On a cold night this winter, 60 African-American teenagers lined up in a banquet room. Each wore a suit and tie. Each had a straight-A grade point average.
“I wish the media were here now,” said the president of the organization recognizing the students in one of the best school systems in the country. “If there were some shooting, they would be here.”
I was sitting at a table in that banquet hall, not as a reporter but as a mother. I wept at the truth of that statement. And I wondered why our society doesn’t see our black teenage boys for who they are — children.
Why do these kids not have the privilege of walking freely through the world, un-judged? Why don’t they get the privilege “benefit of the doubt” bestows on other children?
I wish the world could see what a black mother sees — how our sons laugh and study late at night. How before the sun rises, they’re up early, studying even more for a physics test. Some of them stand taller than 6 feet, but they still giggle at a plate of fresh-baked cookies. Or talk with their friends about calculus, chemistry, and AP exams. They pore over Shakespeare’s works, analyzing Othello’s relationship with Iago.
But that’s a privilege we mothers of black children don’t often have.
Instead we have these conversations with our teens:
Mom: Did you see the story out of Florida?
Son: Which story?
Mom: The one about the man who shot the black teenager because his music was too loud?
Son: Oh, yeah. I saw that one.
Mom: What could you have done in that situation to avoid it?
Son: I don’t know.
Mom: No, really, let’s talk about. What could you do if you were ever in a situation like that?
Son: I guess I could just turn the music down and leave the store.
Mom: That is a good idea — avoidance.
Son: But it just seems like the man wanted to shoot somebody. Sometimes, I worry when I run home at night.
Mom: You shouldn’t have to worry. You should be able to enjoy your freedom. You should be able to be a child and not carry that burden.
Son: I know.
Mom: But just know to listen to your gut. That inner-voice you have within you is the voice of God. You will be OK.
She says that last line with overt confidence, but inside she’s torn up. Every time she reads a headline about another black teenager being killed, it hurts. It’s a feeling of fear so deep that it rides an inner core.
She thinks about all those mothers who probably had the same conversations.
What did Emmett Till’s mother say to him before he went South, before he was beaten and thrown into the Tallahatchie River?
What were the instructions of the mother of Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by a man who stalked him as he walked home on a rainy night?
What were the conversations Jordan Davis had with his mother? Davis was fatally shot by a white man who opened fire on him and three other teenagers as they sat in an SUV outside a convenience store.
Prosecutors argued that Michael Dunn shot up the SUV after complaining the teens’ music was too loud.
Jordan’s father, Ron Davis, told reporters that his son was a good kid.
“There are a lot of good kids out there,” Davis said. “They shouldn’t live in fear and walk around the streets worrying about if someone has a problem with somebody else that if they are shot, it is just collateral damage.”
Black parents feel that father’s pain and wrestle with perpetual questions: How do we protect young black male children from a world that seems to prey on them, in a society that considers them to be menaces, guilty until proven innocent?
How do we get the world to see who our sons are: children with universal privileges that come with being fully human?