After the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., I and many other African-American writers shared our experiences of “Black Man 101”; a lifelong course in survival and behavior modification in which we are enrolled almost from birth, and from which we never graduate. Now, the murder (yes, murder) of Trayvon Martin, and the acquittal of his killer may make it necessary to revise the curriculum for Black Man 101.
I was reminded of Black Man 101 when I saw the video of actor Levar Burton explaining the “How Not To Get Shot By Police” lesson he shared with his own son.
As Washington area reporter Jim Vance so eloquently put it in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder (yes, murder), we have to tell our sons that as young black men they will be held suspect. Then we must steel ourselves for the inevitable question that follows: Why?
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After the shooting, millions of African-American parents realized that any of our sons could be the next Trayvon Martin. Just teaching our sons how to behave when stopped by the police was not longer sufficient.
As parents, we are not just students of Black Man 101. We are the primary instructors. We have “The Talk” with our sons, as generations of Black parents have before us. We know too well of the stories of unarmed Black men beaten, brutalized, and killed by the police. Their names haunt us, their faces loom in our minds, and we imagine our sons’ in their place.
We tell our sons that as young black men they will be held suspect, and sometimes treated as criminals, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. We tell them how to conduct themselves in encounters with the police, that they may emerge alive and unscathed. We steel ourselves for the question always follows that follows: Why?
It’s contrary to the very heart of a parent. From moment they’re born, you keep your children safe. You want them to feel safe. It’s one of a child’s ten most important needs. But, the parents of Black boys have to flip the script at some point, and explain to them that the world is not a safe place for them specifically.
My father had “The Talk” with me when I was in college. In my father’s time, young black men had to be taught deference not just to the police, but any white person. The Jim Crow laws in the South, came with an unwritten “Jim Crow Etiquette” that demanded deference to whites at all times.
The old rules required Blacks to be agreeable and non-challenging when dealing with white people, even if the white person in question was wrong. No Black person could never even insinuate that a white person was wrong, lying, or had dishonorable intentions. Under no circumstances was a Black person ever to even appear to assume equality with whites.
The acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer is a reminder of the old “Jim Crow etiquette.” As Gawker’s Cord Jefferson wrote: “For people of color, it’s a vivid reminder that we must always be deferential to white people, or face the very real chance of getting killed.”
Being a Black man of almost any age in American means being constantly aware of the fear your mere presence inspires some whites, the anger that follows closely on heels of that, and the deference required of you as a result. Should it cause you to be profiled, harassed, demeaned, beaten or worse, you may just have to take it. If, that is, you want to live.
We already teach our sons to follow a similar etiquette above with police officers. We tell them to be agreeable and non-challenging, even if the police are wrong.
Must we now explain to our sons that some their very presence is enough to make some people believe they are dangerous solely because they are young black men? Must we now explain to them that some white people will look for any reason to act on those feelings and beliefs?
Must we revert to teaching our sons to conform to some modern form of “Jim Crow etiquette”? Must we now revert to teaching our sons to be deferential to every bigot who may be armed, and may have just enough law on their side to start shooting based on nothing more than how they feel and what they believe?
Last fall, our oldest son got his first hoodie. It quickly became his favorite article of clothing. The moment he put it on, and pulled the hood over his face, I saw Trayvon Martin’s face. I thought of my son in Trayvon Martin’s place.
At 10-years-old, our son is already venturing further out into the world, further from our protection. Sometimes I watch him from a distance, with my heart in my throat, waiting to see how the world treats him. We all do.
I may not be able to describe the experience of talking to a young black teenager about the risks he runs just by walking down the street with a snack, but the racism and history that lie behind that “talk” are a part of my story. They’re a part of the story of everyone in this country, no matter what race or color we lay claim to. We all live in a world where the sight of a young black man walking down a Florida street can be regarded as “suspicious” by a member of the neighborhood watch, and in a world where the shooting of an unarmed child, provided he’s also a black teenager, can be chalked up as another in a long series of unfortunate incidents.
I was sitting with another parent at an indoor pool a few weeks ago, and we both froze as an attendant rushed up, yelling, to a group of children that included my friend’s son: the tallest among the children, and the only black child, a boy verging on his teens. Whatever had happened, we both thought he was about to be singled out. It wasn’t until the attendant pointed at another boy (too short for the water slide, and about to climb the ladder) that we relaxed.
I asked her afterward if she felt that way all the time, and she sighed. She did, and I knew it.
Our son is old enough to have heard some of the news concerning Trayvon Martin, and his questions opened the door to an early attempt at “The Talk.” At the end came the inevitable question: “Why?” Why would someone just look at him and think him a criminal? Why would someone just look at him and be more inclined to kill him because of his skin color ?
This isn’t the first time our son has asked questions about bigotry and prejudice in the world. After the Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional, he asked us, “Why do some people think you and Papa are destroying society just because you want to get married?” We explained to him that some people have beliefs about our family that are based on a lot of myths. We tell him that some people are afraid of what they don’t understand. We tell him that there are some people who just don’t want things to change, even if that’s unfair for families like ours. They think they lose something if we get treated equally.
That night, I just held my son. I told him that there are some people who just don’t see him. They see what they chose to project on him. It’s wrong. It doesn’t even make sense. It’s not fair. It just is, and his Dad and Papa can’t fix it for him. But we can equip him to deal with that world without losing himself. We can make our home a safe haven from that world, and teach him everything we can to give him the best chance of returning to it.
Now, George Zimmerman has been acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. Along with his freedom, Zimmerman will get back the gun with which he ended Trayvon Martin’s life.
It’s unimaginable. As the father of two African-American boys, it’s the stuff of nightmares. As difficult as it is, “The Talk” it may get even harder. We not only have to tell our sons that they live in a world where someone can hold suspect because of the color of their skin, and even kill them. We have to tell them their killer could ultimately walk away a free man.
The inevitable questions will be even harder to answer: Why?
The ugly truth is, for our children, the world is neither safe nor just.