Can you image getting that call? It’s the call that every parent fears. It’s the call that tells you your beloved child, flesh of your flesh, blood of your blood, has died an untimely death. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children. The very thought tears my soul to pieces in a way I can’t describe. When I see the anguished but determined faces of Trayvon’s parents, I can only imagine their struggle to process his death while finding the strength to manage their grief and seek justice for him.
For the last few days I’ve grappled with what I wanted to say about the Trayvon Martin case. I’ve struggled to articulate how the death of this young man has impacted me not just as a parent but as a black mother to a young son. I know that I’m not the only mother – scratch that – parent who has been moved by this story of a teenage boy who was gunned down before his life has barely begun. I know that I’m not the only parent who wonders how our country can quantum leap forward and elect our first black president on the one hand, while daily black mothers and fathers worry about their sons’ safety on the other. I know I’m not the only parent wondering how much longer our society can tolerate our gun-obsessed culture that has made our streets even more dangerous with laws like “Stand Your Ground”.
It’s clear that Trayvon Martin’s death has touched a chord with people of different faiths, races and socio-economic backgrounds. But this case has special resonance for black parents. We know that the world can be a dangerous place for our young men who, once they’ve reached their teen years, are often viewed as a menace to society just for being black. We know that our young black men are judged by what they wear, how they speak even how they walk. I think New York Times columnist Charles Blow most accurately captures the questions this case raises about race, profiling and fear black parents of sons experience . If you’ve not read his nuanced op-eds on this tragedy, they are well worth your time.
I asked this question of my husband the other night. “How do we keep him safe?” When I look at pictures of Trayvon’s sunny, open smile and read his mother’s loving description of a boy who loved sports, math, was taking AP English and preparing for college, I think that could be my son. When D2 and I are out shopping on the weekends, people constantly stop us to chat, give him high-fives or just lean down and say (as they do down South)”That is one pretty baby.” I know though that in ten or twelve years time, those same people may cross the street , lock their car doors or hug their bags a little more tightly when they see him coming, because by then he’ll probably be built like his dad – muscular and well over six feet.
And so like thousands of black parents have done before us (and like my parents did with my brother and Dr. D.’s parents did with him and his four brothers), we will have The Talk with D2 when he is old enough. We will talk to him about how to behave if stopped by the police (Keep your hands on the wheel. Look the officer in the eye. Don’t mumble. Don’t make sudden moves. Ask permission to reach for your wallet). We will talk to him about avoiding parties where drugs and alcohol are consumed because (as my mother said to us growing up) if he is one of the only black kids there, it will be his face that is remembered. We will talk to him about dressing to make a positive impression (School uniform, yes. Button-down shirt and waist-hugging trousers, yes. Sagging pants and baggy t-shirts, no.) We will make sure his teachers know we have high expectations of him. That we will expect more of him even if they do not. And even then, we know that no matter how well-dressed, how well-spoken, how good a student he is, there will be some who will simply judge him because he is a young black man.
At this writing, it’s not clear whether Trayvon’s killer will be arrested, though I am optimistic the special investigator will now fairly consider all of the evidence. I wish we lived in a “post-racial” society where we didn ‘t have to talk about why race still matters. I wish we didn’t have to talk about why young black men still are dispproportionately likely to die from gun violence than any other group in this country. What I know for sure is that while nothing can bring Trayvon back, we have an opportunity – family by family, community by community – to have a real discussion about what it will take for us to build communities that are safe and nuturing for all children, regardless of race or socio-economic background. Afterall, Trayvon Martin could have been anyone’s son and that makes him everyone’s son.