I reached back for words to try to help me understand the horror of Trayvon Martin’s shooting. Before I had a son of my own, another mother’s fear for her black son as he reached an important milestone moved me so. In 1994, former Post columnist Donna Britt’s son Hamani turned 12, the age Britt said black mothers had to have “the talk” with their sons about all the ways they could get shot.
A rite of passage for black boys in America. Perennial, like the crocuses of spring.
“Each day, mothers’ sons die and no one even pauses,” she wrote.
But we are pausing over Trayvon. Crying, emailing, inboxing, rallying. Wringing our hands. Raging. Talking to our children.
My son Satchel is nine---surely, surely, surely he is too young for the talk. I make copies of Britt’s column, and bite my lip hard so as not to cry in front of editors. Nearly 20 years later, and I still remember the kicker. “You deserve to live. To live.”
“To live,” she wrote.
Sweet Jesus, Trayvon Martin deserved to live.
My son is nine.
Perhaps it is time for “the talk.”
Here is Donna’s column in full:
Impossibly, he became 12 -- a full dozen years old -- on Saturday. One day soon, we’ll have to have The Talk.
Not about sex. Hamani and I have been discussing that, rather raucously at times, for years. The real subject that my son’s incipient teens demand is one that I’d rather avoid -- more, even, than dental appointments or the too-tight skirts in my closet. But there it is.
As the mother of a black son, I haven’t the luxury of just getting depressed about what Mani’s adolescence suggests about my own age, or about losing him to friends, a woman or a career. I can’t just talk about drugs, condoms or the ne-cessity of keeping his family close, and God closer.
There are other things I must stress.
I think back to when Mani was 4, right after we moved to suburban Washington from Detroit. I’d called a Montessori school near our new home in Virginia about enrolling him.
The woman who answered was polite in that unmistakable, you’re-lucky-I’m- talk-ing-to-you way. But I forged on, finally asking about the school’s ethnic makeup. After two years in a terrific Afrocentric preschool, I explained, my son’s exposure to a greater mix of children seemed important. She paused at the revelation that the mother on the other end of the line was black.
“Is your son -- nice?” she asked. “We’ve had problems with a couple of our black boys. . . “
I stammered something about Hamani’s sweetness before it hit me. Surely at a school with an over-60-percent white student population, there had been problems with more than a couple of white 4-year-olds. At every multiethnic school I’ve attended, challenging kids came in every shade.
Were white parents asked about their son’s niceness? How would a woman with such an attitude teach my son? It was paralyzing, facing the first, concrete proof of the prejudice that my wonderful child was bound to encounter.
It was nothing compared with what he may deal with in a few years.
Hamani will be a black teenage male. As such, his politeness, numerous “Citizen of the Month” awards from his school, honor-roll grades, perfect diction and ex-tensive knowledge of all things cinematic won’t matter a damn.
Before he can even get his mouth open, some people will judge him. And he could become a target:
Of merchants who suspect young brothers, however neatly dressed, of shoplifting.
Of police, who statistics have shown detain, harass, assault, arrest and “justi-fiably” kill black males -- some culpable, many of them not -- far more often than whites. If you doubt this, ask an African American man. Almost any will do. He’ll probably say something like my slight, 5-foot-6 best friend from college once said: “I have been stopped by the police at least a dozen times. And I’ve never committed a crime.”
Most frighteningly, my son could become a target of other kids -- many of them black -- who are mesmerized by our culture of toughness. Today, little girls sing along with M.C. Lyte about wanting a guy who’s a roughneck, and plenty of boys seem glad to comply. Some will pull a knife or a gun on another teenager for an imagined slight. Or for nothing at all.
It’s even possible -- no one who knows Mani can see it, but there it is -- that my son could decide to become such a youth. Either way, there’s a clear bottom line:
Black boys are dying, everywhere and every day, in America.
Up to this point -- and not entirely to my credit -- I’ve kept my terror over the carnage in check. It’s been 15 years since my older brother was shot dead by police, years in which the resulting hole where stomach should have been has filled. I never want to feel that yawningly open, that empty, again.
But I’m beginning to think, really think, of what it will mean to let Mani out of my sight.
I mean, someone could take him away.
He doesn’t know how often I watch him and his little brother curled in sleep. How I sit, dumbly marveling. Look, I say to no one, at how much space he takes up!
I remember my squeal from when he took his first, ducklike steps on a long-ago Valentine’s Day. And the time, a few years back, that he sheepishly said that he “couldn’t wait to, you know, kiss a girl.” And how a year ago, a stranger who’d sat next to him on his first solo plane trip called me at work to say, “Your son was so smart and so self-possessed -- I thought you should know.”
Awash in love, bedazzled by it, I think: If people could just know you, they could never hurt you.
But women’s children are hurt every day.
There’s the woman who called to say that her son, 17 -- a pre-engineering stu-dent currently on crutches -- was robbed at gunpoint en route to a funeral.
There’s that brother who housesat for white friends in Falls Church, whose neighbors, unaware, thoughtfully alerted police. He found himself face down on the ground with a police pistol at his head. When he was released, no one even said, “Sorry.”
Each day, mothers’ sons die and no one even pauses.
I don’t like thinking this. I don’t like knowing that soon my son and I will talk, more pointedly than ever, about all of this hurt, this death.
Afterward, I’ll ask my husband, a black man who understands too well, to repeat the rules that every child -- but especially a black one -- should know:
Never be cocky or make any fast moves with a cop. Never fight if it is possible to walk away. Know that your manhood is defined not by what’s in your pants or on your back, but by the responsibility and self-respect in your heart. Watch where you are, and who you’re with.
Remember, anybody can have a gun.
As the years pass, I will say these things over and over. And every so often, I’ll remind him -- and everyone else who’ll listen -- of what the world some-times suggests that he forget, of what I repeat as I stare at him sleeping:
“You are so precious. You deserve to live. To live.”
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