One evening, I was stopped by the police for making an illegal right turn at a stoplight. It was nighttime, it was raining hard, and Max, my 6-year-old son, was in the backseat, distracting me with some chatter about who knows what. I didn’t see the No Turn On Red sign and whipped around the corner, right in front of a parked patrol car. Though I was shocked to see the flashing lights in my rearview mirror, I decided to use it as a teaching moment.
After I pulled over, I explained to Max, “Mommy made a bad turn, and now the policeman is going to come over and ask me what happened. It’s the policeman’s job to protect us by making sure everyone does the right thing. His job can be very scary if someone is doing the wrong thing, so we have to show him that we are good guys. Watch what Mommy does and how nicely I speak to him. And I’m going to keep my hands where he can see them so he doesn’t think I’m holding anything bad.” When the officer walked over, I kept both hands on the steering wheel and said, “Good evening, sir. What have I done wrong?” After he explained and asked for my license and registration, I told him, “No problem, sir. My documents are in the glove compartment, so I’m going to reach down and pull them out now.”
Of course, Max had questions when the officer went to his car to run my information: “Why did you keep calling him sir?” and “Why did you tell him you were going to get your gloves?” I laughed but made sure he understood that my intention was to show respect and to not give the officer any reason to think I was going to hurt him. At the end of my explanation, I looked my son in the eye and said, “If a policeman thinks you don’t respect him or that you’re not a good guy, he might get scared and decide to hurt you. And lots of people are like that: They get scared of big, strong boys for no real reason, so you must always be very careful so that everyone understands how nice you are.”
This incident occurred before Trayvon Martin was killed for walking while Black through a White neighborhood. Like every other African-American—and certainly mothers of Black boys—I have felt a mixture of sadness, terror and disbelief regarding
the shooting and slow pace at which our legal system reacted to the situation. I look at the pictures flashing across my screen of Trayvon with his sweet baby face and think how much they look like my little boy and how precarious life is in this country for all our sons if this young man could be gunned down while on an errand to buy candy for his little brother.
We all have a responsibility to protect our boys, and to give them the best possible chance at growing up to be healthy, productive members of society. On page 132, we talk to young men from across the country about their own feelings of vulnerability. Powerful stuff. We also spoke with Trayvon’s parents about who their son was and about their incredible persistence in keeping his story front and center until official action was taken. In my own home, I will continue to teach my son how to behave when he is in situations that could be dangerous for him. Right now, he’s too young to absorb the racial aspect of the lesson, so I will keep impressing upon him that everyone must know he is a “good guy.” But later, I will be very clear that as gentle, sweet and well-meaning as he may be, someone else may view him as the enemy just because he is Black.
Stay strong, fam. E-mail or hit me up on Twitter to share your stories, and to tell me how you’re going to protect our sons.
Read more in the June 2012 issue of EBONY Magazine on page 16.