A Tumblr quote floated over to me about around the time of Trayvon Martin's murder, from a Jonathan Lethem book that I've never read (The Fortress of Solitude). At this point, I don't really need to read it, because it's already asked me the most important question I've heard in a long time: "At what age is a black boy when he learns he's scary?"
This question retains its relevance now more than ever. Some have called Michael Brown's killing and the newly newsworthy manifestation of systemic racism and state-sanctioned brutality against black men a reproductive issue, arguing that it prevents women and men from their right "to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments:" It makes people afraid to have black babies, because they won't stand a chance. As a black woman, nothing will stop me from bearing and raising my future child, but nothing will stop me from raising them in fear.
Such is the burden of black parenting. Being a black parent, especially of a black boy, comes with the added onus of having to protect your child from a country that is out to get him—a country that kills someone that looks like him every 28 hours, a country that will likely imprison him by his mid-thirties if he doesn't get his high school diploma, a country that is more than twice as likely to suspend him from school than a white classmate.
This fear has fueled a generational need for a portentous, culturally compulsory lecture that warns young black men about the inherent strikes against them, about the society that is built to bring them down. It is a harbinger of the inevitable, a wishful attempt at exceptionalism, passed down like an heirloom.
Every black male I've ever met has had this talk, and it's likely that I'll have to give it one day too. There are so many things I need to tell my future son, already, before I've birthed him; so many innocuous, trite thoughts that may not make a single difference. Don't wear a hoodie. Don't try to break up a fight. Don't talk back to cops. Don't ask for help. But they're all variations of a single theme: Don't give them an excuse to kill you.
I needed advice on how to do this, so I reached out to a small group of people. For black parents, I asked: What rules, warnings, survival tactics are you giving your children as you raise them? For black youth: What have you been taught? What did you learn on your own? And for everyone: What would you have told Michael Brown before he left the house that afternoon?
Angela Jackson-Browne, 46, Indianapolis, In.
I have raised a white stepson, who is 26, and my own black son, who is 24. My conversations with them concerning the police are different depending on the circumstances they are entering into.
When they are together, I have taught my white stepson that he will be treated for all practical purposes the same as his black stepbrother. He gets that his white privilege is null and void when he is hanging with the "brothers." I have also taught my white stepson that when he is alone or with white friends he will be treated with a certain level of privilege that his black stepbrother will never know, and he has seen this happen time and time again. Ironically, he is the one who likes to sag his pants, yet he has never been harassed by the police even in situations where he probably should have been.
My black son—I have always taught him to treat the police the same way he would a Klansman, because in parts of the south where he grew up, they were often the same. He is taught to interact with them as little as possible. Get stopped for a traffic violation: Use your Sunday school manners. Keep your hands where they can be seen, and above all else, do not argue. My daddy passed on that lesson to me, and sadly, if I have grandchildren, it seems they too will have to get this same, dirty lesson.
Michele Sims-Burton, "fifties," Alexandria, Va.
I have a 24-year-old son. I have given him the talk. He has been with me when the police stopped me, primarily because the police recklessly eyeballed my son, and didn't see me—the little old lady—driving the car. So he knows the drill. Ask the police before you reach for your license. Ask the police for permission to get your insurance card and registration out the glove box. Do not answer any questions. Just do as you are told.
Once my son and I were getting out the car at the shopping mall, the police approached him and asked him: "Did you just leave the mall?" I intervened. I instructed my son to "never, ever answer a question from the police." Ask the police: "Am I free to go?" Do not answer any questions. Be polite. Be cordial. But never answer any questions. Keep asking: "Am I free to go?" "Am I under arrest?" "What are the charges?" "May I make a phone call?" However, do not move suddenly. Do not get smart-alecky. Do not run. If the police start swinging, drop to the ground, protect your head and vital organs by curling up in a ball on your knees.
I've given my son this talk. And it terrifies me that in 2014, I text and call my son throughout the day not because I miss him so much, but because I am checking on his safety in this racist, militaristic society.
