Sylvia Holloman’s busy world went like this on Friday afternoon: Get off work, drive home, gather up her three youngest sons, haul them and the family’s dirty laundry to the laundromat, wash clothes for 90 minutes, drive back home, prepare pork chops and peas — boys still at her side in the kitchen.
For Holloman, a D.C. police officer, it is the best strategy she’s found for keeping Rahim, 15, Raphael, 11, and Ryan, 5, out of harm’s way in a country where young black men often face peril — never let them out of her sight.
“I constantly worry,” said Holloman, 48, of District Heights.
“I worry because of the way the world is today for young black men,” said the mother of six, including a fourth son, Ronnie, 26. “It seems like there are so many ways they can get caught up: discrimination, drugs, not being able to find a job, going to jail, violence. You have to be on the lookout constantly to make sure they are safe.”
Bringing up black boys is so difficult now, she and other African American mothers said in interviews, because the boundaries surrounding their safety are more difficult to discern. Even the definition of safety takes on a different connotation.
It’s not just about physical harm. It’s about school, where black boys nationwide graduate less frequently and are suspended and expelled more frequently than other boys. It’s about the workplace, where it is more difficult for their sons to find and keep jobs. It’s about self-esteem, which is a constant battle for some black men and youths in a society where negative stereotypes leave some people fearful of them or hesitant to associate with them.
Jolene Ivey, a Maryland state delegate from Prince George’s County and the mother of five boys, founded the organization Mocha Moms to bring black mothers together to support one another in their parenting experiences. Like other mothers, she is concerned that her boys — Alex, 21; David, 18; Julian, 15; Troy, 13; and Aaron, 11 — “reach their full potential, do as well in life as they can, be as happy as they can, make contributions to the world, be good people and grow up in one piece.”
But she is also concerned about some issues that her friends who are white are less likely to face. Ivey and her husband, Glenn, the former two-term state’s attorney in Prince George’s, spent days on pins and needles after one of their sons was accused of a crime he did not commit. Although her son denied wrongdoing and she and her husband confirmed his version of events, authorities cleared him only after a series of text messages proved that he was not the culprit, Ivey said.
“I worry about them being accused of something they didn’t do, because there are severe consequences for that,” she said.
The days of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old murdered in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman, may be long gone, she said. But racism and injustice are still around. “It can be a police officer taking you off for something you didn’t do,” she said.
Without exception, the African American mothers interviewed for this article said they remain deeply concerned that their sons might be affected by physical violence.
For the women, who come from different walks of life, protecting their sons is not just a matter of keeping them out of crime-ridden neighborhoods and away from gangs. These days, stabbings occur at places like the National Zoo, shootings at locations like the Annapolis mall. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1996 and 2006, homicide was the leading cause of death for black male teens.
“It is every black mother’s fear that their son will be a victim of violence,” said the Rev. Cynthia Williams, a life coach and motivational speaker who works with women whose sons have been affected by violence.
Her son, Maurice Key, was fatally shot in 1998, allegedly while a friend played with a .38 handgun.
She had moved from Prince George’s to Anne Arundel County because she thought it would be safer for Maurice, 17. He was killed on a day that he skipped school and went to the District with friends of boys she did not know.
Former D.C. police chief Isaac Fulwood Jr., now chairman of the U.S. Parole Commission, said the effects of racism and violence have caused a reaction similar to post-traumatic stress disorder among black mothers. The more they hear about young African American men being victimized, the more they fear it.
“Concern about violence is a very legitimate concern if you just look at the statistics, the number of young black men who get murdered and murder each other,” he said. “As you parent African American boys, you have to teach him about the obstacles they have to overcome. In some neighborhoods, there is concern about crime. Then there are some neighborhoods where they will go where people will think of them as criminals, even if they went to Harvard. . . . Black mothers worry about all of that and the effect it will have on their children.”
So the moms take steps. Holloman — the officer who also has two daughters, Kimberly Holloman, 27, and Kendra Wilson, 22 — disallows freshman Rahim and his brothers to associate with boys she does not know. “Period,” she said. “I also have to know something about the parents because everybody does not teach their children the same things.”
April Tucker, 43, a former probation officer in Baltimore who now lives in Prince George County, Va., requires her oldest son, 26-year-old singer Tremaine Neverson, known as Trey Songz, to check in regularly, even though he travels with his own security detail.
She also limits where her teenage son, Forest Tucker, 16, can drive, including which gas stations and convenience stores he can patronize. Living in a majority-white area in rural Virginia, she says she has had to deal with situations in which he was taunted with racial slurs.
Tucker said she thought that she could protect Tremaine when he was young and they lived in Baltimore. But she worried when it came time for him to enroll in high school, so she sent him to her mother’s in Virginia. “I had heard about things like jump-in inductions in gangs and other things like that,” she said. “I felt like one of two things would have happened: They would eat him alive, or he would have to conform to survive. Neither option was acceptable.”
Northeast Washington resident and substitute teacher Lia Gillus, 54, called herself “overprotective” with grandson Ian Jr., 14. But she believes she has the right to be. Her only child, Ian, the boy’s father, was fatally shot in Mount Rainier in 1997 in a case that remains unsolved. She drives Ian Jr. to school and picks him up each day, seldom leaves him at home alone and will not allow him to ride the Metro.
“I blamed myself when my son died,” she said. “I felt that maybe I should have made different decisions. . . . But with my grandson, I’m watching closely. I have put it in God’s hands, but I feel like God is directing me to make the right choices. I know I’m more of a nervous Nellie than some, but I’ve got to be vigilant, because a lack of vigilance can lead to stuff happening.”
Ivey forbids her sons to wear their pants hanging low for fear that they will be mistaken for a “hoodlum” and suffer consequences from police who might suspect them of being involved in criminal activity or other youths who might challenge them.
Danette Tucker, 41, an administrative assistant who lives in Southeast Washington and is among a rotating panel of women who discuss parenting issues on NPR, said she has taught her children, DeVaughn Hooper, 17, and Imani Hooper, 13, what she calls “street wisdom.”
“Street wisdom is knowing that if bullets start flying, you hit the ground instead of running,” she said. “Street wisdom is knowing that if you are walking down the street alone and you see a group of boys walking toward you, that you walk in another direction. Street wisdom is knowing that sometimes you have to act crazy, to go off, instead of acting shy and timid. The same things I learned about surviving when I grew up, I taught my children.”
Every Sunday night after church, DeVaughn packs a week’s worth of clothes, stuffs his books into his backpack and heads to his grandparents’ house in Clinton. His mother wanted to ensure that he would be safe and get a good education, so she would not send him to schools near his home in Anacostia.
Like other sons interviewed, he said he often calls or texts his mother about where he is and what he’s doing, even without her asking.
“I don’t have a problem with what she does,” he said. “I know she’s trying to protect me. I know she’s doing what she thinks is right for me. It’s a mother’s job, I guess, to always be there for her son.”