Watching him learn hard lessons about the past made me focus on the right way to teach him about the future.
For two years in a row, my son Kiran was the only African-American kid at his preschool. Not that we didn’t expect this: My husband is biracial and Jewish, so we sought out a Jewish preschool. But I’d be lying if I said I’ve never questioned the decision.
Especially now. Race relations in the grand ol’ U. S. of A. are contentious at best, and a raging dumpster fire if we’re being brutally honest. And my son loves his school and his (mostly) Jewish friends. But every day when I walk him inside that building, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing.
Last January 16, I took my boys—Kiran was 4 and Milo was almost 8 months—to The King Center in my hometown of Atlanta. I’ll never forget the date because 1) It was MLK Day, that glorious national holiday when we celebrate the life and work of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and 2) It was the day I think Kiran got his first understanding about the implications of being black in America.
We walked around the exhibit within The King Center itself, and Kiran read through some of the photo captions. He was a very early reader, which still draws raised eyebrows from some people—I hate to admit it, but I often wonder if their shock has something to do with my baby’s skin color. Kiran read about segregated water fountains and lunch counters, and gazed at photos of marches and sit-ins.
He wandered. Checked out the “Children of Courage” display that highlighted the roles kids played in the Civil Rights Movement. Touched everything there was to touch. Paused for a photo op in front of an enlarged picture of Dr. and Mrs. King.
Then we made our way out of the visitor center and over to the historic King Birth Home for a tour. But before we got there, my son saw one of his favorite things: a bus. It was old. Parked on a street we were already headed down, and people were getting on and off.
Of course, my son wanted to as well. Now I knew exactly what this 1950s public bus was—what it represented and what we would find inside. And I had a brief moment of hesitation because I knew stepping onto that bus meant exposing my son, my baby, to something ugly that made my heart clench with hurt and my stomach churn with fury. Because there was no getting around that part. There was no letting him get on the bus without addressing what it stood for and how it related to MLK Day, which was so special that even his (very white, very Jewish) preschool was closed.
So we got on. And when he tried to sit down at the front of the bus, I wouldn’t let him. I made us go to the back. To the Colored section. And when he asked why, I told him. He sat, and as his little eyebrows tugged down, I knew: He understood. At least in part.
As we did our tour of the King Birth Home, he didn’t say a whole lot. And as we passed the bus on the way back to the car, I asked if he wanted to get on again before we left, thinking I’d let him sit wherever he wanted this time. He said no.
And for the following two weeks, I woke up every morning wondering if I was a horrible parent. The thing I find most difficult about raising little black boys in our current societal climate isn’t keeping them safe. It’s figuring out what to teach them, and when. While I expected to eventually feel conflicted about stuff like when to start discussing the birds and the bees and saying no to drugs, the there-are-people-who-won’t-like-you-because-your-skin-is-brown conversations are happening way sooner than I anticipated.
And I did anticipate them. Yes, “on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners” are “able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” just as Dr. King dreamed, but the racist paradigms built into the foundations of American society are still an issue. After the tragic shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, I knew that one day my boys won’t be so little anymore and people may see them as a threat instead of as kids.
I needed to prepare them, and I felt ill-equipped. So I decided to write a young-adult novel, which was published a few months ago. It’s called Dear Martin and follows a 17-year-old boy who begins a journal of letters to Dr. King after a traumatic experience with racial profiling here in the 21st century. I had to explore my own questions so I could hand the book to my boys when they turned 12. Or maybe even 13, the age when they’ll each be bar mitzvahed.
But now I wonder if age 13 is too late. In April of 2017, 49 years after Dr. King’s death, 15-year old Jordan Edwards was shot and killed by a police officer while leaving a party. Last September, “white nationalists” and self-proclaimed neo-Nazis took to the streets of Virginia with Tiki torches. There are people who overtly hate my children and people who will assume the worst about them. Shouldn’t I start preparing them now?
The world can be an ugly place, and African-American males seem to bear the brunt of that ugliness more than any other demographic in this nation. It’s up to me to make sure that my boys are ready, right?
I know there are unwarranted dirty looks, suspicious glares, and hard shoves awaiting them. All it takes is a cursory glance at history to see how slow things are to change. Do I try to shield them for as long as possible and keep them innocent—and ignorant? Do I risk the scales being painfully snatched from their eyes by someone else who may not have their best interests at heart?
Or do I expose them to as much as they can handle as gently as possible? Do I take them on more “educational field trips” like the one to The King Center, even though that one resulted in my little honey no longer wanting to ride a bus?
Do I take my kids to protest marches so they can be woke? Or keep them at home so their purity will be preserved? As the main character in my novel would say: What would Martin do?
I honestly don’t know.
Guess the best I can do—the best we all can do—is what we always do as parents: figure things out as we go.