I don’t have any kids. Between my two brothers I have a whopping nine — uh, that would be 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 — nephews. They range in age from a few months to 14 years. All boys, no nieces. Nine little black boys who will wake up one day and be young black men. The oldest, let’s call him Malik, is navigating adolescence and fast approaching high school. Here’s a quick run-down of his last year of middle school:
- Straight-A student,
- Reads at 11th grade level,
- Likes basketball, but is no Michael Jordan,
- Only black kid in his honors classes,
- Called a “porch monkey” at school (by students),
- Told (by students) that “Africans are disgusting,”
- Asked (by a student) whether black mothers produce chocolate milk when they breastfeed,
- Accused (by the Vice Principal) of being “a snitch” when he told a classmate that another student had taken the classmate’s belongings,
- Removed (by a gym teacher) from a team of students because “the black kids can’t be on the same team” (insinuating that it wouldn’t be fair to the white kids),
- And finally, suspended for a week for fighting (he unleashed on a white kid who said in class that he (the white kid) knew more about being black than Malik does, since Malik “can’t play basketball”).
My other brother (Malik’s uncle) has a colleague (let’s call her Jasmine) who recently recounted an experience she had with her own adolescent son (let’s call him James). Jasmine is black and lives in the city; her son James attends private school with mostly white kids from the suburbs. Parents were hosting socials at their homes (with the kids) just to get acquainted. At one social, Jasmine offered a hand with the dishes as the event wound down. One of the white kids then said to James, “your mom looks like a slave.” When it came time for Jasmine to host her own social, no one wanted to come to her house, and they told her as much. In an attempt to accommodate what she assumed was their fear of safety issues in the city, Jasmine arranged to relocate her social to the suburban home of one of the other moms. They still didn’t come.
If there is a God, perhaps this is why he/she/it chose not to grace me with offspring. I’m simply not qualified. I don’t envy Jasmine for having to explain those events to her son. And I don’t envy Malik’s parents, my brother and sister-in-law, who are faced with the daunting task of turning Malik’s experiences into teachable moments and preserving his faith in humanity. And I can’t imagine the sinking feeling in their guts when Malik asked them, after the Zimmerman verdict, whether it was still safe for him to walk to the store.
I know it’s not that simple. But to a 14-year-old black kid having been bombarded with questionable media coverage of the Zimmerman case, it’s that simple.
Now. You might be thinking to yourself, “That’s an easy one; just tell Malik that if you don’t bash people’s heads into the pavement you won’t get shot.” I know it’s that simple. But to black families approaching the situation from the context I just outlined above, it’s not that simple.
This case is so complex (and so emotionally raw) that I can only tackle it in chunks. So please bear with me. I’ll be coming back to this topic in multiple posts.