Raising a Black Boy in America
I first wrote about raising my son for Parents in 2003 when he was 5. Now, he is 21 years old and I look back on my original essay with the perspective of the never-ending litany of injustices here in America and the hope that this is the generation that will make a change.
I first wrote this essay in 2003 when my son was 5, today he’s a 21-year old man. I'm writing again now in 2020 in the recent wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery—I’m hoping this will be the last time there’ll be a need to add to this essay (this is the fourth time) yet I’m feeling only moderately optimistic today. Still, here we go…again. What tugs at my strings of hopefulness are all the young people—of all colors—showing up in the streets, even during a global pandemic, and being heard. Loudly stepping up to the never-ending litany of injustices here in America. Perhaps it will be this generation that makes the change.
In 2012, I wrote the following addition to my original essay:
It's been more than nine years since I wrote this essay expressing my feelings about raising a Black boy in America. Certainly, times have changed. (When I first wrote this, I could not have even imagined a Black president of the United States.) And yet, in too many respects, times have remained exactly the same. The Trayvon Martin tragedy harks back to the very sentiment I wrote about when my now teenaged son was just in kindergarten.
Here's what I originally wrote in 2003:
While pregnant with my one and only, the technician administering my sonogram blurted out, "You're having a boy." I said, "A what?!" Stunned, he asked, "You don't want a boy?" Quickly I tried to change my tone, but frankly I was scared. See, I know firsthand what it was like to be Black and female in America. I felt confident (perhaps unrealistically) that I could actually help a girl navigate through a life of racism and sexism—but a boy? What was I going to do with a boy? Fortunately, I have a great husband who is smart and full of insights and who knows more than just a little bit about being a Black male in these United States, but what about me? What would I have to offer? My fears?
As a mom, I worry about how I will someday have to explain to my 5-year-old son that we don't actually reside on Sesame Street. In fact, statistics show that the older he gets the more likely it is he will become a victim of violence. I'm raising a veritable sitting duck in the society we call home.
For my son's own good, my husband and I will have to tell him that everything is not equal. He'll have to be told that in another six or seven years, that he's not only likely to be a victim, but will also be seen, in the eyes of many, as a suspect—for nothing other than the color of his skin. That hanging out with one or more of his black friends outside will turn "the guys" into "a gang" and, depending on who's watching at them, "a threat"—and it won't matter if they're carrying basketballs and water bottles. My son will have to be taught that he can't be "mischievous" like his white counterparts are allowed to be. For a white friend, carrying out a dare to steal a candy bar for a white friend might garner him a "time out," and that same misdeed could get my son shot. A teenager's "joy ride" is just that for a white boy, but it translates to grand larceny for my son. As bleak as it may sound, he has to be taught—for safety sake—that racism exists.
I grew up in an all-Black neighborhood on Long Island and I remember my brother being unjustly stopped by the police repeatedly. (To hear him tell it, he was ordered to "assume the position" on a weekly basis.) And while that may be a slight exaggeration, that's how the not-so-subtle nature of racism makes its impact. Let's face it; the truth is not pretty.
But when exactly is the right time right to give your baby this ugly news?
I was only slightly younger than my son is now when my folks packed the family up in the Dodge Dart for a road trip down to the March on Washington. I don't remember a whole lot about that trip. My grandparents lived in D.C. and that particular trip kind of blends in with the other trips we'd take there most summers. But as an adult, I'm proud to know that in 1963 I shared space in the nation's capital with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That was probably my first taste of social awareness—and social ills.
So when is the right time to have "the talk" with my boy?
Maybe it's like sex. We should wait until he asks questions to talk about it.
If that's the case, he's ready (and I've been missing the cues). My family lives in a predominately Black neighborhood in Queens now and my son attends a Montessori school that is 98 percent Black (the remaining two percent are non-white as well). Recently he came to me and said, "I wish I was dark like everybody else." It warmed my heart to hear my melanin-challenged son speak those words. Concealing my secret wish that he was a bit browner myself, I said, "It takes all kinds of people to make up the world, short ones, tall ones, fine ones, kind ones...." He lost interest long before I could finish my unplugged version of "Too Many Fish in the Sea." On another occasion, he asked, "Are there more Black people than white people?" I said, "No, not in the United States." He gave me an incredulous look and walked away. He wasn't looking for a discussion, just my clarification.
Next year he'll be attending one of those prestigious independent schools in Manhattan. This time, like in the real world, he will be in the minority. The makeup will be more nearly 70 percent white, 30 percent non-whites (Blacks being a smaller portion of that percentage). It will be quite an awakening for my child. I'm sure he'll have a lot more questions next year.
