By Sara Lomax-Reese
Original Publication Date 2015 | Our Black Sons Matter: Mothers Talk about Fears, Sorrows, and Hopes edited by George Yancy
This essay was written in the aftermath of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. It is a reflection of what it is to be the mother of Black sons.
I will not allow this twoness to fracture my mind, body and spirit. WEB DuBois nailed it back in 1903 when he wrote: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
One hundred and twelve years later, DuBois’s words ring with a truth and clarity that haunts me as the mother of three Black sons. I am utterly confounded when I confront this timeless struggle that Black mothers have wrestled with for hundreds of years: how do I empower and encourage my sons to walk tall and fearlessly in the world, but arm them with the reality that in America Black men are often considered criminals at first sight rather than students, sons, fathers, men –full human beings?
Any illusion that, with the election of our first Black president, America had evolved beyond its racist roots, was shattered in a quiet neighborhood in Sanford, FL in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was stalked, shot and killed by George Zimmerman. My knee jerk reaction was to try and find something about this boy that separated his experience from my three sons, two of them close to his age. But at the end of the day what was so completely terrifying was the reality that Trayvon Martin could have been any Black teen, including my son: the jaunt to the local convenience store for some junkfood (check), the hoodie (check), the cell phone conversation chronicling his every move (check). He was a young kid doing what young kids do and ended up gunned down, dead.
Listening to my then 14 year old son and his friends trying to make sense out of this one was absolutely heartbreaking. “Glad I don’t live in Florida,” said one. “I’m not wearing any more hoodies,” said another. And when I asked my son, Elijah, what would he do in a situation similar to Trayvon’s, he said he would confront the person stalking him. “No, no, no,” I said, “that’s what got Trayvon killed. The goal is for you to get home alive.” But the twisted reality is that there is no credible plan to give your child in this kind of situation.
I recently had the opportunity to attend an interview between Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, and Philadelphia journalist and WURD Radio talk show host, Solomon Jones. With a quiet, calm dignity, Martin shared the intimate details of his son’s birth. He told of being the first person to hold baby Trayvon in his arms; the boundless love that engulfed him; the personal commitment to be his mentor, guide, protector, friend throughout his lifetime. He talked of their close relationship even though he was separated from Trayvon’s mother – weekends at the local basketball court, telephone conversations that always ended with “I love you.” He was a committed, loving father, fully engaged in his son’s life. Eventually, the inevitable came when he shared the heartbreaking story of the night Trayvon was murdered. Unlike me, sniffling with tears dripping down my face, Tracy Martin spoke plainly, with strength and determination, of the utter horror that shattered his family’s life. I left that event in a fog of sadness and confusion. How could this man survive what surely would have killed me? Not only did he have to endure the absurdity of George Zimmerman’s murderous fear, he had to confront a criminal justice system that did everything to justify his son’s killing. The slander included: Trayvon had used drugs; he wasn’t a great student; he had been suspended from school – anything to paint this young man into the box of Black male criminality therefore, the theory goes, he deserved what he got. In fact, George Zimmerman was just protecting his neighborhood from a menacing thug.
But Trayvon was just the beginning. Over the past three years the death toll kept rising: Jordan Davis, also in Florida; Eric Garner in Long Island; Michael Brown in Ferguson; Tamir Rice in Cleveland. And the unfathomable reality that even when caught on video or with eyewitnesses, in most of these cases, the killer, often police officers, were exonerated.
As the mother of Black sons, the harsh truth is that there is no sane answer for the insanity of racism. Sharing this brutal reality while insisting that my sons can achieve anything, reach for their dreams, have boundless success, is at the heart of DuBois’s twoness. It can really make you crazy – or depressed – or resilient.
Perhaps this schizophrenia is at the heart of our creative genius. Throughout time, Black people have innovated, creating brilliance out of chaos. From Negro Spirituals to Ragtime, Jazz to Hip Hop, we have figured out a way to transform pain into power. This is the message I try and marry with the inexplicable in an effort to empower my children.
