We’ve been having the same conversation for more than a year: Is our black autistic son ready to walk home from school alone? We had a long list of reasons we didn’t let him do so in fourth or fifth grade, but we finally agreed, after much discussion, that sixth grade would be the year. But, as the time approached, I was still unsettled by the idea.
Not because he does not know his way home, or because I am afraid he will get abducted. Not because I think he will do something stupid.
I’m afraid because he has an impulsive need to climb the rock walls, even if they are in someone’s yard, because he’s 11 and it seems like fun. I am afraid of him walking on the manicured lawns of our hard-working neighbors because it’s a faster route than staying on the sidewalk. And because of his skin color, I’m afraid that he will be mistaken for a kid who seeks to vandalize something or is actively seeking an illegal activity (neither of which he’s ever done).
Maybe I am afraid of it all: of him getting lost in his thoughts, or realizing he’s late and taking a shortcut through someone’s lawn, or getting kidnapped.
It pains me to live with this constant dread, but I am afraid that our little boy will get fined, arrested or even shot, because the combination of his skin color and his developmental disability put him at an increased risk. People may assume, because he is black, that he doesn’t belong where he is. And they may misinterpret the telltale symptoms of his autism as suspicious behavior.
This seemingly simple rite of passage, giving our son the freedom to learn about the world around him and teaching him neighborly etiquette, is essential to his development. But it keeps me up at night. He (and we) will learn so much this next school year about what he is capable of, how far we can get ourselves out of our own comfort zones and how much we can help push the needle, even a little bit, to help show how little black boys (and girls) do not need to be feared, pushed aside or put neatly into a box simply because their skin tone is a little darker than their classmate’s or their neighbor’s.
Growing up, I often wished that I could change my own dark-brown skin color into something that would give me more privilege, something closer to the white shades of my peers’ skin. I spoke about this desire openly and honestly with my family, and they reminded me they loved me and others would, too, regardless of how dark my skin was. As I grew older, I learned to love myself inside and out.
My son has never expressed those reservations. He is as confident about his skin color as he is about his mismatched clothes, his growing Afro and his neighborhood. He feels as though he belongs and sees no difference between himself and his white friends. He doesn’t wake up or go to sleep at night with the same worry I do: that he will suffer or be treated unfairly because he is a tall, slender preteen black boy, in the midst of a heated political climate.
So how do we prepare him for what he doesn’t see coming?
We can continue to teach him about humanity. About loving his peers regardless of how they feel about his family — with his two moms and his little sisters who do not look exactly like him — his politics, or his hope that everyone will be treated fairly. We can (and will) continue to introduce him to all this life has to offer, including our ability to travel and help him to understand the world around him, trying diverse foods, volunteering in communities of need and that with love, anything is possible.
Earlier this summer, we took him to Bard College, my alma mater, to hear a commencement address given by U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). While Lewis spoke, our son looked on with excitement and wonder, as though his own future flashed before him. Our son saw a man who lived through the unimaginable — being beat down by policemen and arrested — who was one of the Freedom Riders, pushing to desegregate public transportation. Lewis fought for our freedoms, helping African Americans legally and officially become voting citizens with the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In his address, Lewis urged the graduates of 2017 to “get into necessary trouble to make this world a better place,” to “roll up your sleeves; the world is waiting for your talent to lead it to a better place,” and to “be bold, be courageous … use your education to redeem the soul of our nation.” Those words left all of us feeling stronger and ready to take on the world to make it a better place.
So our son is walking home this year because we can all learn a little more from one another, and we are hoping people can learn from him. Because he is part of a community that is a work in progress, because we trust him to find his way home, to be an example and to possibly make a mistake on his route home and learn from it. Lewis’s speech reminded us that time stops for no one, that the time is now to take action, to get up, to take one’s education and use it as armor to defeat injustices we may face.
Nikkya Hargrove is a wife, mother and writer based in Connecticut. Find her on Twitter @Nikkya1128.