Raising a Black Boy in America
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 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 wrote:
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 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 an 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. 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 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, exactly, when 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 my son 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 a 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 my dad 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, in this world I was insignificant. 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."
That was nine years ago. When the Trayvon Martin incident happened last year, 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 Emmitt Till's mom gave her son before she sent him down south that summer.) I told my son and his friend that if they are 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 today, post Zimmerman verdict: 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 an 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.