Race & Identity
Can My Black Son Have A Childhood?
As of about six months ago, I unfortunately reached a point in my parenting journey where going to the park with my nearly 4-year-old son had become completely exhausting. It’s not just because I was forced to schlep my asthmatic, selectively sedentary self back and forth across a shadeless blacktop to kiss boo-boos and push swings. Although that does get tiring, this particular type of exhaustion was more mental and emotional than physical. It was a mixture of sadness, anger, and fear that I have come to learn many parents of black boys experience at some point in their parental lives.
I am tired of people looking at my (extroverted, smiling, and well-behaved) son like he’s a threat. Truly, this feeling started to settle in some time after my boy turned three. My flexible schedule often allowed for midday playground outings where he would happily take off running through the park gate to greet the groups of 2 and 3-year-old kids playing there while their stay-at-home moms sipped coffee and chatted. No matter how far said mothers were from their offspring when we arrived - across the gated toddler park with another child or sitting on a bench reading a book - the peripheral sight of my, admittedly tall and extremely eager, child coming too close to theirs would prompt them to leave their post and hover defensively over their kid. They eyed my son with suspicion as he reached out to shake hands or asked their child to take turns on the slide. “How old is he?” they’d query, trying to suss out if there was any legitimate reason to usher their precious progenies away from the giggling black toddler holding their hand on the way to the swings. I'll confess, at first I felt the need to reassure them. “He’s only three!” I chuckled. “He’s just tall for his age.” I’d remind him to be gentle when playing tag, ask him to stop initiating games of chase or following too close to kids whose parents helicoptered while they played. In my mind, I was both protecting him from being seen as aggressive or too rough and protecting those parents’ peace of mind.
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But then I started to get pissed. When little blonde boys who were head-and-shoulders taller than my own child walked up to other children on the playground, they were almost never interrogated. No one requested their age or “casually” asked what neighborhood they lived in. What I had hoped was not the case in my super-liberal Bay Area bubble, was an obvious reality. My son who has a charming grin, articulate speech, and a curly kinky mop of hair, was being seen as potentially dangerous based on the color of his skin. I could barely stomach it, and our trips to the park became less and less frequent.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago, and my son was now asking for his first "big boy" haircut. My personal attachment to his long curls was going to have to take a backseat to his desire for autonomy; I was simultaneously saddened and super proud. When I heard his dad’s keys jingle in the front door after their Saturday morning barbershop visit, I braced myself for a flood of emotions. But that careful mental preparation failed me once I posted pictures of his new style across my social media platforms. “He looks like a little man!” my friends and family cooed. “How did he age ten years overnight? He’s not a baby anymore; he’s a grown-up!” If I could have superglued those strands back to his head, I think I might have tried. Suddenly, thanks to a pair of clippers and a collared shirt, my baby had skipped boyhood altogether and looked, according to folks who actually knew he was still a toddler, like an adult. I couldn’t help but wonder what the playground moms would think now.
Obviously, being a parent is hard no matter the race. We’re often in limbo between wanting our children to stay babies forever and feeling like we can’t wait for them to grow up and get out of our houses. We wonder if we’re doing the right thing, teaching the right lessons, and giving the best opportunities for growth and success possible. We fail at things we thought would be simple. We worry. But there’s a nuance to being the black mother of a black son that I don’t think gets discussed quite as much as chore charts and charter schools. As the protector and provider to a child that the non-black world so often sees as a problem waiting to happen, how do I provide him a childhood that protects his innocence for as long as possible? How do I teach him to exist freely between a society waiting for him to prove himself a monster and a community begging me to “keep him in line” so he won’t become a statistic? Is that even feasible?
Next week is his fourth birthday and we’re going to have a party. He picked out the theme months ago and tells his school friends every day that he can’t wait to see them there, to blow out the candles and cut the cake. He couldn’t be more excited that less than a week from now, he will officially be a "big boy". For his sake, I’m trying to find the joy in this part of the journey. I’m trying not to let my mind wander down the path of wondering if being tall and muscular in adolescence will be more like a curse than an advantage when paired with blackness. I attempt not to hyperventilate when I remember that he was born in the same state where a 12-year-old black boy was gunned down by police for playing with a toy. I want him to enjoy his remaining years of innocence as much as I enjoyed having him tucked in a baby carrier, cheek-to-chest, and safe from the outside world. But, with everything scary and uncertain about that same world today, I can’t help but think that he might have to grow up just a little sooner than we’d both like.