I also want them to believe in the innate kindness that exists in most people – another dimension of the twoness. Despite the realities of racism, discrimination and injustice, I still have a deep and abiding belief in human decency. One day, my then 10 year old son, Julian, asked me: “Is there anyplace in America where Black people are equal to White people.” Once again I was stumped. While I hemmed and hawed trying to find an optimistic answer for my youngest child, I sadly concluded, no. This blunt answer, however, had some caveats. I asked him if he felt discriminated against in his day-to-day life. At that time he was a 4th grader at Germantown Friends, a Quaker school in Philadelphia. As he thought about it, he concluded that his friends and teachers treat him with respect and kindness. So my more nuanced answer was that people are generally kind and decent on a one on one basis. However, there are deep structural policies rooted in the country’s historic avoidance of its racist past and present that have created institutional racism and inequality.
This was seen with profound clarity most recently on March 4, 2015 when the Justice Department released its findings on the widespread corruption in the Ferguson, MO police department and court system. It proved irrefutably that Black people were being over-policed, picked up on minor or manufactured charges that carried jail time and large fines, which were then used to fund the city. What better example of Michelle Alexander’s theory that we’re living in the “New Jim Crow?” Black people have always been an economic engine of the American economy. From chattel slavery, when America prospered on the backs of 250 years of free labor, to the Ferguson findings, our exploitation is a part of America’s capitalist system. Our current reality is the natural extension of a nation built on DuBois’s “twoness.” Even as the phrase, “all men are created equal” was being penned in the Declaration of Independence, White men were conspiring to institutionalize the permanent dehumanization of Black men and women. That chasm between lofty Democratic ideals and the daily practice of buying and selling human beings, is the cancer that has metastasized into our current reality. Today the promise of America still rings hollow for many Black Americans who disproportionately live in communities with the highest poverty rates, underfunded and low performing public schools and an often hostile police presence.
I think about my parents, who left West Philadelphia in 1968 to raise 6 children – 3 boys and 3 girls – in Bucks County, at that time, an almost all-white rural community about an hour North of Philadelphia. While I wasn’t conscious of it then, my siblings and I were part of the “integration generation.” When I look back and realize how there were just a few short years between the widespread, state-sanctioned terror of the pre-1960s, and my arrival at an all-white elementary school in Perkasie, PA in 1974, I am inspired by the general kindness that I received from teachers, students and parents. Even still, while I don’t have tales of cross burnings or beat downs, there was a palpable undercurrent of being “other,” “the good one” (the exception to the widespread stereotype of lazy, shiftless masses of Black folks). While seemingly accidental, the “N-word” made regular appearances. This was way before Black music, style and culture was synonymous with cool. I am proud of the 8-year-old me that was able to navigate my personal twoness – a home that was defiantly Black, with conversations about race and racism discussed regularly and a school life that was so deeply invested in Whiteness that anything associated with the color Black was synonymous with wholesale inferiority.
My parents provide me with a powerful roadmap for raising children, especially Black boys, in a society firmly grounded in presumptive White privilege. While they undoubtedly feared for the well being of their children, they gave us incredible freedom and independence to travel our own path. As my mother used to say, “I’m going to surround you with the light.” Essentially she was saying, I can’t control what happens to you once you go out into the world. It is in God’s hands, the ancestors, and the power of the Divine. It was a way of surrendering to the unknown, a way to make peace with your worst fears. As I look at it now, as a parent, I think it was about mental survival.
Their weapon for arming us against the macro and micro aggressions we faced in our daily lives was Black art, culture, family and history. Our home was filled with vibrant paintings, soulful music and heated conversation that reflected the complexity, genius and diversity of the Black community. My parents were intent upon exposing us to the brilliance of Blackness through classic stage plays like Purlie, the Wiz and Black Nativity. They would pack all six of us into the car to go see Stevie Wonder or The Temptations or the Edward Hawkins Singers. Annual trips to Jamaica exposed us to life in a Black nation where Blackness was the norm, not the exception. Weekly jaunts to West Philly for Sunday dinner at our grandmother’s house provided psychological, spiritual and physical soul food. A deep exhale. These moments allowed us to shed armor we didn’t even know we were carrying.
My hope is that my husband and I are sowing similar seeds of pride and possibility in our sons, creating a wellspring of consciousness embedded deep inside their mind, body, and spirit, ready to be tapped when needed. This is our attempt at unifying the “double consciousness,” “the twoness,” that for centuries has sought to fracture the souls of Black folks.