Godfrey David, 25, Brooklyn, N.Y.
I've been given this talk many times by many people. Don't be aggressive. Police usually work in groups of two: If you see one, assume there is one you cannot see. Nine times out of ten, people will believe the police over believing you. If a cop hits you, don't fight back: Hope that someone will notice and say something. Never match outfits: More than three men dressed in the same color equals a gang.
When I was younger, I listened, but I didn't think it applied to me. My eyes weren't opened until I was older; I was stopped numerous times in high school. I played the French horn, and was once pulled off the train by a cop who thought it was a bomb or that I was smuggling drugs or weapons. In college, I was accused of stealing laptops, and a policeman came to my door. He was actually pretty nice, though.
I think the advice I was given is great. It's very practical. I plan on having kids and I want to be a great role model. But I find myself thinking on the world they're going to live in. The future doesn't look so bright. A growing fear of mine is that I will die at the hands of a police officer. What scares me the most is it happening in front of my children.
Nico Davis, 25, Gary, In.
Growing up in Gary, Indiana, the so-called murder capital of America, has shaped my experience. We saw cops attack first and ask questions later. So the first lessons came as microaggressions. Barbershop banter about the newest black celebrity victim, showing you that socioeconomic status didn't matter because you'll still look black. Seeing your parents shrink into themselves when talking to officers, going back to "servant talk," as it was called it back then.
The big talk came after we were disrespected in our own home by police. When my mom came home, she was furious! Ranting mad! Now was the time for the talk. "Cops don't care about black people."
No sugarcoating. There it was. "Look, stay away from cops. They are not your friends. You answer their questions if they ask you with 'yes sir' and 'no ma'am' unless it is incriminating, then you exercise your right to be silent. Don't talk back, don't even slouch, pull up your pants. Be polite, no sudden movements. Don't give him a reason because these cops will shoot you and not think twice about it." She used choice other words, but that was it. All our suspicions, fears about police vocalized by the smartest person we knew.
My kids will get all the talks. I'll teach them to respect the law and the people tasked to uphold it, but to be weary of them as well, because they are still people, too. Flawed people. I will teach them that hate has many forms and racism is but one head of the hydra. I will teach them to speak out when their rights are violated and treat every injustice with the incredulity it deserves.
Because I never want my kids to be used to it. To think it's normal behavior to be dehumanized by others. I will teach that no reason is enough to justify their demise. I will teach them that they are human, too, regardless of their hue and their personhood doesn't need to qualified with descriptors like "honor roll student," "good kid," or "nice to everyone." Maybe we'll get justice before that time comes. Just maybe.
Mordecai Cargill, 23, Cleveland, Ohio
It's really been an on-going dialogue. Since I was very young, I have been very aware of the fact that my blackness and my maleness/manhood—two features that are essential to my identity—make me both a target and a threat. My parents, especially my father, made sure to impress upon me the seriousness of this predicament. Not because my being a black man is something I should be ashamed of, but because they fear for my well-being.
As a minority student at a predominantly white prep school, I discovered what it meant to be a subject of examination. Boys who were not like me, some of whom had never really been around black people, were often intrigued by the way I talked, the way I dressed, the way my hair felt, etc.
In high school, when I started to really develop (physically, that is) into a man, is when I started to feel like a threat, and paradoxically, threatened. This was when the lectures began to take on an even more urgent and desperate tone. My father would harp on the dangers of dressing like "a thug," or listening to loud, explicit music. He cautioned me not to give people an excuse to harass or even arrest me. I'd listen and dismiss his warnings as the stale pronouncements of old guy who was completely out of touch with what was going on. As I've continued to mature, I've gained some understanding of the real fear behind my father's lectures.
Not too long ago I was haunted by the words of James Baldwin, in an interview, challenging the white reporter: "You try facing your son, on the day that he is first called 'nigger,' in land of the free and the home of the brave." I can't imagine what I'd say to my son, but I'm sure it'd be very similar to what my father said to me.
