Is My Son Next? Fears of a Black Mother

For a while I put off making a post like this. I thought I didn’t have anything new to contribute to the conversation. But I FaceTimed my mom yesterday, just like I do everyday, and this call was different. We cried together. We spoke of the world in which the two beautiful little black boys sliding into a kiddy pool at that very moment are growing up. “You have to use your voice,” she said. “Use whatever you have.” So here I am, trying to piece some words together that make sense. Because I do have something new to contribute. Myself. My family. My heart.

We muse all the time about what the boys will be like when they get older. They’ll be tall and long-legged like their dad’s family, but solid like my family – football player physiques. Nathan is quiet, sensitive, and loves to draw and color. Maybe he’ll be an artist or a musician. Alex is articulate and can reason well. Maybe he’ll be a teacher or a lawyer. Will they want to play soccer like their daddy did? Will they love Star Wars too? I wonder these possibilities with a smile, but the truth is, we are a black family living in the United States.

What do I want the twins to be when they get older? Alive.

George Floyd was a cute toddler once. Trayvon Martin’s mom probably got compliments about how adorable he was when she pushed him in the buggy at the grocery store. And I know Tamir Rice was a cute kid, because he still looked like a kid when he was murdered. Just 12 years old, he still had his baby face. Everyone starts out as a cute baby, and then somewhere along the line, a growth spurt hits and everything changes and those someday fears become the here and now. You are no longer an individual with dreams and aspirations, quirks and favorite things. You’re a potential rapist, burglar, thief, murderer. You’re a ticking time bomb, a raging fire yet to be extinguished. You’re a threat to public safety. You are nobody’s baby anymore.

The twins like to sleep in my bed and I let them. Before, it was just because it was easier to let them stay than fight through the wailing and whining that comes with making them sleep in their own beds. Now, I keep them in the bed with me at night because it feels like all I can do. Maybe if I hold them close all night  and keep them within arm’s reach all day, they’ll be okay. Maybe if I never let go and keep them as safe as I can, I can protect them from this world that wants them dead. Maybe if I treat them like my babies forever, they’ll never have to know that there are people who won’t view them as sweet, brilliant, funny, amazing. I lie awake and think, “Where can we go? Where can I take them to keep them safe?” And I come up with no answers. Short of another planet, there is nowhere. This is the only world we get and the only option we have. Sometimes I wonder if it was irresponsible of me to conceive them and bring them into this world at all. They didn’t ask to be here. They didn’t ask for any of this, yet here we are.

Y’all, I’m so tired. I’m tired of living in fear, but more than that, I’m tired of living in hopelessness. I want so badly to believe that the world will change while my boys are still young, that they’ll get to grow up in peace and love and be seen for who they are and not what crime they could potentially commit. I don’t want to be cynical and say it’s not going to happen – that seems so counterproductive to an important movement and negates the work so many are doing to change our reality. But I look at history. My parents are children of the 1960s and the parallels of the plights of black people from then and now are so similar, it’s disheartening. Yes, we can drink from the same water fountains now. We can go to the same schools, vote, hold office. They’re still killing us. We are still dying. I carry with me the same fears that my grandmothers did. I want to be optimistic, I swear I do. But it is so, so hard.

When you love someone, you see them as you know them. My older brother is a six-foot-tall, 200-pound, muscular black man. He’s got a shaved head, a thick beard, and is covered in tattoos. I see him as I know him: a big nerd with a hearty laugh who has always loved professional wrestling, collects cool sneakers, texts me jokes from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to make me laugh, likes going to the gym every night after work, and tells the world of his love for being an uncle. It’s when I step outside of myself when I see him how the rest of the world sees him: a big black guy with a bunch of tattoos. There’s not a doubt in my mind that somewhere, there’s a “description” that he fits. And then I think of my mom. My sons are still little and cute; everyone loves them. But her son is a grown man, working and living away from her. She has no control over where and when he comes and goes; she can no longer protect him. She must wake up every morning knowing how her only son, her baby boy, appears to those who do not know and love him. How? How do you go through life with that knowledge, that fear? To know she loves my brother the way I love my boys, and must live daily with that reality, is heart wrenching and horrifying.

Last night, I scrolled through social media while the boys slept beside me. I told myself I’d unplug, but I couldn’t. Finally, my little black boys snoring softly, I locked my phone and went to find James, who was in his study writing recommendation letters for his students and listening to music. I looked at him, but I didn’t know what to say. I collapsed into his arms and wept. Big, ugly tears, choking and sobbing against his neck. All I could say was “It’s too much. It’s not fair.” He knew what I meant and held me until I was ready to go back to bed. In that moment, I cried the tears of every black mother I’ve ever known and all the ones I haven’t. With his last breaths, George Floyd called out for his mother. And someday, that could be my Alexander or my Nathan, on the ground, suffocated by the people they will learn in school to trust.

Justice for George Floyd. Justice for Ahmaud Arbery. Justice for Breonna Taylor. Black lives matter. God help us all.