I finally understand what my father tried to tell me so many years ago. Once, as a shamefully optimist girl, I expressed to him that I was planning to right all the racial wrongs. I was going to change the world. My father told me to take it easy, that the truth of the matter was, I was insignificant in this world. Insignificant?! Oh no, not me! I couldn't believe what he was saying to me. I didn't get it then. I do now. He wasn't trying to burst my bubble; to the contrary, he was trying to protect me. You see, that's the legacy of slavery. As parents of Black children in America, our life experiences tell us that we must caution our sons and daughters: "Reach for the stars, but be prepared to be smacked down."
Again, that was first written in 2003. Then when the Trayvon Martin incident happened in 2012, I added this post-script:
I had to give the Trayvon talk to my son and his friend as they headed out to the park last night. (A lecture that, I'm sure, echoes the one Emmett Till's mom gave her son before she sent him down south that summer.) I told my son and his friend that if they were approached by anyone of "authority" (fake cops included) that they had to be ultra-polite ("Yes, sirs." and "Yes, ma'ams"). I explained that they were to answer any questions directed to them clearly and without sarcasm (which is precisely what, at their age, they are developmentally hard-wired to do). And I told them that although it may not be fair, I would rather have them humbled than harmed... or worse.
Fast forward to 2015, when post-George Zimmerman's verdict I returned to this essay and added:
I guess we're back to where we never really left. While I found it utterly heartbreaking that the jury reached a decision of not guilty with a claim of self-defense when an unarmed Black boy was shot to death, it came as no surprise. History has an unpleasant way of repeating itself. Still, a part of that shamelessly optimistic girl is alive in me today. My hope is that this post will help to raise awareness of what it's like for many of us raising Black children in America. And if my words can further the conversation on race relations, which I feel our nation desperately needs to participate in, I am happy to oblige.
So, now back to “my current situation.”
It’s 2020. I am exceedingly proud of all the young people out there making noise—a lot of noise—in the streets in response to the unconscionable murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Mind you, the symbolism of a white cop “taking a knee” to the neck of an unarmed Black man should be lost to no one, especially when “taking a knee” in peaceful protest on a football field was so maligned. The good news: Between the verdict in the Zimmerman trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin and the murder of Mr. Floyd, we’ve seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, not without blowback: “What do you mean Black lives matter? ALL lives matter!” Well, I have my own response to that— this opinion piece I wrote was first published in 50BOLD.com in 2017, but it is certainly still applicable now:
I’ve heard folks from both races use this analogy to explain why Black lives matter: Imagine a dinner party being held with Black and white people in attendance. When the food is served, only the whites are fed. I get it. White people need to eat—but so do Black folks. Bam! The problem with this simple example is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Consider this: The dinner bell rings again. Whites and Blacks come to the same table, but this time they bring their offspring. Food is served. And again, the food only goes to the whites. Parents are forced to tell their hungry children, “This is just the way it is. You’re going to have to get used to it.” Now imagine this scenario being played over and over again—for centuries. The sheer number of people involved is staggering. At some point (actually, pretty much all along) Black folks and their children, and the children of their children, and so on and so on want to know, “WHY? We can’t live without food!” The safest response passed down most often: “We’ve done it, so can you.” Now, that’s a crushing blow of an explanation. Hope is completely lost. Dreams can never be realized or even given an opportunity to take shape. How does one purposefully teach their child not to aspire?
Now, let’s flip it. The dinner bells ring again and again and generations of whites keep coming to the table. And, of course, they always get fed. They want to keep things status quo. Food is necessary. But now, they too, have to answer to their offspring (at least the ones who are empathetically inclined), who ask, “Why do we get to eat and they don’t?” The answer gets increasingly complicated with each generation, over hundreds of years. The vast majority of whites offer a similar response Black folks do, “That’s just the way it is.” But they can add, “Eat up!” These days, hardly any whites equate the food on their plates with entitlement. Most white folks have wrapped their entire identity in the privilege—yes, privilege—of food. For them to imagine life configured in any other order is a frightening prospect. Scared and desperate, they hold on tighter to their full plates. And if even a morsel of food happens to drop off their plate and roll onto the plate of a Black person, many would want to fight (or kill) to get it back, while others suffice in patting themselves on the back boasting of their magnanimity in allowing their morsel to be shared.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know we all need to eat!
Oh, and that kindergartener who set me on this journey? He’s now a senior at NYU studying Black art, culture, and performance. I still worry about him. I always will…as long as he’s Black.
Barbara Brandon-Croft is the research director at Parents magazine. She is the first nationally syndicated Black female cartoonist in the mainstream press and the daughter of pioneer Black cartoonist, Brumsic Brandon, Jr., creator of “Luther.” Her exhibit, STILL: Racism in America, which chronicles 60 years of racism in America through the eyes of her and her father, was open in New York City from February 15, 2020, until the pandemic closed the gallery in March 2020. It is now in the planning stages of opening again at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University.