As a kid, the idea that Black was beautiful was drilled into my head. I grew up in a cocoon deliberately woven by my mother and my teachers to shield me from a prejudiced society. They created a virtuous echo chamber reverberating with messages about my beauty and intelligence.
The gap-toothed smile I had until I lost my baby teeth? A symbol of my classic West African beauty, my Liberian mother said. The racialized beauty standards that threatened my self-esteem were a no-go for my mom, who bought me only Black Barbie dolls for most of my girlhood.
As a kid, I attended school assemblies where Black dancers twirled, gracefully and majestically to the steady thrum of African drums. It was there that I learned the history of Kwanzaa and that the black, red and green candles in the Kwanzaa kinara (candle holder) represented the common African heritage that connected Black people, “the blood they had shed for freedom,” and the African continent’s abundant mineral and agricultural riches.
These things reminded me, as Black media giant Michaela Angela Davis once wrote, that “it was a privilege a blessing not a burden to be young gifted and black.” Now that I’m all grown up, I appreciate my mother’s and school’s efforts to center blackness in my life. They gave me “batik-colored” glasses that I could see myself through in a white-washed world.
And whenever I behold an unbearably cute brown baby, I know I’ll want to do the exact same thing for my kid that my mother did for me. If my child identifies as a boy, I know I’m going to paper his bedroom walls with images of a young Paul Robeson in his football gear, John Stewart’s Green Lantern and Brother Malcolm’s august and handsomely attired form.
I’m going to make sure he grows up in his own cocoon where mantras about Black boy positivity, like the ones in Esperanza Spalding’s song “Black Gold,” play endlessly on loop. I’m going to make sure I teach him the wonderful and incalculable value of being Black.
But sometimes I can’t help but wonder if it will be enough that my unborn son knows his worth when he will live in a society that doesn’t.
The truth is, in a country where men like Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman can violently act out their prejudice against Black bodies and not be punished for it, in the words of spoken word poet Jasmine Mans, “I am just afraid to raise a Black son…who has to be a martyr for a war that he ain’t ever ask for.” I am just afraid to raise a son who will, by virtue of inheriting the physical markers of blackness from me, be deemed guilty of committing what philosopher George Yancy called the “ontological crime” of being Black.
In her poem “Black Son,” Jasmine Mans beautifully unpacks the peculiar calculus some Black women must perform as they reckon with the fact that their sons are born into a country that, to quote Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, “was built on the notion that Black people were an inherent threat to it.”
When describing Black mothers’ pain, Jasmine Mans writes: “loving something so disposable never sat well in the bodies or hearts of mothers trying to catch a break.” This verse captures my fear, the proto-anxiety I feel when I deeply consider how the world will treat my unborn son. When I say I’m afraid to raise a Black son, I mean that I’m afraid to love something that the world sees as “so disposable.” Ultimately all human life is fragile, but the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis show us that the lives of black boys can be disproportionately ephemeral.
The words of Jordan Davis’ killer Michael Dunn are a window in this part of the American psyche that views Black boys as less than the human beings that they are.
In a letter to a family member Dunn writes:
The jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs. If more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.
Dunn also exemplified his low regard for Black life by referring to his Black cellmates as “animals.”
The Michael Dunns of the world don’t exist in a vacuum; they are products of a culture that willfully understands loud rap music and hoodies as markers of deviant behavior that merits a violent reaction. That Michael Dunn can shoot into a car of unarmed teenagers 10 times and still see himself as a victim speaks volumes about not only who he is, but who we, as Americans, are.
I’m afraid to raise a Black son because of people like Michael Dunn. I’m afraid of their fear, “a fear as old as fire and rope,” and I’m afraid their ignorance. I’m afraid of an America that refuses to come to terms with the reality of the racism it perpetrates. I’m afraid of an America that still thinks that racism must look like white hoods and swastika tattoos in order to be dangerous.
My kid deserves to be able to grow up with the right to express his full humanity in all of its messiness and its gloriousness. He deserves to grow up in a country where the right to be human isn’t locked away behind a door marked “Whites Only.”
Racists aren’t just hateful trolls that spend hours on message boards gleefully arguing the merits of segregation. They are entrepreneurs who wear nice suits as they beam with pride at their kid’s wedding. They live next door to you and they wave to you as you take out your garbage. They live beneath our skin and stare back at us in the mirror as we brush our teeth in the morning. The racists aren’t out there somewhere. Ultimately, they’re in us. We must confront them if we’re going to create a world where my children, and all children can live without a death warrant stamped on their chest.