On Saturday night, I was stunned at the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin. For the past few days I’ve tried to process what has happened and to put into words this event that will endure as part of the American narrative on race and race relations in the United States of America. Heart-wrenching. For the parents and family of Trayvon Martin. Powerless. That once again, the American judicial system has betrayed Black America. Angry. How dare “they” not value the life of an African American boy. Sad. It reveals how far we have to go.
As an African American mother of daughters, my heart hurts for the mothers of black boys. These are my daughters’ classmates, friends, future boyfriends and possibly husbands. My husband and I have always been committed to preparing our girls to define who they are through the lens in which God views them–they are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. We also instill the importance of knowing their history. The lesson we haven’t dealt with as much yet is understanding how they view themselves will not always be how others view them. This weekend was the beginning of the conversation for my 7 year-old. Too early for me, but required nonetheless. My rising middle schooler has a little bit more awareness of race than her younger sister, but she simply could not understand the verdict. This weekend we talked about Emmitt Till, Rodney King and Oscar Grant. With each minute of the conversation, I saw a little bit of their innocence robbed.
But, the robbing of my daughters’ innocence cannot compare to what I imagine their boy peers were being told this weekend. Regardless of the verdict, most black boys in America, if they have not begun the dialogue yet, are prepared for how to stay safe around middle school. My husband said his parents told him: “They are already scared of you, don’t give them any more reasons.” “Don’t pick up anything unless you are going to buy it.” “If stopped by the police, don’t be mouthy; answer with ‘sir.’” And, when he started driving, “If you are stopped, always keep your hands at 10 and 2.” Ironically, most of these conversations were to prepare young black boys for an encounter with police–not a private citizen. I wonder if the mothers on the jury have ever considered having to tell an 11 year-old boy strategies to stay alive? I suspect not.
It saddens me that some people cannot see beyond the stereotypical image that has been created of black men. It is comfortable to view them as a problem, shiftless, criminal, or a troublemaker. These images distort perception to the point that intentions and behaviors are imposed on black men and boys.
When I think about black boys, I think of my daughters’ classmates and boys at our church who for now are in the protective covering of their parents, but five to ten years from now could be Travyon Martin.
When I think of black boys, I think of Chandler, who represented his school in the district spelling bee. Yesterday when I picked up my daughter from camp, he ran over to me to speak and to my surprise give me a big hug.
When I think of black boys, I think of Stevie and his younger brother, who together I call “Double Trouble” because of their mischief. But, Stevie is also full of personality and a good student.
When I think of black boys, I think of Te’Sean who is always conversational, mannerable and helpful as a safety patrol in the car pool line.
When I think of black boys, I think of Terrell who is both “energetic” (read: all boy) and a thinker.
These and other black boys are not troublemakers, criminals or shiftless black men in training. They are not an invisible group. They are individuals with gifts, talents and promising futures. They are sons, brothers, nephews, and grandsons.
I know all of their parents. So, I can say with certainty that if I were the mother of a black boy, I would want the same thing their parents want for them. It is the same thing I want for my daughters. I want them to grow up and be law-abiding citizens, strong men and women of God who are fulfilling God’s will for their lives. Tragically, Trayvon Martin will never have the opportunity.