Societal The Word 6 minute read

If This World Were Theirs: Parenting Black Boys From a Place of Fear


From the taxi’s window, as my boys and I sat on the tan, velvet-like covered rear-seat of a gray mini-van with “Luau Taxi” screen-printed on the side, the ocean looked to be a gradation of blues: starting with a blue faint as the water in my childhood gold-fish bowl and ending in a blue with so much depth that you wondered if even the whales could play endless hours of hide-and-seek.  But when we checked into the hotel (densely freckled with palm trees and azaleas), dropped our bags, hurriedly changed from our chilly-weather clothes into our bathing suits, and scurried to the ocean, we saw that the ocean was actually more a tapestry of greens than of blues.

We are at our best here: surrounded by sand, concrete and the ocean.  Suddenly our daily dysfunction becomes functional.  No homework assignments, constantly running late, basketball tournaments, back talk, phone obsessions, or sibling competition. It’s as if walking on sand and plunging ourselves into salt water serves as a baptism which cleanses our sins and makes us remember who we are—family.

Well-intentioned, I bought a book to read while I lounged on the beach in one of the hotel’s crème-pillow covered wooden cabanas, but I instead people-watched.  I watched (and chuckled) as one person after the other became shocked at how hot the sand was – starting their walk to the ocean in a casual saunter, yet ending it in a frantic sprint.  I watched the birds casing the joint to see who was foolish enough to leave a bag of chips unattended. And I watched a group of approximately 20 misplaced coeds on Spring Break (Maui is more designed for the middle-aged with kids and the spry senior citizen), lined up on a row of lawn chairs right by the edge of the lapping, almost clear water.  The guys, some of whom were drinking something clear out of water bottles that I suspect wasn’t water, yelled dares and insults at each other though there was no real distance between them, as the girls, stood mainly, and took selfie after selfie and talked in groups of 2 or 3.  Streaming from their area, muffled, loud country music so rudely assaulted everyone that I could imagine the fish closest to shore, doe-si-doing through seaweed streamers.  They were happy, focused on each other and the island they created, and seemed completely oblivious to anyone around them or that they could be causing an annoyance to us.  They weren’t bad, just loud and a bit obnoxious.

As I was on VST– Vacation Standard-time, unaccounted time where one’s brain is allowed to run freely to the places it rarely has time to wander:  the “what ifs” and “wonder hows” made me wonder how my sons will be when they go off to college—a mere two and four years from now.  Would they be loud, obnoxious, drinking vodka, playing loud music and disturbing vacationers during Spring Break?  Probably.  While I’d like to think that they wouldn’t; that they’d remember to be the polite, considerate boys I’ve desperately tried to teach them to be, I’m realistic (and reflective –I was a college Spring-breaker once).

But I believe they would do it a bit differently.  Instead of callous indifference, a free—“this is our world confidence” that these all White coeds displayed, my sons and their college friends from their HBCU (I’m claiming it) would line-up their beach chairs along the shoreline exactly the same, hide alcohol in non-alcoholic receptacles, yell loudly at each other and flirt with the beautiful girls around them, and blast their music (though it wouldn’t be country) exactly the same.  But they wouldn’t be free and oblivious; they would be defiant.  They would square their jaws, cross their arms, lean back in their chairs, stretch out and cross their legs, move their heads to the overwhelming beat and dare someone to say a thing to them.  While they may not look at them, my sons and their Black friends would be acutely aware of the people around them.

‘Cause that’s what I’ve taught them.

I worry that I have taught my sons to view and move in the world as if they are unwelcome visitors in it.  More than being polite and considerate, I’ve taught them that they aren’t always welcome in this world, that things will be harder for them, that people will stereotype, discriminate against and mistreat them because they are Black and male.  I’ve yelled at the news while we are watching, “See, see what they did to that Black child?  See how they characterized him?  See how they killed him?”  In my heart, the sentiment has been, “Please don’t let this ever be you.  Please live.  Please prosper.” But now I realize that my love sounded like fear (cause that’s what it is-too).

Of course, I’ve repeatedly told them that they could be anything they wanted to be; but even then there were always caveats.  Zach, you are brilliant but you know that you must work twice as hard to get what your friends have.  Evan, I love how you love to express yourself, but understand that wearing those twists in your hair will make some pre-judge you.  The most powerful man in the world is our President; but look how even he must constantly accept blatant disrespect.  Day-after-day, warning after warning:

Boy, you and your brother stop horse-playing so roughly in here before they kick us out of this park.

You know if you and your friends get stopped, who is going to go to jail.

Don’t think that you can get away with acting like Aiden. The world won’t be so forgiving to you.

No, you can’t write your paper on Master P or any other rapper for Black History Month, that’s all they think we are.

I’ve taught them that this isn’t their world because of my own fears.  And I hate that.  I don’t know if I did the right or wrong thing or if I would do it the same way again because I do believe Black parents must give their children “talks” beyond the standard look both ways before you cross the street.  But I also want them to feel free.  I want them to have that callous exuberance when you are young and you feel as if this is your world and anything is possible.

I am saddened that I know when they assert themselves in America, it will be with an air of defiance  I know it doesn’t belong to me. I know that you may resent me for doing this, but I ‘m going to do it anyway. I guess that is what I will hope for: I hope that they do IT anyway, whatever it is they desire (even if they have to do it with their jaws squared).  And that they and their friends excel so well that my grandkids will feel as if this world is indeed theirs.




My intention is for Black people to love themselves and each other. It sounds somewhat silly, I guess; but oftentimes my people are overwhelmed with negative images, bad news, and stereotyped characters about us. I’d like to flip that script. I’d like to remind us, as often as I can, how incredible we are. Read more


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