Robert Stephens, 26, Kansas City, Mo.
It was the last day of school, and I was walking with my dad, preparing to leave. Suddenly, he paused, looked at me intently and said, "Son, you're a black male, and that's two strikes against you." To the general public, anything that I did would be perceived as malicious and deserving of severe punishment and I had to govern myself accordingly.
I was seven years old.
In time, I would come to understand this moment as "the talk." The talk wasn't respectability politics, it was survival. His words weren't offered as a solution to racism—as if personal conduct could erase structural forces and counteract the weight of history. His motivation was simple, he wanted to see me alive and well, and he believed that understanding the potential consequences of my blackness was necessary for my well being, both physical and mental.
Years passed, and my father's wisdom regarding the dangerous consequences of blacknesses rang true time and again. Now, after he passed, I find myself in the same position where he once stood—wanting to see my people alive and well despite a society that lives off of our deaths.
My nephew is 13 years old, half my age. When he was 11, we were at a grocery store in Durham, N.C., and he was being goofy per usual. I pulled him to the side, looked him in the eye and explained to him that when he's in public, especially when around white people, he had to avoid drawing attention to himself because, as a black boy, anything he did was likely to be perceived as menacing and deserving of punishment (even death). He nodded and we quietly finished shopping.
It was "the talk," much like my father had given me—and it should not be a right of passage. I'm pretty young, and I'm already tired of having to give black kids "the talk."
Fatima, 27, Boston, Mass.
I gave my seven-year-old son a talk about Ferguson. I was brutally honest. Maybe too honest. I told him that the police put a target on black men on this country. I told him I am angry because I don't want him dead or in jail one day for a crime he either didn't commit, or because he was minding his business and a police officer sees he fits "the profile."
He asked if I thought he was going to die by the police one day. I told him that I don't think that will happen, but that I am scared because I have no control over the police's actions. He was also… scared. Worried. Troubled about what I said. I'm sure up until that point, he had the impression that the police were there to protect people. I like being honest with my son.
When he went to the rally in Boston with me, he was scared to even look at the police. That I feel a tiny bit of guilt for, but I think he should be scared of the police. I know I am. I'm scared for him! Its a continuous conversation for us, and I let him know that right now the police won't come after him, and that's only because he's 7. It's only a matter of time where he can't protect himself from the police solely because of how he looks. And it's only a matter of time before I can't protect him either.
I see my son in all of the victims who have died from police murder and brutality. Every last one of them. I can't even begin to imagine what Mike Brown's mother is going through. My son is my soul. My light of my life. I will gladly take any bullet, whatever, if thats what it means to keep him safe.
But I can't protect him from the police. And that terrifies me. So I have to do something now, to at least try to make change so my son can walk the streets freely and be protected instead of beaten, harassed, targeted or murdered.
Junius Hughes, 48, New Haven, Conn.
I got the talk when I was about thirteen, in the late '70s, when I moved from Brooklyn to Virginia. I had a pretty guarded life in Brooklyn, but Virginia was immediately different: blacks only interacted with blacks, and whites only interacted with whites. It made me hate the South.
I gave your brother the same talk my father gave me: be respectful, but don't be an Uncle Tom. Never give them a reason. Your blackness is already reason enough—don't give them another. The moment you resist that authority, it gets out of hand.
Young black males—we have a lot of braggadocio. We want to look cool, but we don't always act right. That's what the black male has to fight against, that kind of brutality against ourselves, and that's the problem. That's all that cops see.
The playing field between white cops and black males will never be equal. There's an inherent tension. You already fit a profile, and they're coming to you with that understanding. The white American male will always be on a higher pedestal than you. A cop has a badge, a license to shoot, and a gun, and, if he's worried about his safety, he's gonna make sure that if anyone goes home that night, it'll be him.
[Image by Sam Woolley]