Being a Black Mother in the United States
In 2003, when he was five years old, I wrote an article for Parents magazine about my experiences parenting him. As a 21-year-old growing up in the United States, I look back on my initial paper hoping that this generation will make a difference.
My son is a 21-year-old man, and I wrote this essay when he was just five years old. Even though I’m writing this article for the fourth time in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, I’m only cautiously optimistic about the future.
Then again, we’re back where we started. I hope to see so many young people—of all races and ethnicities—show up in the streets and make their voices known, even amid a global pandemic. I am asserting one’s voice to the endless list of injustices in the United States. It’s possible that we, the millennials, will be the ones to bring about change.
When I revisited my piece in 2012, I added the following:
Over the past nine years, I’ve revisited my thoughts on raising a black child in the United States in this essay. Things have changed. The idea of a Black president of the United States never occurred to me when I wrote this.) In many ways, things haven’t changed much at all.
Even though my now-teenaged son was only in kindergarten when it happened, the Trayvon Martin tragedy reminds me of precisely the same sentiment I expressed then.
I wrote the following back in 2003:
One of my few sonograms revealed that I was expecting a boy, and the technician who performed it said so out loud. “A what?” I exclaimed. “You don’t want a boy?” he inquired, perplexed. I attempted to alter my demeanor as quickly as possible, but I was frightened.
See, I’ve experienced first-hand what it’s like to be a Black woman in the U.S. I was sure I could help a girl deal with the racism and sexism she would face, but what about a boy? When I had a kid, what was I going to do? Fortunately, I have a wonderful spouse who is intelligent, insightful, and well-versed in the realities of being a Black man in the United States. But what about me? I have no clue. What can I bring to the table? What exactly are my apprehensions?
As a mother, I worry about how to explain to my 5-year-old son that we don’t live on Sesame Street. Statistically, the older someone gets, the more likely he will be a victim of violence. A duck in the water is what I’m bringing into this world.
My spouse and I will have to inform our youngster that not everything is equal for his good. You have to tell him that in six or seven years, he’ll be the victim and be considered a suspect in the eyes of many because of the color of his skin—and that’s just for being black.
They’ll be “a gang” and, depending on who’s looking, “a menace” if he hangs out with any of his black pals outside, even if they have basketballs and water bottles. It will be necessary for me to teach my son that he is not permitted to be “mischievous” like his white counterparts are. My son can be put in “time out” for a dare to steal a candy bar for a white friend, but it’s also possible for him to be shot. For a white lad, a teen’s “joy ride” is simply that, but it means criminal larceny for my son. As depressing as it may sound, he must be made aware of racism, if only for his good.
My brother was routinely stopped by the police while growing up in an all-Black neighborhood on Long Island. He was told to “take the position” every week, as he put it. Racism’s not-so-subtle nature can be shown this way: a slight exaggeration. In the end, the truth isn’t always pleasant.
But how can you know when to tell your child this bad news?
My parents took the family on a road trip to the March on Washington when I was a little older than my son is now. My memory of that journey is hazy at best. My grandparents lived in Washington, D.C., and that trip was one of several we’d take there throughout the summer. As an adult, I’m glad to know that in 1963 I shared a room with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr in the nation’s capital. Societal consciousness and social problems were introduced to me at that time.
How do I know when to have “the talk” with my child?
It may be like sex. It’s best if we don’t bring it up until he brings it up.
Assuming that is the case, then he appears to be prepared. My son attends a Montessori school in Queens where 98% of the students are Black, where we now live (the remaining two percent are non-white). I was surprised when my son confided in me that one day he wanted he could match the skin tone of everyone else. Hearing those remarks from my melanin-deficient son touched my heart.
“It takes many kinds of people to make up the world, small ones, tall ones, fine ones, kind ones…” I murmured, hiding my desire to be a little browner myself. He lost interest in my unplugged version of “Too Many Fish in the Sea” before I could finish it. He also once inquired whether or not there were more Black people than white people in the country. When you asked me if I thought it would be legal here, I responded no. He went away with a bewildered expression on his face. He didn’t want to engage in a conversation, but he needed my clarification.
He’ll be attending one of those illustrious Manhattan independent schools starting in the fall of his senior year. As in the actual world, he will be a minority. There will be roughly 70% white people and 30% non-white people in the group (Blacks being a smaller portion of that percentage). My child will be shocked by this experience. Next year, I’m sure he’ll have even more inquiries.
