Last week, I lied to my child. It was a large white lie, the kind of lie that obstructs the truth under the pretense of good intentions, but within the labyrinth of its entangled roots resides a self-serving desire.
After spending the afternoon paying tribute to several of the recently murdered Black people in our country, I found my 9-year-old son crying profusely in his bed. He was saddened by what had happened to each of the individuals whose names we had listed with chalk inside hearts adorning the sidewalk in front of our home. The accompanying messages: “Black Lives Matter” and “We all deserve to breathe.”
But in addition to being sad, my son was afraid. Unlike many young children who fear the dark and the monsters that might be lurking in the shadows to attack, he feared the monsters who might be lurking to attack him because of his darkness. With the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, he now knows that his beautifully rich dark skin ― that reflects the strength of our ancestors and the history of human civilization ― puts him at risk for being senselessly killed by those who see his mere visage as a threat.
So what did I do? As he voiced his terror-driven unwillingness to venture outside of our home for fear that someone might mistake his Black Panther action figure toy for a gun and shoot him in broad daylight? I lied.
I lied and told him that he did not need to worry. I lied and told him that Mommy and Daddy would always protect him. As I have done many times before, I also reminded him of the steps that he must always take to increase his chances of coming home alive should he ever be confronted by a police officer or a neighborhood vigilante. But really, what I tried to convince him — and ultimately myself — of was that I will be able to keep him safe.
Unlike many young children who fear the dark and the monsters that might be lurking in the shadows to attack, my son feared the monsters who might be lurking to attack him because of his darkness.
The truth is that I have known that was a lie since he was 2 years old and I heard the verdict in the trial of the man who murdered Trayvon Martin (I choose to say the name of the unjustly slain instead of the unjustly freed). At that moment, I knew that not only could I not guarantee my children’s safety, I also could not guarantee them justice.
The truth is that my son was not the only one being held by the grip of fear. I feared (and continue to fear) that he will never experience the fullness of childhood — because, with each question posed about how and why those lives had been taken, I could hear his innocence dissolving.
He said it best when he plainly stated, “I don’t think I’ll ever go back to feeling like I did before I learned about all the people who died.” Yet even as I expand the seams of my sorrow to now mourn his loss of innocence, I also fear that he will never experience the fullness of adulthood. I fear that the panic of a 9-year-old child, viewing for the first time the world’s disdain for his body and his being, could in fact be a premonition.
The truth is that while uprisings and protests in response to these most recent killings feel somehow more galvanizing and more promising than anything I have witnessed before, coming at a time when so many of us are keenly aware of our shared humanity as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic, I fear that things will remain the same. Unlike my son, who has been permanently altered by the realizations of racism, I fear that our country will fall back into the convenient state of ambivalence and feigned ignorance.
I fear that fingers will point towards individual assailants or individual systems without doing the painstaking work of first examining how every facet of our country’s infrastructure has been infected by the ills of white supremacy, and then doing the work of uprooting systems of oppression, reimagining and building anew.
In the absence of that work, I fear that nothing will change, and I will eventually find myself telling this same lie to my two younger children as well.
Really, what I tried to convince my son — and ultimately myself — of was that I will be able to keep him safe.
With all of the current anti-Black violence that has been making headlines, I recently took a quiet moment to allow myself to fully confront and accept the emotions that I had been holding within over the past weeks. Lying on my bed with my hands on my belly to feel my breath, the sound of my children playing loudly and joyfully in the next room, I began to cry and think:
The last time you were safe was in my womb. In my womb, I could shield you from the world and the ugliness of white supremacy and hatred.
But then I remembered the disproportionate rate of Black maternal and infant mortality in this country. A disparity that cannot be explained or justified by educational or economic differences alone (although those factors would lead us right back to racism as well). I remembered the myriad other manifestations of institutionalized racism that endanger the lives and well-being of Black children, from the school-to-prison pipeline to housing discrimination and beyond. That was when I realized:
The last time you were truly safe was in my dreams. In that ephemeral space of hope and possibilities where I imagined who you might be and the life that you might live.
So, with that realization in mind, when my son looked to me for answers last week in his moment of sorrow and trepidation, I lied. And it is a lie that I pray he will never discover to be untrue.
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