We didn't know that Bill Cosby was speaking at our son's graduation. And we had no idea about the magna cum laude thing, either.
Hamani had spent his last college semester in Rome studying art history and cinema -- his major -- in a Temple University overseas program. For three months, he was perpetually amazed: By his yellow Pumas traversing stone streets once trod by Marcus Aurelius's sandals. By sipping espresso in a building whose shell was a thousand years older than he was because Italians "keep beautiful old buildings rather than tear them down."
Mani barely knew the date of his graduation ceremony, let alone its speaker or his grade-point average. So when my husband opened his program at the Philadelphia event and found two stars by Mani's name -- indicating that he was graduating "with high honors" -- we were ecstatic.
Our middle son, 18, was unimpressed. Darrell said that he, too, would graduate from college holding a "magnum creme latte." With soy.
Cosby was nearly as funny during his brief Temple appearance, suggesting that what graduating seniors really learned was how to get drunk -- and how to sober up. The comic was apparently less hilarious earlier this month when, at a Brown v. Board of Education celebration in Washington, he castigated "lower-economic people" -- meaning poor blacks -- for "buying things for kids -- $500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for 'Hooked on Phonics.' . . . Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads."
Then Cos lambasted "the incarcerated" who aren't "political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. . . . People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, [saying,] 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' "
Cue media firestorm -- and the comedian's statement that his remarks specifically addressed the epidemic of inner-city African American males who are dropping out of school. In fact, Cosby -- despite cruelly oversimplifying things -- had a point.
So did NAACP Legal Defense Fund head Theodore Shaw, who reminded the audience that the black community's problems aren't all self-inflicted. Cosby's rant reflected a frustration felt by many hardworking, accomplished black folks about some of their less successful brothers and sisters.
I've felt it. But a more universal anxiety has pecked at me since Mani's graduation: the unease felt by countless parents of every hue whose sons and daughters are graduating from the nation's universities. Last week it hit me:
My son -- like millions of other parents' wide-eyed boys and mischievous girls -- is grown.
Moments later came a more comforting thought:
So far, so good.
Ten years ago, I wrote about Mani turning 12 and teetering on the edge of young black manhood. I was terrified of what I knew, and couldn't know, about his future.
Hamani, I knew, was becoming a black teenage male. "As such," I wrote, "his politeness, numerous 'Citizen of the Month' awards . . . and extensive knowledge of all things cinematic won't matter a damn."
Because before he opened his mouth, he could become a target:
Of merchants -- and passersby -- who see every young black man as a threat. "Of police, who statistics have shown detain, harass, assault, arrest and 'justifiably' kill black males -- some culpable, many of them not -- far more often than whites."
Like Cosby, I knew of dangers posed not by racists but by "kids -- many of them black -- who are mesmerized by our culture of toughness. . . . Some will pull a knife or a gun on another teenager for . . . nothing at all."
What I couldn't know was what kind of man my 12-year-old would become. Like other bright boys, Mani could have become entranced by the roughneck culture -- celebrated in endless Black Entertainment Television-run videos -- that sucks in youngsters who should know better. Kids like Raashed and Ricardo Hall, the job-holding brothers with no history of violence who, abandoning their churchgoing family's values, apparently obtained a gun to settle a you-diss-me-I-diss-you dispute.
Now the brothers face first-degree murder charges for the stray gunshot that killed 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie as she played in Northeast Washington.
My youngest son is 8. Mani and the Hall brothers were born months apart. I can't imagine the hell that the Cromartie and the Hall families are enduring.
Or that Cosby -- whose own beloved son, Ennis, was slain by a racist Ukrainian immigrant -- still suffers.
It would have been easy, sitting among other parents in Temple's auditorium, to have felt responsible for Mani's achievement. Responsible for his having resisted a crazy world's worst temptations. For his remarkable thoughtfulness, modesty and sense of self. For magna cum laude.
Apparently, I did some things right -- my worst fears as a single mom for eight years of Mani's life never materialized. But mostly I felt lucky. In a complex world in which racism's effects remain entrenched -- and in which black people must, to survive, stop blaming racism for their every problem -- I felt grateful for having been able to provide material, educational and spiritual benefits to a kid who, like every kid, arrived with wonderful traits I had nothing to do with.
I felt, "So far, so good."
Straining to see Mani from the cheap seats, I mostly felt love -- the tear-inducing waves of love that wash over us at such moments. It floated from the row before ours, where 60-something grandparents balanced a blond, bottle-slurping infant whose mother, they announced, "is a nursing graduate!" It wafted from beside us, where a Latino boy of 6 -- his curls perfectly parted -- sat waving at his mom in her cap and gown.
A decade after I confessed to still watching, bedazzled, as my preteen son slept, little has changed. One hand still yearns to pull Mani back as the other urges him forward into a world that could discount his amazingness. Watching him, I still feel that "if people could just know you, they could never hurt you."
Surely Chelsea Cromartie's mother felt the same enveloping affection. The Hall family's yearnings must have been as heartfelt.
How could I take credit for my son's not just surviving but thriving?
Parents who by the grace of God watch a son travel from baby bottles to hair-parts to driver permits to young adulthood, confident and strong, understand how blessed they are to breathe the words like a prayer:
So far. So good.