Having a son, I felt an immense sense of responsibility. Maybe more than bringing a black woman into the world (we already have a 2 ½ year old daughter). I didn’t know how to raise a son, a black son, and I wanted to do it right.
Unborn, he was already a “Man Matching Description,” and I feared the interaction in Jamaal May’s poem.
the flashlight that sears my eyes
is too perfect to look away.
[…] and there is no power in the very human
frequency range of my voice and my name is dead
in my mouth and my name is in a clear font on a license
I can’t reach for before being drawn down on—
Because the baton is long against my window,
the gun somehow longer against my cheek,
the vehicle cold against my abdomen
as my shirt rises, twisted in fingers
I was overwhelmed with the fear of experiencing the end of a life that had barely begun, and with the incessant violence against men of color my mind is no more at ease now with a 5-month-old baby boy.
There is one thing I feel like I can control: his clothing. I feel that clothing plays a tremendous part in his safety, since appearance is a large part of those descriptions of mistaken identity.
My father has worn a suit 95 percent of my life. During my childhood, he owned one pair of jeans that he wore only when mowing the lawn. Born in 1925, his generation of black men had fewer rights than they have now. His suit and tie, long overcoat and beret are his uniform. He was often labeled a “distinguished gentleman” who performed Shakespeare and sang “O Sole Mio” in a beautiful tenor.
I do not recall ever hearing my father speak to me directly about moments where he might have matched a description, and yet I know it was in the back of his mind.
My husband has a uniform as well. Since he’s French, it consists of a more tailored look than the average American man. But again, it’s usually nothing particularly matching “the description.”
So out of my own fear, I made a few mental rules for my son’s clothing choices:
No baggie jeans, baggie pants, or comfortable clothing for non-recreational use.
Nothing that would make him lose rank.
I imagined him in little suits like a friend’s sons, because I would let no one mistake my son and kill him. His life expectancy is already 5 years shorter than that of a white boy born today. And in a new poll by propublica.org, black males ages 15 to 19 are 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by police. If dressed in those suits, the stray bullet from that policeman’s gun that thought my son was someone he was not, would never happen.
So while my white female counterparts were thinking of nursery decor during their pregnancies, I could not escape the thoughts of how I must protect my son from his own country. A country struggling, as Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts puts it, “to assert black humanity in a country built on its denial.”
Is my plan foolproof? No.
Those choices didn’t work for my brother. I watched my parents’ concern about the same stereotyping. Neither of us had been the children who sat with the black kids in high school, but we weren’t members of elite organizations for the black middle class, like Jack and Jill, either.
As a child, my brother was a classic “Carlton Kid”: black, preppy and proud of it. But he didn’t stay that way for long. I remember an incident when he was in 3rd grade when he was on a Scout field trip. A white kid, who had been bugging him all year, teased him. My brother had been doing well in school at that point. But this little boy got into a fight with my brother and somehow, something was taken from him. Not physically, but he was a changed boy mentally and emotionally. As brilliant as he is, those kids changed him because his definition of black was not theirs.
Even Carlton was subject to matching a description.
When my husband dons his gym attire, which includes a hoodie, or when he works late and walks home from the train with his headphones on, I am concerned. I would feel more comfortable if a thought bubble floated above his head, displaying his IT resume, finance background and his thoughts on the John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Ornette Coleman that is likely playing in his ears.
The killings and violence against black men lately, especially black youth, is frightening. But can it be stopped? If the movement suited up its men and young boys, would the descriptions change and the outcome remain the same? Or are the hoodies and other pieces of baggy clothing just meaningless facades, making the description, as May depicts in his poem and as others describe, the dark skin, still struggling to find its way in a country that has used its wearer to its fullest.
Garlia Cornelia Jones-Ly is a mother of two, a freelance writer, playwright and Obie Award winning Theatre Producer living in Harlem. Follow her on twitter @garliacornelia.
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