On Mothering a Black Boy in America


This article is one in a series published in collaboration with our sister organization, Strong Families.

In spite of the lack of praise, one of my favorite movies is Pushing Tin. Billy Bob Thornton plays Russell Bell, a rather staid (maybe even Zen in some circles) man married to a beautiful woman. When Russell learns of his wife’s affair with Nick Falzone, his calm reaction startles Nick. Noticing this, Russell simply states, “If you ever want to sleep at night, don’t marry a beautiful girl.” I oftentimes think of that quote but not in relation to marrying a beautiful girl (especially given my pro-single proclivity). No, my twist on that phrase is more, “If you ever want to sleep at night, don’t try raising a black boy in America.”

Fifteen years ago today, I was in the throes of labor, in the comfort of my home, with my midwife pouring water over my belly whilst I relaxed in the tub, naturally surrendering to the most empowering, ecstatic endeavor I have ever experienced (seriously, we have video footage that captures me smiling from ear-to-ear, exclaiming “labor is pretty cool!” when I was eight centimeters dilated). It brought me to this very Zen-like state, a state that I presumed would transfer to parenting. It did not.

Jabran was ten years old when I gave him the first racial profiling speech. We were engaged in the obligatory back-to-school shopping. He wanted a sweater that had some hip hop insignia. I looked at him and said, “Honey, if I buy you this sweater, NYPD is going to pick you up.” I was a public defender in Manhattan at the time so I knew of which I spoke.

Last year Jabran had his first devastating racial profiling incident by a white man in the neighborhood. Jabran, in a way that would put many adults to shame, handled this act of violence with impressive aplomb. But, when we were finally home together, my child unleashed a flood of tears and fears that almost caused my undoing.

Jabran’s life, and mine, changed forever that day. We both knew the shift occurred. Many people would no longer see him the way we see him — a smart, funny honor student who, at age 12, and of his own volition, decided to take a First Aid class so he could help my sister with my niece who has cerebral palsy. But, what if he wasn’t even any of those things? What if he was a struggling black child, subjected to one trauma after another, just trying to survive? Does that child deserve any less protection? All of our children matter but many people only see black boys (and later, men) as threatening figures whose sole purpose is to, at best, feed the coffers of the prison industrial complex, or, at worst, not exist at all.

I cried for weeks over what happened to Jabran, and then even more over Trayvon Martin. A couple of weeks after Trayvon was murdered, Jabran had the day off from school. I asked if he was going to play basketball with his friends. He solemnly replied, “I’m just going to stay inside today.” For the first time in months, I was relieved. I knew that I would not need to take the cell phone with me every time I went to the bathroom at work lest I would miss a cry for help from him. I knew that he was safe that day, tucked away in the house, and not subjected to whomever might be laying in wait in the public sphere. This is what it means to profoundly love and raise a black son in America: to not have the luxury of the safety bubble that other parents have around their children, to regularly be on the verge of coming undone, and to never, ever be able to sleep at night.

But! I’m an advocate because I believe in the resiliency of our children, and appreciate the advocates of all races who strive to make society safer for everyone. I am in awe of Jabran and his similarly situated peers — boys who are intelligent, compassionate and capable, who continue to believe in themselves when many others do not. In keeping with his birth, Jabran teaches me a lot about bringing more Zen to parenting, and perhaps I need that more than extra sleep.

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