The task of creating a home place was not simply a matter of Black women providing a service; it was about construction of a safe place where Black people could affirm one another and by so doing heal many of the wounds inflicted by racist domination. We could not learn to love and respect ourselves in the culture of white supremacy, on the outside; it was there on the inside, in that “homeplace,” most often created and kept by Black women, that we had the opportunity to grow and develop, to nurture our spirits. This task of created a homeplace, of making home a community of resistance, has been shared by Black women globally, especially by Black women in white supremacist societies.
– Bell Hooks
The tragic murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, brought a number of emotions to the forefront for many Black Americans. After the verdict was given I immediately called my mother. I knew that she would be up waiting to hear the jury decide. When she answered the phone I said “I can’t even speak.” She sighed and said “I know.” We were silent for a moment and I thought back to something she had said when the story first broke. I can’t remember her exact words but she said something like:
“The world will never understand the conversations Black mothers have with their sons.”
I asked her about that statement and we stayed on the phone for an hour.
The conversation made me realize that the emotions that the tragedy stirred up were personal and multi-faceted. My mother wasn’t just saddened by the loss of a Black child, that could have been hers, she was also disheartened by the reality that to Black in America is to be wholly unlike any other American and that objective fact trickles down into the cracks of our lives and changes it on a fundamental level. For my mother being Black comes with its specific share of issues, being a Black woman comes with another set of issues, being a Black mother comes with its challenges, but, most specifically, being the mother of a Black man has its own contextual concerns.
That conversation opened my eyes to a perspective regarding the Trayvon Martin tragedy that I did not have access to without hearing her feelings. For that reason, I decided to take a survey of the mothers of Black men to find out if they felt the way my mother did.
One central theme that rang out from the results of my survey was the notion of humanity. Many of the mothers stated that racial profiling, police brutality, and the violent racism that confronts their sons hurts them deeply because these men that they have carried in their wombs and brought into the world with love and hope are born with the odds against them. They are labeled as threatening and dangerous upon sight and it pains Black mothers that the world cannot see their sons as they do and doesn’t want to at least give them the opportunity to be innocent members of humanity.
One mother stated:
It saddens me to see people see our children as trouble or a threat. Our children are profiled just because they are black. When will they see our children as real people?
Another mother said:
“Well, when I was pregnant some of my fears were ofcourse keeping him safe from abusers, predators, and anything that can taint him before his time. As [he] got older, now 12, my fears began to be different. . . simple acts began to scare me, such as going to school and being mistreated, walking down the street to a friends house, playing ball in the street, things that are so typical and common for children to do, began to scare me. Now, I have the fear of my only son, walking to the store to get some skittles and a soda, and never returning.”
A number of mothers spoke about their fears for their sons. This fear forces them to forfeit their son’s innocence early in order to educate, inform, and train them to survive a world that in the blink of an eye will judge, condemn, and persecute them for the most trivial of things. One mother said
“My son has to bare an interrogation every time he wants to go to the basketball court, 50 feet from our home. Because Im afraid.– One thing in particular that stood out about that conversation was that I had to tell my son how to react if approached by the police. I told him to be sure to lift both hands high, look around for people that will be willing to stay and exercise their right to watch the police do their job, start to explain what is going on very loudly, so that other people will be involved, be sure to get the officers name, if you have done nothing continue to ask the officer why you are being arrested — Im HAVING to explain this to a 9 year old!!! America!!”
The tragedy is that among the fear of pedophiles, kidnappers, and bully’s is a fear of the individuals that we rely on for fairness, justice, and protection. To be afraid of one’s own country can be nothing if not psychologically damaging. Many of the mothers fear for their son’s mental well being. They fear that discrimination will batter their sons’ spirits and lead them to doubt themselves and seek the streets instead of education and professional employment. Black mothers struggle with how to sustain their son’s resolve. The result is a series of conversation, throughout their sons lives, to remind them that can overcome the opposition and succeed as one mother put it,
“Being Black is not your problem but their problem”
Several friends said to me that they didn’t understand what people were so upset about because Trayvon Martin was not the first Black child to be murdered and have his murderer escape justice and they are sure Trayvon won’t be the last. One friend said “people just need to get over it.” I listened and my heart broke. I thought how broken and damaged we must be to not be able to empathize with the pain of a violent and sudden loss of life. That kind of apathy comes from having one’s hopes dashed one too many times. It’s an egregious kind of despair that is ignorant of its own origins. Yes it’s true Trayvon is not the first or the last; but, the truth also is that if we responded to every act the way responded to Trayvon, it would stop. We don’t need to care less; we need to care more.
When I hear comments like that I think about my own feelings that I had expressed to my mother on the phone that night when I reminded her of my many run ins with police and people who had demonized me — despite all my efforts to stay out the streets, go to school, speak proper English, dress appropriately, and obey the law — I said to her, “That could have been me. That isme — the only difference is I didn’t die.” And then I think of my mother, who I was fortunate enough to have stand behind me each time, and how it must feel for her and mothers like her to bring a human life into this world and have that life denied humane treatment. To be the mother of a Black man is to be robbed of the parental right to protect and care for your child. For the mothers of Black men, the reality is that they only have a few years to love their sons hard enough to strengthen against the lovelessness of the world and they only have a short while to have the conversations necessary to teach their sons to survive America.
Yes, we were trembling. We have not stopped trembling yet, but if we had not loved each other, none of us would have survived, and now you must survive because we love you and for the sake of your children and your children’s children — You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned…in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry. — But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word “integration” means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become. – James Baldwin
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man