After these years, I finally got what my father was trying to tell me. When I was a hopelessly romantic young lady, I said to him that I would rectify all of humanity’s racial wrongs one day. I was going to make a significant impact on the world. My father advised me to relax and accept that I was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Insignificant?! Not me, not at all! I was astonished by what he had to say. At the time, I didn’t get it. I’ve got it now.
My bubble wasn’t going to burst, and he attempted to keep me safe. You see, slavery’s legacy is that. As parents of Black children in the United States, the lessons we’ve learned instruct us to advise our children, “Reach for the stars, but be ready to be knocked down.”
Yesterday, I had to tell my son and a friend about Trayvon Martin’s death before they went to the park. Before Emmett Till’s mother sent her kid down south for the summer, she probably gave her son a speech like this: “Yes, sirs” and “Yes, ma’am” were the phrases I used to teach my kid and his friend if they were approached by anyone with “authority” (fake cops included).
As a reminder, I told them to answer any questions they were asked without sarcasm or ambiguity (which is precisely what, at their age, they are developmentally hard-wired to do). We discussed how I’d rather see them humbled than injured or worse and how it may seem unfair.
So, I suppose we’ve returned to the place we never left in the first place. While it was distressing to learn that the jury ruled the shooter not guilty because he claimed self-defense in the shooting murder of an unarmed Black youngster, I was not surprised.
Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself in the wrong way. I can still feel a little bit of that navely upbeat young lady inside of me.
I’m writing this in the hopes that it would shed light on the experiences of many of us who are raising Black children in America. To that end, I would be delighted to contribute my thoughts to the ongoing dialogue about racial issues in this country. My current circumstance is suddenly back in the spotlight.
It’s 2020 now. All of the young people who have taken to the streets to protest George Floyd’s horrific murder in Minneapolis have my full support and admiration. A white cop putting his knee to an unarmed Black man’s neck should not be lost on anyone, especially when “taking a knee” in peaceful protest on a football field has been so demonized. Black Lives Matter has taken off since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman and Mr. Floyd was shot and killed by George Zimmerman.
The backlash is inevitable: “What do you mean Black lives matter? “, for example. “The lives of all people are of the utmost importance!” “However, I have my response—this opinion post that I authored was first published in 2017 but is still relevant now:”
In the past, I’ve heard both black and white people use this comparison to illustrate why Black lives matter: Consider a dinner party where guests of color and white are both present and contributing to the conversation. Only the whites are fed when the meal is presented. It’s clear. We all need to eat—white and black alike. Bam! There is an issue with this simple example because it doesn’t go far enough.
What do you think about this? The dinner bell has rung for the second time in a row. Whites and Blacks sit down at the same table, but this time they bring their children with them to the table. It’s time for dinner. Again, the food is restricted to the whites exclusively. When youngsters are hungry, parents must inform them, “This is just how it is.” Getting used to it is something you’ll have to do. Imagine for a moment that this scene was repeated for centuries. Countless individuals are a part of this.
The question “WHY?” has been a burning one for Black people and their children, their children’s children, and so on for a long time. We’d starve to death if we didn’t have food!” “We’ve done it, and so can you,” is the most common response. That’s a devastating explanation. There is nothing left to hope for. Dreams never come to fruition or even have a chance of becoming a reality. Exactly how does a parent instill in their child a lack of ambition?
Then we’ll flip it around. The dinner bells keep ringing, and generations of whites keep showing up. In addition, they are constantly fed. They favor a status quo ante. Food is a fundamental part of daily life. Those who are more empathetically oriented must explain to their children why they get to eat and what they don’t. For centuries, the answer has been progressively tricky. “That’s simply the way it is” is a standard answer from whites. They can, however, include the phrase “Eat up!”
Few whites these days think of their food as a sign of entitlement. The luxury of food has become a central part of the white identity for the majority of the population. For them, living differently is a terrifying one. They cling even more tightly to their plates of food in fear and desperation. Many people would fight (or kill) for a single piece of food that fell off their plate and into the scale of a Black person, while others would pat themselves on the back and boast about their generosity in allowing it to be shared.
However, I’m not sure what the answer is, but we all need to eat!
Oh, and did I mention that first grader who inspired me to embark on this adventure? A senior at NYU, he studies Black art, culture, and performance. He’s now working on a book on the subject. Even now, I’m concerned about his well-being. When he’s Black, I will always love him.