We’re stomping in the sludge on our walk to the bus stop. Every so often, the boys slide on the ice while my daughter clings to my coat for dear life. I call to them, “Listen: We need to make one stop at the GAP before dinner. I have your books in my bag. Sit and read while I shop and you’ll get an extra hour at bedtime tonight.”
“But why, Mama?” My oldest whines.
“Because it’s good for you and because I said so!” My pat answer comes too sharp, too quick, too vague.
I don’t want to tell the truth that his mama is afraid. This Black Mama is afraid when I roll deep with my three kiddos in the affluent parts of Cambridge. I’m afraid of sideways glances and watchful eyes. I don’t want to tell my kids that they must been seen and not heard, not because their little voices don’t matter, but because the sound of our invasion invokes fear or annoyance. I don’t want to tell them that today, I read another story of racial profiling resulting in another black boy’s life cut short, and I keep seeing my oldest son’s face replace the victim’s face.
So, I remind them of their books and give them an incentive, and issue pat answers.
“Mama,” my daughter whispers, her wild curly hair tickling my nose, “I think Tyson took something from the store.”
We are walking out of The Harvard Coop’s bookstore, making our way down the spiral stairwell that spans three floors, when I stop.
“Check his pocket,” she answers.
I look at my man-child, a few steps below me, oblivious to that perfect storm of fear, anger, and black mama indignation churning in my gut.
“Tyson— COME HERE!” I demand. “Did you take something from this bookstore?”
His face screws up in indignation, “No, Mama!”
I don’t believe him so I gently pull him to me. His little gray-green eyes widen in hurt as I check his pockets.
The very same hands that wiped his bum, dabbed away his tears, and treated bloody wounds, issue his first ever semi-public pat down.
Humiliation. Exposure. Distrust. I feel his shame as my hands press his pants pockets, his coat.
“Tyson, what is this?” I ask, holding a pair of neon orange GAP sunglasses that I did not pay for.
“Mama…” he starts, “Mama…I’m sorry…I stole them.”
A cold silence falls over our little group.
“Here’s what you’re going to do,” I hiss. “You are going to walk back into that store and say ‘Hello my name is Tyson, I’m eleven years old and when I was here with my mom, I took these glasses. I know it was wrong and I’m sorry.’”
“But, Mama!” He starts to protest.
All the fear, all the fury, all the disappointment boils over and words spill out. “Tyson! Don’t you know they expect this from us? Don’t you know that to them,you’re just another black kid to watch when you come into their stores? Don’t you know they ‘Stand Their Ground’ against us over this nonsense? This isn’t just about sunglasses!”
“What do you mean, Mama?” With every word, I could see my fear chasing away his innocence.
“Baby, we’re black. It’s not safe for us. They’ll shoot first without asking questions, and your stealing only gives them permission not to trust us. It makes murdering us okay. Look at Trayvon Martin. They’re afraid of us. Don’t you see?”
“I…I didn’t know, Mama. I didn’t know it was like that. I just didn’t know…” He sputters as we leave the bookstore.
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My baby takes those sunglasses back to the GAP. He recites my apology. His eyes well up in fear-rich tears of shame. He’s no longer a little boy who made a mistake; he’s now a soldier in this racially charged battle. Another black boy versus an unforgiving white world.
My fear did that to him. For my son the world is now “us” and “them.”
That night as I tuck my daughter into bed, she holds my face and when our brown eyes meet she says, “Mama…if they shoot black boys, what do they do to black girls?”
Later on, I lie on my bed, weeping. I ask Jesus what the hell I am doing. I have a child who steals, a terrified daughter, and a mouth full of fears.
I remember the hoodie wearing boys, the loud music listening boys, and the girls who needed help in the middle of the night. I cry for mamas whose mouths are full of fear too.
I meditate on the words of college professor and slam poet Javon Johnson’s, “Black boys in this country cannot afford to play cops and robbers if [they’re] always considered the latter.” I’m grieving over child-like innocence lost. I ask God to give me some Heavenly Parental pat answer, but nothing comes.
As I begin to write a prayer for the family of Jordan Davis the next morning, as I type out petitions before the throne of God and the whole interwebs, I remember these words:
Perfect love casts out fear.
I think of Jesus who taught shalom to fear-riddled followers. Who spoke of an Upside Down Kingdom where the first are last, the children of God make peace, and the weary find rest. Where those who live by the sword of fearful words and accusations die by that very sword, but those who speak life and pray for comfort will see the Kingdom of God touch earth in profound, barrier-breaking ways.
I remember that shalom—the realization of God’s perfect love on this terrified earth—happens when his children are reconciled to each other as they have been reconciled to him.
So I write my friends with blogs and I confess that as a black mama with Stand Your Ground Laws picking off our children one by one—I’m terrified of “them”. I invite them to write prayers as we stand together for God’s wholeness in the brokenness the justice system. We are white women and black, American and Canadian, young and old, urban and suburban and my fear will no longer perpetuate “us” and “them”.
Together we will stand our ground…in prayer.
This Mama is still afraid. I’m afraid that my sweet boy in a hoodie could be mistaken for a threatening hoodlum and that a fear-propelled bullet could be his tragic end.
This Mama is still afraid, so I will try to stand my ground and pray shalom when I’m tempted to speak fear.
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