By Wednesday of last week, he'd decided what to wear, after going back and forth between his new Transformers T-shirt and the vintage GI Joe T-shirt he’d inherited from me. This was serious. He didn’t take kindly to my laughing him off when he came to me so excited to say he’d finally decided on the Cobra Commander T-shirt because he was certain his friends would like it. Some jeans, sneakers and a hoodie would round out the outfit.
Boogie likes to get up early and hang with my father in the morning. It’s their time together. My father with his mug of coffee and Boogie with a cup of milk or hot chocolate. They sit on the couch and talk about how they slept the night before, while watching the morning shows on CNN or MSNBC. Last Friday was no different.
When it was time to head out, I gathered up Boogie’s snack and his backpack. I asked him to grab his jacket and we headed to the car for the five minute drive to school.
My son and I have our best talks on the car ride to and from school. He straps himself into the car seat, I ease the car out of the driveway and seconds later Boogie is ready to talk.
That day, as I fiddled with the radio waiting to hear about “geeses” or something Boogie's friend Diego said or that he had a soccer game on Saturday, there was a long silence.
“Are you okay, buddy?” I asked him.
“Mommy, I don’t think I should wear this jacket. Can we go back and get another one?”
“But that’s your favorite jacket.”
“I know but it has a hood. That big kid that got died [sic] was wearing one.”
My heart stopped.
Boogie had been asking me about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was murdered in February by an off-duty neighborhood watchman in Florida, off and on for the last few weeks. I’ve tried my best to talk to my son in terms that he understands without transferring my fears into his 5-year-old world.
On the ride to school was the first time he seemed to make a connection between his life and the life of the murdered teen. My heart was in my throat. I pulled over just before the exit out of our gated community and turned the car off.
“You don’t have to stop wearing that jacket, E," I said. "What happened to that kid has nothing to do with you,” I lied.
It did have something to do with him. But I refused to tell my 5-year-old that what happened to Trayvon was a possibility in his life. And I couldn't turn this into a "bad things happen to bad people" conversation because that wasn't what happened to Trayvon. I was stuck.
This is the fear black parents have had for their sons for generations. I told myself very early on that I was not going to raise my son in fear. I’d heard tales from my black male friends about learning from an early age to always announce themselves, to be very careful when pulled over by police, to always show their hands, to do whatever they could to appear as least threatening as they possibly could. The list goes on.
I worry about my own brothers who are both well over six feet tall and built like professional athletes. They're two of the most gentle, humble and good-natured men you’d ever want to meet, but because of their size and race, there's a chance that they will be seen as threats to someone with a gun permit and delusions of public service.
I became aware of the Trayvon Martin situation about a week after it happened. It was quiet then. Not many people had heard of it. The mainstream media certainly hadn't picked up on it. So my mind raced with questions unanswered (still unanswered) for a while. I wondered, How is George Zimmerman still a free man? Forget juries and verdicts. How was he never even booked? How did he avoid spending one hour in a jail cell? Where is the public outcry?
As the days went on, Trayvon's story began to pick up steam. I watched as more people tweeted about it. Watched as he became headline news. Watched as Trayvon Martin's life came under scrutiny. What was he wearing? Why didn’t he stop? Why did he fight back? Why didn’t he just stand there and answer the strange civilian's questions?
Three weeks later and I’m still thinking about my brothers. I’m thinking about my son. I’m thinking about the conversations I’m going to have to have with him as he gets older. The ones that go beyond normal parenting.
I hate the fact that there are rules of conduct for boys of color that are meant to keep them from being murdered senselessly. And please, spare me the “it could happen to anyone” speech. If you are white in America, the chances of this happening to you is greatly reduced. White children are not taught that your behavior -- even the slightest misstep -- can make or break your life. Yes, I'm frustrated. But at the end of the day, my job as a parent is to make sure my son doesn’t carry the weight of society. I can’t raise him to fear. I won’t.
I've been unable to write about Trayvon Martin because there is so much more to this than what I have the space to comprehend. Most times I feel like I don’t know what to say. But that won't stop my son from asking questions. If Boogie asks me about it again, as I know he will, I’m not sure what I’ll tell him.
I want him to live in a better world than this and all I can do is teach him to be a better person than this world deserves. Now go practice your soccer moves.
My friend Tonya tweeted, “If it feels like a burden, you’re either carrying too much or holding it wrong.” This is not my son’s burden. I won't let it be. Not at 5-years-old and not at 25.