I wrote this at the end of August, after the murder of Michael Brown. Still relevant now.
To my Beautiful Black children,
This week you returned back home from spending the summer with your grandparents. For eight weeks, you engaged in what so many of our people have done for generations: spent the summers unburdened by camps and activities in order to spend time with your extended family, surrounded by the love of folks who knew you before you even took your first breath. You learned a different way of being, likely seeing more people who look like you in eight weeks than you do the remaining weeks of the year at home. A friend called it “black camp;” over the summer, you received an immersion education in the ways of black folks.
Usually, the eight weeks are a time of rest and relaxation for your father and I.
Yet the events of this summer made this time less carefree than usual. More importantly, and in a manner far more dire, I’m scared about my ability to protect you.
I used to think I really didn’t need to worry too much about you. I believed that because your father and I have college degrees and we live in a “good” area, that you would be just fine. I wanted to believe that January 20, 2009 was the turning point in our collective lives, our black lives. That day was also the day you, Ahmir, turned three. While we knew we had not yet reached the promise land, we still had the audacity to hope. Our hopes and dreams were so big at that moment.
The day you left the comfort of family to be in the care of folks who don’t look like us, however, was the day I started to worry about you and felt my moment of hope turn to moments of despair. I noticed how they monitored you, how they talked about you, how they attributed negativity and adult impulses to you. I watched how they labeled you, how they insisted you needed “help.” I watched, and I cried.
It didn’t help that I was studying parenting and race and education. I was learning about the historical legacy of de jure segregation, the failures of so-called integration, the interest convergence motivations and mixed outcomes of the Civil Rights Movement. I was learning about how little black boys and little black girls are disciplined, suspended, and denied access to educational opportunities no matter what school they attend. I was learning that the very fact of being black was a stain, a hindrance and a mark. I was learning about the stigma – a relationship that sociologist Ervin Goffman stated arises from “an attribute that is deeply discrediting” where “those who have dealings with [a stigmatized person] fail to accord him the respect and regard which the uncontaminated aspects of his social identity have led them to anticipate extending, and have led him to anticipate receiving”– of being black.
I began to place my experiences being your mother in the intellectual context of my experiences being a scholar. And then I got more than scared. I got terrified.
Recently, the very people I teach you to go to when you need help killed four men who could be your brothers, cousins, uncles, or fathers. Of course, the State-sponsored and State-tolerated terrorism of people marked as black is nothing new.
As before, the State – the entity that is required to acknowledge your humanity and your rights as a citizen of the United States – engaged in violence towards people who look like you because they looked like you. The stigma of blackness marked them as less than deserving of respect as a fellow human being, as someone’s child, as someone’s husband, as someone’s father. Like the erasure of thousands of Gazan children from the rolls of the young dead due to their gender and color, the death of people who look like you is justified due to the mere belief that you could be dangerous, and that danger is a risk the State is unwilling to take. Shoot first and ask questions later. Lethal force is justified by the racist perception of danger, even when you stalk and profile a teenager. You are only entitled to due process only if you survive (don’t resist arrest!). Even us black women, Amina, are not immune to violence perpetuated due to our color.
While we hope for justice, we know delayed justice is really no justice at all when a life is gone.
Where before, I worried about your opportunities, now I worry about your life. While I can imagine a life without you getting a college degree or a professional job, I cannot imagine a life without you. I cry for those mothers who must.
Yet this letter is not about me, it’s about you. While I am also a target, you are having your childhoods taken away. So for that reason, my Prince and Queen, my loves and my lights, you will never read this letter. I do not want you to live a life of fear.
I want you to live as if you have a right to be here. I want you to live a carefree childhood as all other children deserve to live. I want you to live as if you have the RIGHT to survive and thrive. I want you to live knowing your worth is enhanced by the legacy of fallen martyrs, knowing that there are people out there willing to fight for you and your right to thrive.
I want you to live knowing that I will support those fighters and even fight myself. I want you to know that I will use this law degree and sociology doctorate to organize and work toward the demilitarization of the police. I want you to live knowing that I will fight for your right to be a child and to have a childhood. As my child, I will fight for your Constitutional right to be safe and seek safety without the threat or actuality of violence from the State. I will fight for our elected officials to protect you.
I want you to live knowing that even if they treat us like we are dangerous, being black does not equal being threatening, and you are not a wild animal ready to pounce at any moment. I will fight this fight for you, in hopes that one day, you will fight for yourself and for others. Until then, I will fight for you.
So please, little ones, do not be afraid. A life lived in fear is akin to a life lived not at all. And you will live.