Rarely a day goes by when my sons, ages 4 and 18 months, don't get complimented on how good-looking they are. My oldest, who has a light skin tone and dirty blonde hair, was once called beautiful by a young, white filmmaker we met at the park. Thinking my son was biracial, she exclaimed that she wanted to find a black man so she could have "Malcolm X babies just like him." She then rubbed his hair. Another time, an older white woman walked up to the same son and exclaimed, "He's GOLDEN! His hair is golden! His skin is golden! He's just golden!"
Often, strangers ask if they can touch the hair of my younger son, who has a darker, though still relatively light, skin tone and very curly hair that's not textured like most black hair is. He's been called "the most beautiful baby I've ever seen" with a "face I could look at all day." Recently, at a playgroup, I was asked if his dad was Asian.
My sons are so atypically good-looking in the eyes of strangers, in fact, that it is often assumed that whichever parent isn't present is white, or any other more widely acceptable race. More than once, individuals have demanded that I detail our lineage as far back as I remember, because it defies logic that my children are black.
The implication is obvious: it's unbelievable that such beauty could be seen in an average black person.
Does it make people uncomfortable to know that these sweet faces are the descendants of slaves? Does it not make sense that these adorable boys could be the product of our plagued and controversial race? Is it unfathomable that as the years move on, they will transform from "A face I could look at all day!" to your worst nightmare--young, black men?
I know that one day, not too far off, these eyes that strangers of all races gaze into and admire will be the same eyes whose contact they try to avoid as my sons pass them on the sidewalk. As a teenager, maybe my oldest will put his sandy blonde hair into dreadlocks--and where there once was gushing in a positive yet insulting manner over his good fortune to have escaped the dark hair of his ancestors, he will now intimidate and turn people away with his so-called ethnic hairstyle.
When my sons inevitably come face-to-face with one or some of the policemen who are bad, the shade of their black skin won't save them from harassment and injustice, nor will the shine of their childhood smiles. While undying in the eyes of their mother and father, the beauty of my boys will be soon lost on the masses.
Those who don't know their character will double-check the locks of their car doors when they see my sons walk by. During neighborhood watch, they will refer to my boys as suspicious and perhaps report them just for being. My sons will "fit the description" time and time again. In the future, even if they are good (and they sure as hell better be), no one will see them as such--not even those who stop us on the street to remark about them now.
We may smile and nod and thank people for their compliments. We might step outside our norm and allow our sons to model for the benefit of their financial security. We may even appreciate that as small children, their presence warms the hearts of others. However, we know that these innocent boys will one day be unjustly persecuted solely for being black men in America.
Today, my kids are deemed "golden" and "adorable" and "sweet" because they look the way society has decided children should look. In a few years, as they grow into black young adults and men, that same line of superficial reasoning will mark them as dangerous.
Parenting to this fact is a near-impossible task.
We cannot protect our children by choosing to live in a low-crime, suburban area--they will stand out more. We cannot shelter our children by sending them to private schools we can't afford--they will never learn their heritage and the truth of what they're up against. We cannot safeguard our dear sons by making sure they keep their pants on their waists or hoodies off their heads--they will be judged either way.
To every sweet older white woman we meet who squeezes their cheeks and makes sure to look me in the eye and tell me my sons are gorgeous, I silently plead with you to remember this when they're teenagers, towering over us both. To every mom of my sons' peers who tells me how cute their hair is, I beg you to recall this moment if one of my sons is who you see when you open the front door for your child's first date. To every black person who does a double take at my pretty sons and their tired, black parents, I want to remove the blindfolds and hurt of hundreds of years of self-hatred and shame. To the police officers who smile and wave at the boys as they walk side by side with me, I would give anything for you to remember them as small, bright-eyed, and admiring--as sons of a loving mother, as humans with the right to live.
As any mother does, I worry about my children. I worry about little things like whether they'll eat their dinner tonight and major decisions like choosing to forgo traditional schooling. I worry about the next time I dare to comb their hair or what soccer team we'll join. Mothers worry about nothings and everything all at the same time.
As they grow, I find myself worrying more and more about the day the world will turn on them. Will they notice as they make the switch from boys to men that they've also transitioned from adored to alarming?
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