Book news! I’m thrilled to be included in the book The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, by Eddie Moore, Jr., Ali Michael, and Marguerite W. Penick-Parks, just published by Corwin. What follows is an excerpt adapted from the chapter where I share my experiences as the mother of a black son—now an amazing black man—during his school years.
Let Me Tell How School Started for My Amazing Son
My son Tres is twenty-nine years old, 6’5” tall, wonderful, kind, and social justice-oriented. He currently works at a nonprofit, helping young people who have family members in the criminal justice system. As a little kid, he was vocal, strong-willed, energetic, and all over the place. I found his energy difficult, because I grew up in a strict black family where kids were seen but not heard and were required to be compliant. I think this idea of obedience is deeply engrained in our history because of its importance for survival through slavery, the Jim Crow and civil rights eras, and even today.
As a parent, I quickly realized that if I used a heavy hand on him, I would destroy his spirit, so I spent a lot of time trying to learn strategies to keep his spirit alive while also giving him the parameters he needed to be successful. That was fine until he went to school. He was really tall and really loud, and he was active, with unpredictable gross motor skills. That first day, as he walked down the hall, his hand hooked a little blonde girl’s hair by mistake, and he dragged her with him halfway down the hall. I remember thinking, “Oh, Lord, what was I thinking when I moved him to a school with only two black boys in his class?”
Understand the Fears of Parents of Black Boys
Here is the thing that teachers need to know about the parents of black boys: we, the parents, are constantly wrestling with our future fear for our sons.
In middle school, all kinds of weird things started happening—to Tres and all his friends. I think it is developmental; many of them are acting crazy. The school would call me, sometimes weekly, saying, “Tres had a problem today.” And in my mind, I was saying, “Please conduct yourself in a way that someone is not going to kill you. Please conduct yourself in a way that no one is going to imprison you!” This was the narrative in my brain from sixth grade until today.
One day, I got the call, “Your son has been in a fight with Mark Feldman, and he’s going to be suspended.” This was one of his closest friends, and he was white. My heart started beating really fast, and my brain was saying, “He’s going to mess up his future. He can’t afford to misbehave. Doesn’t he understand that he’s playing into the stereotype?”
I was doing all I could to make sure that people didn’t have this presumption about him, and he was confirming it! I would explain to him every day that it was important for him to behave well, and yet I was being called by the school to come retrieve him due to his suspension. So I had all these ideas and emotions flooding in when I got that phone call. Mostly, I was angry!
But before I went to pick him up, I was wise enough to call a friend. I said, “Tres just got suspended; he’s fighting again, and I’m so mad at him.” She just started listening to me, and I went on and on, “He’s going to keep getting in trouble; he’s going to go to jail or he’s going to get killed! I don’t understand what’s wrong with him and he’s embarrassing, and he does bad things, and we do everything for him.” She listened to me until I ran out of steam; there was silence, and then she said, “Sounds like you really love him.” And something just cracked inside me. I cried and cried and cried. She added, “It sounds like you’re afraid for him.” And I said, “Yes, I’m really afraid for him.”
She reminded me that he was only in middle school, and my fears were based on a future worry, not what was happening now. Something about that conversation allowed me to get clearer about what I wanted to tell my son that day.
So I picked him up from school, and he walked out with that slouchy look, that said, “I am in trouble. I am useless as a person. I have done a terrible thing. My mother can’t stand me.” You know that body posture? He slinked into the back seat, and I asked, “Do you want to go to McDonalds?” And he remarked in a surprised way, “Umm . . . Yeah?” He knew that McDonald’s was the place he got to go for a treat. He ordered, and we sat down, and he began eating. Then I said, “I’ve been really trying to figure out how to tell you . . .” And he interjected, “How mad you are at me?” I said, “No, how much I love you.” And tears just started falling from his eyes, and he began confessing, “I’m so sorry. It’s all bad. Mark said this and then I don’t know what happened, I just started hitting him. And I don’t know what to do with myself and I feel so scared.” And he kept talking, and I just listened. I hugged him and then I said, “We are going to figure it out. We are going to learn things so that when it gets scary for you, you know what you can do instead of fighting.”
We left McDonald’s, and driving home, we began passing the street where Mark lived. My son asked, “Mom can I stop at Mark’s? I want to apologize.”
As I reflect on the whole situation, I ask myself now, “How dare I burden an individual black child with the entire history of the marginalization of black males?” But that’s what we do, and I’m not the only one. We take that behavior and fast forward it to the future and we treat children like they are full grown adults. That’s what some teachers are doing when they go to harsh discipline. And as a mother who has done the same thing in my own brain, I understand how quickly one can escalate to that fear and act on that presumption.
Educators, like all human beings, are biased. Teachers who want to overcome their biases need to acknowledge the power of racism and the negative biases and stereotypes that have been embedded in our society and psyche—even when we are good, well-meaning people. Once they accept that, there are things they can do to offset or counter that bias.
They need to understand that a child in their classroom could be the next Paul Laurence Dunbar, Nat Turner, W. E. B. DuBois, or Barack Obama. Sydney Poitier didn’t just come from nowhere, and Colin Powell didn’t just appear as a general. These black men used to be black boys sitting in a classroom. Not all of them were straight-A students who never got in trouble. But along the way to adulthood, people made a difference in their lives and encouraged them.
Teachers need to read and know and understand this history of black people because if they have that body of knowledge, they can visualize a future leader in the children before them, rather than a stereotype with limited expectations.
For more on this important topic, be sure to read The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys. I’d love to hear what you think!