engines. The hatred in their faces was shocking, disconcerting, confusing, and hurtful. In the quiet car ride home, I felt betrayed. Some of those haters looked like the guys I watched every day on MTV’s Headbangers Ball. I had fawned over them, yet they were disgusted by me.
After this incident, my subconscious poured out memories of being 8 years old and feeling perplexed as to why the staff at the local pizza shop were so mean to me and my family. Or why upon entering the deli across the street, the loud conversations became quiet. After this racist attack, which wouldn’t be my last, the veil came down and I entered a phase of not wanting to be touched. I battled with feelings of worthlessness and grew sick of hearing negative comments about my complexion. Visions of an idealistic perfection were paraded in media constantly and no one looked like me. Compounded by other depressive situations in my life, these feelings took decades and many therapy sessions to undo.
By the nineties, the world around me had changed, to a certain degree. But there were still hundreds of unfair and inequitable instances happening everywhere. The Central Park Five, Rodney King, Amadou Diallo—just to name three. From the time I entered the workforce in 1994 up to now I have never worked for a Black CEO, supervisor, or manager—yet the security departments and mail rooms are always dark and plentiful.
When Ahmaud Arbery was killed I thought of my nephew, a beautiful 22-year-old young man who runs through his neighborhood in Pennsylvania. If this happened to him, would racist individuals search through his Instagram to find the one or two pictures of him hanging with friends and brand him as a thug? Would they know the person he is, the happy little boy who bravely beat juvenile arthritis? The thoughtful child who cried when he left my house because he’d miss us so much? The smart, strong young man he has become? The sentimental momma’s boy that still hugs and gives her kisses, even in front of his friends?
Arbery and all the slain men like him had lives we didn’t see. Their mothers announced the joy of their birth, shouted with excitement after their first step, and showered them with boo-boo kisses on their little wounds. There were birthday celebrations with their favorite flavor of ice cream and high fives after the bike ride with no training wheels. Some of them toiled through school to get degrees, planned a future, or were led astray due to circumstance. I’m sure all had those quiet times of reflection, hoping to be all they could, persevering or giving in to temptation. There were undoubtedly hopes of creating a family and some brought that to fruition. Were there thoughts of enjoying retirement or wondering what kind of grandpa they’d be? Probably. Yet in an instant, due to a misguided perception, they were relegated to expendable, their life snatched away because they wore a hoodie and “looked suspicious,” sold cigarettes on the corner as a way to feed their kids, or stepped into an unfinished façade and branded a threat. Instead of justice for these murders, what ensued next was laughable justifications and character smearing. But Dylann Roof is taken into custody without a scratch on him and a white militia in Michigan with assault rifles make it to the governor’s office unscathed.
The white community largely gawked at O.J. Simpson’s acquittal and seethe over it to this day. I’ll see your O.J. and raise you Alton Sterling, Antwon Rose, Philando Castile, Sean Bell, and Tamir Rice. Straight flush. I’ve won a game I never wanted to play and I put down these names without even thinking. There are thousands more that will never be known because smartphones weren’t invented at the picnic.
During these days, thoughts about my nephew and daughter’s future consume me and my hurt and anger are palpable. Then I get a text message from a white mom in my network asking what she can do to raise her son in such a way that he makes things better. A white coworker and friend apologizes and takes ownership for her part in the state of the world today. My phone buzzes constantly with outcries for justice and “thank yous” in response to a call for action email I sent. White executives reach out and ask for my support in helping them shift, asking for initiatives and ideas that will foster equitability. All week, I have been inundated by thoughtful and insightful white people, asking what they can do, how they can be better, how they can help solve the problem. I see the human chain that my white brothers and sisters formed in front of us in one city. In another, they lay upon the ground with their hands clasped together behind their backs. The support seems genuine and steadfast, minus those who are looking for the opportunistic flat-screen television to steal or launching trash at cops. Let me be clear: I do not condone harming police officers.
For the first time in my life, this doesn’t feel like a false alarm. We’ve been heard. We matter. That’s all we’ve been saying—We matter. I am brought to tears by the enormity of the shift I feel the world leaning into. There is a cleansing, a collective consciousness that is washing away the ills that don’t serve us. This year has birthed gigantic waves of grief and death, but what is the lesson the teacher is screaming at us to learn through the pandemic, the hate, and the murders? I believe it’s to recognize the value of every person and to love, help, and support each other. We need each other.
Quarantine and social distancing are as much for our partners in the human race as it is for the self. Validating, understanding, and putting in the work to undo racism is as much for white people as it is for those of us it directly affects. Make no mistake, this is happening at this time in all of our lives for a reason. Don’t miss the message. If it gets louder than this, none of us may survive it.
Adrienne Farr is the executive operations coordinator for Parents and Parents Latina. She’s been in publishing for ten years, having worked on magazines such as Rachel Ray Every Day, Reader’s Digest, Reminisce and Reminisce Extra. Adrienne is also a single mom to a 3-year-old daughter and cares for her mother, who has been diagnosed with moderate Alzheimer’s and Dementia.