Sunday, February 16, 2014

A black mother reconsiders the talk we give our sons and daughters about breathing in a white world

When I wrote the article that I re-published at my website, it was New Years Eve, 2008: "Do black mothers still need to explain to their children the ways of the racial world?" The first article appeared at (formerly TwitterMoms), where I was contemplating the election of the first African-American president of the United States of America within the context of the deaths of black men that went unchallenged following Hurricane Katrina (Is black life worth more than a wine cooler?).

So, four years before the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida on February 26, 2012, the murder of unarmed black men by armed white men who claimed they feared for their lives troubled me. I returned to these thoughts and article after George Zimmerman's acquittal. And what?

Here I am again, the day after the verdict in the Michael Dunn trial. Dunn, a white man, shot to death Jordan Davis, a black, unarmed 17-year-old, in Florida in November 2012. Last night, a Florida jury convicted Dunn on charges of the attempted murder of Jordan's friends who were with in his vehicle that night, but it could not decide whether to convict Dunn on first degree murder charges for killing Jordan.

Again a Florida jury was unable to decide whether the presence of an unarmed young black male is a reasonable enough fear to justify an armed white male's fear for his life, giving the white male the right to shoot to kill. Is there no law in Florida that protects black children and youth from white fear? I think they would have us do the impossible, teach our children not to breathe around whites, rather than repeal the Stand Your Ground laws. But the Stand Your Ground laws seem to confuse jurors and annihilate justice.

I write this post today knowing that I have a young black son in Florida. I write this confronting an intimate fear.

In my 2008 article, I asked African-American mothers whether we (in this supposed post-racial world) still need to give our black sons warnings and hand down the rules of behavior that black parents have passed down to their children since Jim Crow ruled the South. Should we still prescribe to our sons a way of monitoring themselves around white people in hopes that our rules of conduct will protect them from being classified as a "thug" and beaten up or shot by the police or whites who jump to conclusions about black boys and men? I listed in the article some of the guidelines or rules I had laid out for my son, who was still living at home at the time.

As I look back at the rules now, I see that I advised him how to handle his body in stores and where to walk and not walk. I also talked to him about how to behave if stopped by the police, but I didn't advise against wearing a hoodie. That didn't occur to me then. (The .PDF of the original discussion group post, including the few responses it received, is at this link).

And neither did I advise him to not play music in his car at the volume he prefers. Probably that never occurred to me because my son is not the type to blast music in his car. But we never know what our children may decide do, do we? Jordan Davis was shot because he played music Dunn didn't like at a volume that Dunn didn't like. My son could meet a Dunn one day when he happens to be being playing his occasional rap song.

So, here I am again returning to my old article and the rules again in 2014, six (6 ) years after President Barack Obama made history being the first black POTUS. Some thought the image of an intelligent, powerful black male presiding over the nation would be enough to change the minds of some racists. I didn't. Still, when will we live in a country where we can at least feel black children, male and female (We cannot forget Renisha McBride in Michigan.), will not be murdered because they encounter a white racist coward with a gun (or anybody else with a gun who's been conditioned by white racism, such as a Zimmerman)? At the very least, when will we feel assured that if such a horrible fate befalls our child, a jury that includes even all white people will be able to see our unarmed child as an unarmed child, a victim of white fear, and not someone who deserves to be killed?

Again, when I wish I did not need to, I must contemplate the rules many black parents pass down that teach black children how to avoid becoming the targets of whites. These rules prescribe how to hold their bodies and behave around white people, how not to make sudden movements, how not to talk, how not to ever relax and live.

Of course, these rules that prescribe how to behave around white people also tie our children into straitjackets of so-called "non-threatening" behaviors. Their utterance reveals our awareness of how black bodies have been positioned throughout history in Western-European culture. By nature, the rules are also a habit of mind that reinforces this fallacy: if you are black and behave perfectly, then white people will accept you and treat you with respect.

The rules are an artifact in African-American culture and evidence that black people remain willing to be invested in the strategies of the same old respectability politics that fail us often. We live in hope that we're dealing with white people who may be persuaded to reason, who will not react to black or brown skin according to racist conditioning. It's a hope that unfortunately may also send the message to our children that they must be willing to cower in ways that white people don't have to, another example of how racism makes us all a little nuts.

Are we still wrestling with a double consciousness as DuBois defined it?

While we see the violent results of racism and create survival tactics for our children to deal, we also try blinding ourselves to the core ideology powering racism against African-Americans: "Black and perfect" is an oxymoron in a society that's succumbed to white supremacists propaganda. We blind ourselves to the truth that the rules will never protect our children from a white person with a gun who fears or hates people with black or brown skin. We try to blind ourselves to this reality when we instruct our children because we have to hold ourselves together and not let our children see how terrified we are sometimes for them and for ourselves.

So, it's 2014 in the "land of the free and the home of the brave," and black mothers and fathers are still watching the news and considering how to have "the talk" with their black children about white people who have lost their minds. What is the alternative?

We will probably need to have that talk for as long as there are white people on Earth who do not talk with their children about the necessity of treating every one with respect and the importance of working out differences peacefully, even differences with black kids in hoodies who play loud music and don't agree with white people. Until then, can we at least have better laws and fewer guns?


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