Last night’s decision in Missouri is a bitter reminder for all parents of Black children that racism isn’t going away anytime soon.
Last night, as I was putting my 3-year-old son, Theo, to bed, I was distracted. As we cuddled, poring over the pages of his new favorite book, The Polar Express (a Christmas story, plus trains!), I was agonizing in anticipation after hours of deferrals and stalling by St. Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch, who would finally announce, with deliberate, incendiary words (blaming “unfounded rumors on social media” and the “24/7 news cycle”) and a voice so condescending it became nearly deafening, that the grand jury would not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. The decision had already been made earlier that day, but was not disclosed until prime time—many of my friends and colleagues surmised that this was to take the focus off of Wilson and place it squarely on the rightfully enraged, grief-stricken Black community, who would likely take to the streets and protest. And be met once again with militarized police and teargas.
We’ve been watching this story too many times in this country, from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, and now Michael Brown, continually reminded that it is legal to murder Black people—even children. As Kirsten West Savali asked in her “What’s Going On” column yesterday: Would an indictment even mean anything? “No matter what the grand jury decides, these last 100 days have shown us how they feel. Wilson has been exonerated and Michael Brown has been found guilty … the court of public opinion has determined that Black America at large has committed enough crimes to stand trial. And in the case of Michael Brown vs. White Supremacy, the slain teen has already been found guilty of being Black.”
I share in the rage, as an American, as a human, as any number of labels I can stick on myself. Over three years ago, I added to this list the White mother of a Black son, one who I am now looking at, his long beautiful lashes on his sleeping lids, his sweet loud snore, almost as loud as my own, as he sleeps beside me in his big-boy bed. I hate that these beautiful, peaceful moments—and we have so many of them—will be devastated by the delivery of this decision. That my wife and I will soon have to explain racism to him, to have The Talk, something every mother of a Black son has to do. Except Meredith and I have had the privilege of being White, even as women, as lesbians. We have endured misogyny. And homophobia. And those are no small things. But this is a big thing: We have never had cops bearing down on us, eyeing us with suspicion, having to have both hands on the steering wheel, drive the speed limit. We’ve had the privilege of running down the street at any hour of the day; strolling the street at night, not having anyone look over their shoulder nervously at us; shopping at a store without being watched by store clerks; traveling to any neighborhood we wanted, whenever we wanted; behaving badly and knowing we could get away with it. I could list any number of things we could do, that we did do, that he will have to avoid doing or at least proceed with caution. Right now we’re living in some of the final moments of innocence before shit gets real.
When my wife, Meredith, and I first made contact with Theo’s birth mother over three years ago, one of the first questions she asked me was: “Are you sure you want to have a ‘Black African-American boy?’” She was nearly seven months pregnant. I immediately answered yes, I was absolutely sure. And I remain so. And so does my wife. He is our heart, our soul—our son.
But I admit that at the time she asked us, we thought we were answering a slightly different question because of the context of open adoption—we were told, by adoption agencies and lawyers, that there have been innumerable instances where White prospective adoptive families have decided last-minute not to adopt transracially. Especially if the child is dark-skinned. Meredith and I wanted to assure the birth mother that we were fully committed to her and the baby. That if she decided to place him with us, he would be our son, be smothered with love, given the greatest possible life—and that we would never betray our promises to her or to him.
But now that question haunts me because it’s even more loaded: Was she asking more than Will we love him? While the timing might have been pre-Trayvon, it wasn’t pre–Oscar Grant, or any number of young unarmed Black men who were killed by police or vigilantes. Was she asking, do two White upper-middle-class lesbians—one, a Jew from suburban Chicago, the other a lapsed Catholic from suburban Philadelphia—who’ve lived in Brooklyn for 20-plus years know what it means to raise a Black boy in this world? Were we ready to give up our White privilege? Because if anything were to happen to our son, it would be happening to us as his parents—and God forbid anything should. But every 28 days, that question comes screaming in our ears even louder. This summer, watching Michael Brown’s parents, Leslie McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr., grieve, with courage and with dignity, and protesters taking to the streets, hands in the air, facing off the tanks and the tear gas and the unrelenting police—I could barely think of anything else. Even as I was awestruck by the bravery of the Brown family and by the activists, still I was paralyzed with a sense of hopelessness. A White colleague asked why I was so depressed. I looked at him quizzically. “Ferguson?” I said with a tone of condescension. How was he able to ignore what was going on—this wasn’t a regional situation, something happening to other people, in a tiny town in the Midwest, or a conversation relegated to social media. “Oh, right, of course,” he said.
How can we protect our son? I am asking this question because as parents we really need to know, but we’re also asking rhetorically because the question has become larger than us all. I live in terror that we can’t. Even though it’s our job.
Because like so many parents of Black children, of Black sons especially, we have become cynical. We are wary of law enforcement and do not believe that they are here to serve and protect the Black community. We are in constant dialogue with other parents with Black children. And those parents are Black and White, in New York and throughout the country. We keep our eyes and ears wide open, and hope that we are striking that balance between instilling in Theo confidence and a clear sense of who he is, of being cautious without being scared amid a terrifying climate, so that he will be well-equipped with the strength and wisdom to protect himself.
My son doesn’t yet have the language to understand what any of this means. He knows his skin is brown. He started doing self-portraits in preschool, and I was happy to see that the colors he chose to depict himself reflect what he actually looks like. He also appears to recognize that both of his moms are not brown. He has friends who are Black, with Black parents, friends who have White parents, with same-sex parents, and opposite-sex parents. I’d say that in living in New York, we live in one of the most culturally enlightened places in the country. But not after last summer, when Eric Garner was choked to death by the NYPD; when a Black kid was brutally beaten by a cop with a billyclub for not paying his $2.50 to ride the subway; when unarmed 28-year-old Akai Gurley was shot to death by a scared rookie cop in his East New York apartment building just last week. And this on the watch of a self-described progressive mayor who is father to two Black children, who campaigned to cease stop-and-frisk only to hire Bill Bratton, who served under Rudy Giuliani, to run the NYPD.
This nation has learned nothing from the George Zimmermans and Darren Wilsons except for the depths of our racism. I don’t know what more it will take to move us forward. We’ve been protesting for years. I would like to hope that as our sons and daughters grow older, or get old enough to understand, this will be a thing of the past, that our collective rage will finally put an end to this.
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