Owen & Kyle, Fall 2014, age 10
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Today, we are dealing with the Ferguson decision. It is another sad, sad day for mamas of black boys. Deeply demoralized and shaking scared, we keep on fiercely loving them, and wait and hope for the world to see them as we do.
Today, I received a steady little flow of email from around the world, telling me how much my blog posts over the years are helping to navigate the rocky terrain of thinking through — and talking through with others — the Ferguson decision. That’s pretty humbling in the face of my own uncertainty.
Today, I picked up my beautiful boys from school (4th grade! times two!), sat with them to do their homework (long division! similes and metaphors!), made them a favorite dinner (salmon! green beans!), and tucked them into bed. Each day is such a blessing.
Today, my son Owen saw the front page of the New York Times and asked me, point blank: “Was the guy who was killed black or white?” I had to say, “Black.” If you could have seen the look on his gorgeous soft brown face, you would have felt just as sick to your stomach as I did in that moment. He knows. If you loved my boy — even a little bit — then the look in his deep dark eyes would have tortured your heart and soul just as much as it did mine. I swear it. You’d be inhuman to not feel the pain of it.
Five years ago I wrote this post:
The summer that I wrote that, Kyle and Owen were five years old. Gosh, they were cute at age five! And as toddlers?! Oh my goodness gracious land sakes alive, they were so very, very downright undeniably adorable! I could not get through an aisle of the grocery store with my two-too-cute-toddlers without at least one (but usually several) people stopping me to “ooooh!” and “aaaah!” over my sweet baby boys. Everyone (not just me) thought they were “ADORABLE!!!” The fact is, they were.
Today, they are ten. When you read the post from 2009 you will understand the significance of ten.
Ten year old twin boys. Here we are. They are all energy all the time. They are larger than life. They are AMAZING. They are getting a handle on the world. And, just as we knew it would, sure enough, the world is getting a handle on them.
It is hard, this thing. We knew it was coming, but that doesn’t help. It is like a storm that you know is rolling in. You first just hear the forecast (and maybe wonder if it is true), then you feel it brewing in the air (and know it is to be), then you see it with your very own eyes (the sky turns grey, the clouds take over, the wind starts whipping). You can get ready, you can prepare, if you are lucky (or privileged, as the case may be) then you can even take cover (we are privileged; we work hard to provide as much shelter as every single resource available to us will allow). You can hunker down and you can do everything right. But it doesn’t stop the storm from coming. It just rolls right in. It is bigger than us. It is more powerful than us. We are just there, relatively defenseless to its forces, attempting to cope as best we can. Hoping we are still standing for it to leave us in its wake.
That’s how it feels right now, at ten.
Right now, I’m just hoping and praying and wishing and trying-to-believe that we’ll somehow be the lucky ones — the parents of black boys who are lucky enough to watch them grow up and still be standing in its wake some day. I’m scared to hope for too much, but maybe someday we’ll be talking together about the challenges of raising their children, our grandchildren.
For now, for today, we are just trying to get through this. This period of time when we watch as our precious sons grow out of being cute little black boys in the eyes of the world. They grow up to be black men. Trust me, it is hard to watch.
In some ways, like all ten-year-olds, they are still so little.
Except, that they are not.
In addition to being ten, Kyle and Owen are big. They are just about the same height as me, and their feet are bigger than mine. They wear size 14 clothes, and their strong, athletic muscles are rippling.
We’ve hit the turning point. I’ve watched it happen. I’ve witnessed it first-hand. Over the past several months my sweet little adorable babies went from being perceived as just that, to being perceived just as I’ve long dreaded.
It has started.
I’ve been in the store and watched from a short distance as they’ve been followed. (Yes, already.)
I’ve heard it over the intercom system: “Security Alert. Section C. Security Alert.” (Yes, already.)
I’ve stood behind them as they’ve been stopped in line, being perfectly obedient, but being questioned. (Yes, already.)
I’ve watched as they’ve been wrongly accused. As the worst has been wrongly assumed. As the fault has been wrongly blamed.
The looks. The hesitation. The ever-so-slight facial expressions. The too-quick-to-judge.
It has only just begun.
It doesn’t matter that they go to an elite private school.
It doesn’t matter that they are straight-A students.
It doesn’t matter that they have white parents.
It doesn’t matter that they are well-travelled, worldly, well-dressed, polished, polite, poised. It doesn’t matter that their vocabulary is incredibly well-developed, that they have eaten in fine restaurants, have met famous authors, have seen world-class performances, know the names of the classic European composers and philosophers, know how to shake a hand and look someone in the eye and use their best manners when needed. It doesn’t matter that they are cloaked with class privilege and all of the advantages that go with it.
It doesn’t matter that they are gorgeous and charming and organically charismatic. It doesn’t matter that they are gifted and talented and have off-the-chart-IQs and that the world should be their oyster. It doesn’t matter. Still, they are followed, suspected, questioned, accused, judged, and — yes, already — feared. They are black. They are ten.
Maybe you think I’m crazy to say this. Maybe. Maybe you should try being the mother of ten-year-old black boys for a little while, and then see what you think.
You can’t write me off as an “angry black woman” because I’m not black. I am angry. And I am a woman. But I’ll tell you this: I’m white, I grew up around white people, I know white culture, I am embedded in whiteness. And what I see, feel, witness, and experience… it is real. If there is anything I know, it is that I know this is real. You can’t tell me it isn’t true because I am an insider and I know it is true.
My sons, no matter how authentically fantastic they are, are still black. They can’t get away with experimenting with how they dress, and they definitely can’t play with guns (at least not outside the walls of our home; their safe space, their oasis).
We can’t let them experiment too much, we can’t let them take many chances. We don’t have that luxury. Because they’re black. We have to tell them the truth: you’ll be judged quicker, you’ll be perceived more harshly, keep your hands out of your pockets, keep your hood down, no fast movements, never run, racism exists and it isn’t to be messed around with. We’ve got your back, but even we can only do so much. We are limited in how much we can protect you. No matter how much we try, no matter how much we love you, no matter how precious you are to us, no matter.
My sons are growing up to be black men. And they need to be prepared for what they could (almost certainly, will) encounter. We’d be gravely, woefully, unforgivingly failing them if we weren’t to prepare them for reality. At ten, they are in process. And it is heart-wrenching. Because I know the truth. I know that even though they’re black boys sporting hard-core bball jerseys, with biceps that are already popping, and locs that are getting long, they are also sweet, kitten-loving, nurturing, fragile spirits with hearts and souls of pure gold.
I know that even though they are ten-year-old black boys, they are still my babies.
But the world doesn’t see them as I do. No matter how perfectly they present themselves, no matter how spectacular they are, they will be disproportionately extremely LESS SAFE than if they were white. Kyle and Owen’s stellar reputations and hard-earned achievements and family-privilege will not necessarily get them as far as they choose or could go. Because the world might just choose for them and against them — in ways that would simply not occur if they were white. That is what it means to be entangled in structural, entrenched, historic, and systemic racism. No amount of privilege — or charm, or charisma, or pure raw talent — can protect them from the fact that they are black boys.
In this way, despite how extraordinary they are, despite their stunning life stories, despite all that they have going for them, they are no different than any other black boy.
Today is another sad, sad day for mamas of black boys. Deeply demoralized and shaking scared, we keep on fiercely loving them, and wait and hope for the world to see them as we do.