Sunday, March 25, 2012

What to Say to Our Black Children to Keep Them Safe

One day in 1996, when I was working a 9-to-5 job at Head Start, I received a phone call from my friend S., who lived about 45-minutes-drive from town. S., who is part Black and part Native, was in a panic because her son, R., who was maybe about 20 at the time, had called to tell her he had been arrested for “making an unsafe maneuver on his bicycle.” She begged me to go to the jail to make sure R. wasn’t mistreated or injured before she could get into town. She was terrified he would be beaten. It was late in the day and I was about to leave work to pick up my boys from afterschool daycare. My boys were about 8 and 4 at the time. I promised S. that as soon as I had gotten my boys I would go to the jail.

As I drove over to retrieve my own Black sons, I suddenly realized that I would have to explain to them why R., who often babysat them and whom they adored, was in jail. And to explain that, I had to explain why the police arrested him on a fabricated charge. And to explain that, I had to break the news to my children that the police were not always your friendly neighborhood helper if you happened to be a Black boy (or a Black man). And if I did that, it meant that their dad and I would have to have the talk with them, the talk that I didn’t think we needed to have until they were older, about the precautions that Black young men should take to attempt to stay safe in a racist society. It broke my heart. They were so young, so trustful.

We later learned that R. (who wore his hair in a huge fluffy Afro) had crossed the street in the middle of a block (instead of at the corner) on his bike. A police car immediately bore down on him. R. was in front of the house where he rented a room from our friend J. (who had a son R.’s age) and he was terrified when the police pursued him. He threw his bike on the front lawn and ran into the house. Within moments (this seriously happened), a half a dozen police officers forcibly entered J.’s house, with a snarling police dog and weapons drawn no less, threw R. on the floor, cuffed him, and accused him of resisting arrest! Meanwhile J. (who was physically restrained in her own home by officers) was screaming at the officers that they had no legal right to enter her house without a warrant. In the end, the city offered to drop all charges against R. if he agreed not to sue them. R. wanted to put the whole awful experience behind him and he agreed to the deal. S. didn’t want him to have a criminal record and the agreement would ensure that his record remained clean so she didn’t protest either.

Why am I remembering this story today? Because of Trayvon Martin of course. It brings all of my thoughts on this subject to the fore. The most insightful, moving, and downright useful words that I have read yet in the wake of the murder of this Black child in Florida were written by Touré in this week’s Time Magazine in an article entitled “How to Stay Alive While Being Black.” My Black husband takes exception to this overly dramatic and inherently defeatist title, and I don’t blame him, but the article behind the title is the most healing discourse I have yet read. I would dearly love to just put the whole article up on my blog, despite the copyright. I think this is where I’m supposed to tell you to pick up a copy of Time Magazine. Here is an inside tip: the article has been lifted in its entirety and posted elsewhere on the Internet. (Click here to go to one of those places. Don’t tell anyone who sent you.) I wish to respect the copyright, but I feel compelled to share some of Touré’s words because they touched me so deeply as the parent of Black children. He provides ideas about what to say to young Black boys about what happened to Trayvon, including excellent advice to Black young men regarding how to respond in potentially life-threatening situations. Here is an excerpt from Touré:

It's unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I'm sorry, but that's the truth. Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition. I tell you that not to scare you but because knowing that could save your life. There are people who will look at you and see a villain or a criminal or something fearsome. It's possible they may act on their prejudice and insecurity. Being black could turn an ordinary situation into a life-or-death moment even if you're doing nothing wrong.

There is nothing wrong with you. You're amazing. I love you. When I look at you, I see a complex human being with awesome potential, but some others will look at you and see a thug--even if their only evidence is your skin. Their racism relates to larger anxieties and problems in America that you didn't create. When someone is racist toward you--either because they've profiled you or spit some slur or whatever--they are saying they have a problem. They are not speaking about you. They're speaking about themselves and their deficiencies.

What if it's the cops who are making you feel threatened? Well, then you need to retreat. I don't mean run away. I mean don't resist. Now is not the time to fight the power. Make sure they can see your hands, follow all instructions, don't say anything, keep your cool. Your goal is to defuse things, no matter how insulted you are. We'll get revenge later. In the moment, play possum. Say sir. They may be behaving unjustly, but their lives aren't in danger. Yours is. If you survive, you will be able to tell your lawyer what happened. If you don't ...

I have often wondered if Emmett Till’s mother had had “the talk” with him before he left Chicago and went to visit her people in Mississippi in 1955, if something she said would have stuck in his mind and prevented him from risking and losing his life at the age of 14 by casually flirting with a white woman he did not know. If you don’t remember the story about Emmett Till, look it up. He was brutally beaten to death. His death was a significant event in the advancement of the civil rights movement. But if you were to ask me to choose between having my sons make history and having them alive and well, you can guess which result I would choose. I have emailed Touré’s article to my children. I do not exaggerate when I say that his words could quite possibly save their lives sometime (although I would prefer that they are never in a situation where they must use his advice). Thank you, Touré.

Trayvon Martin. Such a loss. Such a beautiful child.

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