“The children of the disinherited live a restricted childhood. From their earliest moments they are conditioned so as to reduce their exposure to violence… The threat of violence may be implemented not only by constituted authority but also by anyone acting in behalf of the established order. Every member of the controllers’ group is in a sense a special deputy, authorized by the mores to the enforce the pattern.”
– Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p.41
“Ferguson” has quickly become shorthand for the moment marked by the recent series of episodes of unpunished murder of black and brown men, women and boys at the hands of police. “Ferguson” is more than Ferguson, MO. Like Selma and Soweto, the name of the place marks a moment in time when people in touch with their own humanity disrupted the social order having been awakened by visual evidence of the dehumanizing nightmare that social order generates in Black life. #BlackLifeMatters in Ferguson, like I AM A MAN in Memphis, names these experiences as collective trauma. These are not isolated incidents, nor can they be reduced to the poor judgment of corrupt cops. Their actions (a result of training per Officer Darren Wilson) function as instruments of America’s fundamental value – white supremacy. It confers upon propertied agents of the state the right and responsibility to determine the value of all other forms of life. In the most recent cases the young, the male, the female, the middle to lower income, the African American are deemed expendable, lesser life forms.
I have been experiencing these assaults on Black personhood and worth primarily as a Black parent of Black children. What does all this mean for how I help to orient my children to the world they face? How do I embolden their sense of identity, purpose, creativity, and imagination while cultivating in them the power to unflinchingly reckon with evil in their environment? Waffling between rage and depression, I’ve been gripped by competing concerns that rend my heart and often leave me in a psychic fog.
Neglecting to talk with my children about this is not an option. I understand that some parents are choosing to shield their children from these events, flipping fast past news reports, or scrolling quickly through photos of standoffs and scuffles between police in riot gear and protestors in full-throated resistance. I sat down with my daughter and watched Democracy Now’s coverage of the outcry following the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for any criminal charge in his shooting death of Michael Brown. We marched in protest after the exoneration of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. On the way to school I recite and rehearse with my 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son the rallying cry of young activists organizing around the country to end the open season on Black bodies,
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains”
– Assata Shakur-
I choose to talk with my children for a couple of reasons.
First, I want them to understand that there is a context for the love, discipline, care, and comfort they experience within our home. In Toni Morrison’s classic, Beloved, Baby Suggs Holy admonished the formerly enslaved boys, girls, women and men in her circle to “love your flesh, love it hard.” Not just because it is a healthy and wise thing to do for every human being, but because “over yonder, they do not love your flesh.” There is a yonder, a place that surrounds this space in which your flesh is construed as monstrous in some spaces, merely tolerable in others. I tell my children about “yonder” because I want them to know their self-love and my love for them as a truthful antithesis to the lie that is white supremacy.
In an unpublished lecture the late psychologist and historian, Dr. Asa G. Hilliard, recalled an intervention he was called to oversee regarding a spike in suicide rates among Black youth in Atlanta. This spike took place during the height of mass Black migration from urban centers in the North and South to the suburbs of metropolitan Atlanta in the early 1990’s. He found that a predictive factor that made a difference in whether these young people would thrive in these, largely white environments, or surrender to nihilism, was resilience. Going further, he identified two factors that contributed to the resilience of Black youth in these unfamiliar environments. First, did they have a sense that they belonged to someone, to a community beyond their nuclear family? Was there a church, temple, club, or community based group to which the child felt they belonged? The second factor was key. Had the child been told about the reality of racism? If not, the child would likely experience maddening micro-aggressions and overt assaults with no framework with which to make sense of it all. In the absence of a narrative, a history, a story that gives meaning to their own, the child would internalize their experiences of racism. The only remaining reason for the constant affronts would be “me.”
Unfortunately, many of the children who failed to thrive had been sacrificed to their parents dreams of success and upward mobility which, in the U.S., includes proximity to property bases predominately owned by whites and, at that time, a living distance from urban centers with concentrated poverty. These parents thought they had “made it” and chose to shield their children from the harsh realities of racism that they thought they had outrun by way of their professional success. In essence what they had done was placed their babies on a battlefield without sufficient armor. Fostering intentional blindness is not protection, especially for children of color. Like it or not our babies are in war, the question is whether we equip them to be at war.
Black parents who love consciously love their children in the hopes that our children’s very cells absorb our attempts to communicate to them their infinite innate worth. Black love is inner armor. We love in context. We love as an act of war. I tell them about that war, and I have to trust that through my presence and care they have already begun to put on the whole armor, internalizing the love of God and kin they feel first at home.
Second, I talk to my children because they are heirs to a bloodline whose self-understanding and destiny is not ultimately determined by “yonder.” I tell them because part of my job is to help them discover who they are, not merely as individuals, but how their unique signatures represent new tones in an ancestral score of resistance, struggle and affirmation of our dignity, our divinity, our humanity- even in the face of violent statements to the contrary.
“I want you to know that our people don’t take this laying down.,” I explained to Zuri in response to her question about why we marched and protested with hundreds of others after George Zimmerman was acquitted. “My dear, the forces that seek to deny your humanity do not have the last word. We resist, we fight, we affirm the Creator’s wisdom in designing our difference. You are connected to a living tradition.”
If we must die-oh, let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed in vain; the even the monsters we defy shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
– Claude McKay-
This is the best I have to give at this point. “We love you. You are precious and your life- your unique life- matters. You come from people who know their worth and fight to assert it, even in the face of annihilation. They made it possible for you to be here. You will make it possible for your children’s children to live in better conditions than you face. “
I don’t lie to my children. When I took my daughter to get pre-Kindergarten immunizations she laid down on the nurse’s table and asked, “Daddy, is it going to hurt?“ I answered plainly, “Yes.” Then I held her hand as she winced and cried. I refused to participate in the short-lived charade, “You’ll only feel a pinch.” When our children ask us hard questions, we tell them hard truths, even if the truth is, “Daddy doesn’t know how to answer that right now. Let me think about it and get back to you.” But, in dialogue with my babies about violence against black bodies in this country, I can’t help but feel like I’m lying at times. They always ask the hard question, “Is this going to happen to me?” Caring for their fragile sense of safety I tell them, “No, baby. You are safe. It’s Mommy and Daddy’s job to keep you safe. We do everything in our power to make sure you are.” For me the most heartbreaking element of this all is I have made a promise that I know I can’t truly guarantee.
No matter how I teach them to comport themselves, no matter how much they achieve or how smart they are, they are particularly vulnerable. Not because of random misfortune that befalls humanity, but because they are who they are. Precisely because of their precious, infinitely worthy Black being, they are most vulnerable to random violence with no accountability. How do I help them understand how to navigate this treacherous landscape while not paralyzing them with fear? How do I help them cultivate a sense of self-efficacy and innate worth while thickening their veil- their ability to see with “second sight” the deceit that masquerades as progress, patriotism and American values.* As a parent I now wrestle with the dilemma my parents and ancestors faced.
May their wisdom be with us.
*Note: These notions of the “veil” and “second sight” are drawn from W.E.B. DuBois landmark work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). They describe a special ability to see the hidden dimensions of one’s own soul and the larger society. DuBois argues that Black folk are gifted with this ability to see both the outward façade of American culture and the invisible infrastructure that creates the discrepancies between the country’s espoused values and its lived practices.