When I was 13 years old I had a terrible dream. I could not remember exactly what happened, but I was somewhere high up and the ground was far below and I was terrified. I don’t think I was afraid of falling, but I knew something was not right. I woke up in a cold sweat and a very real sense of fear – I was straight scared. I had no idea that my dream would change how I saw the world around me forever.
A final moment of innocence lost.
That morning, I carefully looked through my closet to find the “perfect” High School outfit. It was hard, as a freshman to try and dress the part and fit into this new environment. I longed to be the ultimate B-girl or at least the stereotype of what that was. But this day was different, it was my 13th birthday and I was a little girl in a huge school in the Northeast Bronx, where reputation, misguided street credentials and the constant soundtrack of hip-hop music formed a myriad of teenage identies.
I was excited about my first High School birthday, but I could not shake that waking sense of fear from that dream. I arrived at school, excited about my birthday, only to be greeted by an eery silence. No one was talking, everyone was sad. Then I got the news – my friend Thurman had fallen off of a 26 story building to his death the night before. I got chills, I shook and I realized that in some way I had connected with him – I think?? Thurman was my friend. He was a few years older, from my neighborhood, but always treated like his younger sister. He showed me the ropes and tried to keep my big mouth out of harm’s way – I was always prone to bad decisions and way too much trust for any native New Yorker to have. And this day, my birthday, I experienced the first of many friends, young black males, who would die violently before their time. Until that point, I felt protected against this reality, something experienced by older people or people who lived in other places…not in my ‘hood.
That was my loss of innocence.
My entry into the fragile existence of LWB&M (living while Black and Male). I lost more and more friends to black on black violence, gun play, life sentences, and crack. These were things that I didn’t have to read about, these incidents that followed me throughout my life. I went off to college in Central Virginia, thinking I would leave all of that behind and I didn’t, it followed me there, I kept loosing my college brothers, a little less frequently, but still kept loosing them nonetheless.
Flash forward to me as a mother of two with one on the way. It was about 8:30am on a Tuesday and I was rushing off to campus to delve into what was always a long and tiresome day. But when your child’s preschool teacher wants to have an intense conversation that early, its probably important. My son had started to talk about constantly being scared. He would be “scared” when it was time to eat his dinner, take a bath, put on his pajamas, go to bed, stay in his bed, go to school. In other words we began to see the pattern. These were all moments of transition or involving tasks that he just didn’t want to do. He had learned the power of manipulation, from the mind of a 4 year old. When he was no longer getting the wanted outcome, he became a little more strategic in his delivery and decided to take this language where it would get more traction – his private, expensive, progressive, Western Massachusetts preschool – and he ran with it.
His teacher wanted to make sure I was aware of his fear. She was concerned and wanted to talk to me about this to determine if this fear was happening at school and home. I listened, I listened as patiently as possible without becoming defense. And then I realized that this was in impromptu teaching moment when I could talk to his teacher about the cultural differences in child rearing and life preparation essential the survival of people of color. I let her know that we do listen to our child, but there are more pressing issues in the process of growing up black, than fear of the everyday tasks asked of a 4 year old child. For example, our son is going to grow up and become a Young Black Male in the United States, he has to be aware of what this means in terms of his interaction with authorities, exchanges with the police, or even the father of a girl he may have a crush on (in the far future) that will not let him pass through his front door. His teacher’s reaction was bewilderment. She honestly confessed to me that she had never thought about these realities and never thought about their application in a preschool setting. And I confessed that I probably never thought about that when I was 4 or 5 years old either.
But I am aware now.
I cannot ignore the reality that being innocent does not protect you from looking “suspicious” while wearing a hoodie by someone “protecting” a neighborhood. Or looking suspicious to policeman patrolling an area in search of a suspect that fits a particular description. So, the question is, when do begin to teach a black child about race or racism? When do you bring up the lessons of the world they live in? Do I let them learn this on their own, ill prepared? Or do you give them the tools to be ready for whatever comes at them and move through the world with confidence despite the possibility of something bad happening?
I write this as the mother of two black boys and a girl. I want to teach my daughter to walk with self-love and a sense that she can overcome anything put before her. For my sons, I want them to walk with purpose and grow to become men who can one day dismantle the ills of racism, to defeat the shortcomings of fear and violence, and to live beyond the fear that I experienced in a dream so many years ago.
I know I may sound like a dreamer, but I know that I am not the only one.
This one is for the memory of Trayvon Martin.
Hoodies up…and blog out…