Lesley McSpadden holding a picture of her late son, Mike Brown.
He looked down at my son, who smiled immediately. He towered above him, 6 feet tall, posture erect from the hold of a bullet-proof vest. He smiled back at my son and asked how old he was. My child replied that he was “three and a half” and raised his fingers in the air. The man patted his head and grinned in my direction.
“That’s one handsome kid,” he said.
I couldn’t help by glance over at his gun, at rest in it’s holster. I couldn’t help but think about all the people who passed my son on the street and stopped and admired his cherub-cheeks, his smallness, his buttercup face, his innocent questions. I couldn’t help but count on my fingers the years remaining until those same people would stand in fear of him. Mistaking a teen for a man, still awkward in his adolescence. A representation of everything they are taught to destroy. These people will cross the street to avoid him. These people will try to buy him. Or try to end him.
I found out I was having a boy the day Travon Martin’s killer was released on bail. I remember it like it was yesterday. I cried in the hallway. I wanted to scream, but I didn’t. I wanted to keep him inside of me forever, where he was safe and warm and close to my heart.
The media was reminding me, reminding all of us, that Black lives were either casualties or commodities. That one should either make one’s self valuable or get busy dying. Orion was the size of a cantaloupe. He had fingernails and hair and his brain was developing five senses. And the world was planning his murder.
I’m only 4 years into this journey. He’s still trying to find the words for all the questions he has as he looks outside his window and discovers boyhood. He doesn’t know. He has no idea yet that he’s less worthy in the eyes of society. He hardly even knows he’s Black. He knows his skin is brown. He knows his hair is curly. He knows his father’s melanin is deep and beautiful and his mother’s afro is unapologetic. But he doesn’t know he’s a Black man.
Soon someone will educate him.
It can’t be me. That’s a lesson that has to come from it’s source. I can provide the reassurance, but not the lesson. When he questions himself for the first time, I’ll be ready. Because I remember when I questioned myself. When some misinformed child likened my skin to dirt and my hair some kind of mistake. Those moments are unforgiving and they feel like cold water pouring down your back. Those moments stop childish laughter in it’s tracks. Growing you in years you aren’t entitled to yet. Those moments stay with you. You carry them into restaurants and banks and board rooms.
You would shake them off if they weren’t so persistently reinforced.
I know what he wears won’t matter. I know his education won’t matter. I know what music he listens to and what movies he watches won’t make a difference if he believes any of the lies he’ll be told. All I can do is inform him of his birthright.
He is not a king or a piece of chocolate or a criminal or a trend or target practice. Every Black man is someone’s baby, the walking embodiment of their very heart.
He’ll know his rights. He’s entitled to self-awareness, self-respect, self-love and self-empowerment. That is all he is entitled to. That is all any of us are entitled to. This much we know for sure.
I watch daily as he changes from a baby to a little boy. He’s learning frustration and it comes out in grunts and growls. When he’s angry he furrows his brow, his face gets red and his fists ball up. He slams doors and asks for privacy when he wants it. He’s learning how to protect the things he deems worthy — including his own needs. He respectfully tells people when he wants to be left alone. I make it a point to let him feel his feelings. I don’t tell him to stifle his tears or anger, I don’t tell him to “suck it up”. I taught him how to sit quietly and breathe and find peace and sit with his emotions until they become tangible. It’s not always easy to do this when you’re a single mom, and tired, and trying to be somewhere on time, and overwhelmed. But I think about what I can and cannot control. And I think about how I can’t save my son (though I’ll try). I can’t even prepare him (though I’ll try). I can only teach him how to empower himself. I can help to make that his state of rest — his starting point.
I can trust that he’ll live from a place of knowing his own worth, even while being devalued by the world. That he’ll smile and laugh and love openly because that is who he is. And he will be a force to be reckoned with, because that is where he comes from.
As parents our job is not to hold on to our children, but to let go. Every day we learn to let go of our children more and more. We let them fall and scrape their knees, we let them learn to sleep in the darkness, we let them decide who they are. And it’s easy to see ourselves in them. They walk around with our faces on, but they are not us. They will make different choices than we did and they will belong to their own generation.
They love us unconditionally, seeing only the very best in everyone because they don’t know of other options. And they don’t yet know that the world wants to tear them apart.
But they will know.
As mothers of Black sons we face a battle. We have to be strong enough to raise sons who may one day fight for their lives. We have to be loving enough to accept them as they come and as they evolve. We have to be secure enough not to lean on them, because our children are not our support systems — we are theirs.
And when the world comes for our Black sons, may their inner peace be louder than the chaos.