In the summer of 2016, I was pregnant and anxious. That July, while I was in my third trimester, police had killed a Baton Rouge man named Alton Sterling while he was pinned to the ground. The next day Philando Castile was shot dead by police during a traffic stop in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn., while his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter sat inches away. Reading the news of these men’s deaths brought to mind black children who had died just as senselessly: 17-year-old Jordan Davis, gunned down at a Florida gas station by a white man annoyed by the music Davis and his friends played; 12-year-old Tamir Rice, killed by police in a Cleveland playground as he held a toy gun; 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot and killed by police during a middle-of-the-night raid on her home.
As I prepared for the birth of my first child, I could already see that I would need a plan in order to avoid succumbing to fear. I wanted my child to take risks, experiment and be bold but also knew that black children are often denied the presumption of innocence if their antics go the least bit sideways. Given the highly publicized deaths of black people at the hands of police and vigilantes, how could I teach my child to embody the carefree, messy freedom of youth that should be her birthright?
I began asking experts, by which I mean both professionals who work in public health and childhood development and black mothers and grandmothers across the country who had insight into raising kids. These questions and others would ultimately lead me to write my first book, We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood. But even after both the book and the baby were out in the world, I kept asking.
How did they do it? How should I?
I’ve gotten a range of responses. Many mothers suggested finding play and school environments that are intentional about giving black children room to be spontaneous and free, places where families don’t have to worry that their child’s developmentally appropriate boundary-pushing will be misinterpreted or punished. I learned, for instance, about Little Maroons, a Brooklyn-based preschool co-op and after-school program with an African-centered curriculum, as well as Detroit Summer and Sankofa in Cincinnati, youth development programs that offer safe havens for older children. Cat Brooks, a community organizer in Oakland, told me that maintaining structure and discipline at home helps her feel she’s doing all she can to keep her preteen daughter safe amid the world’s threats. City planner Christy Leffall and meditation teacher Shahara Godfrey, both also in Oakland, separately emphasized the importance of families finding a spiritual practice that offers calm and a way to make sense of suffering. For them, Buddhism has been a lifeline.
One of my most memorable conversations was with Kim Tabari, a mother active in the Long Beach chapter of Black Lives Matter who co-founded a social-justice group for children. She said she made a conscious decision not to be an overprotective parent to her 11-year-old son after witnessing the behavior of a friend, a mother of a teenage black boy. After the teenager got into a fight on a bus, his mother forbade him from taking public transit, opting instead to drive him everywhere herself and otherwise curbing his independence. “She sheltered him because she was afraid. I said I’m not going to be that person,” Tabari told me. “I want to be in the habit of teaching him, of being joyful with him, exploring things.”
I asked Tabari what she did to manage her fears. “We try to laugh a lot. Be silly,” she said. “You know how people are always like, ‘How’s the little man?’ I’m like, ‘He’s not a man, he’s a boy.’” Tabari guards against efforts to hurry her son toward adulthood. The wider world does that too often. A 2014 study found that white women undergraduates perceive black boys as young as 10 to be four to five years older than they are. Black girls, especially those who are curvier, are disproportionately shamed and pushed out of classrooms by school officials who subjectively enforce dress code policies, according to a 2018 report.
Determined to adopt Tabari’s practice of orienting toward joy, I made sure my daughter’s life was filled with music and laughter. When Is was an infant, I’d put her in her baby seat and make up dance routines while I cooked. I’d put on Héctor Lavoe or Beyoncé and hold her while we danced around the kitchen. Now that she can play more independently, she’ll hear a song and stop what she’s doing to move to the beat. She recently asked my mom to play a Drake song she loves. “That’s my jam,” Is told her.
Our family-based immersions in silliness and song sufficed until my daughter hit the 18-month mark. Then I felt the need to get her around other children more often. As we entered library story circles, weekly music classes, toddler programs and playgrounds, I wondered how to help my daughter be joyful and carefree as we moved into the wider world. I needed to know how to prepare my daughter for the discriminatory treatment and exclusion that she was sure to encounter. But she was just learning to speak, just learning to trust anyone outside her small circle of intimates. How to introduce such complex ideas to someone so small?
I shared my concerns with Denese Shervington, chair of psychiatry at Charles R. Drew University in California and president of the New Orleans-based Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, and she offered two age-appropriate tools to use as Is grows toward the preschool years: explicit limit-setting and storytelling. Young children can be extremely literal, even rigid, when told that something could harm them. Just think of the child who looks at you in horror when you suggest crossing the street against the light even with no cars in sight. Tell them certain things aren’t safe – playing with a toy gun in public, for instance – and younger children tend to listen without much questioning, Shervington said. As they get older, they’ll understand the social context, why some rules apply to them but not their white peers.
A recent NPR report pointed to the power of story as a deterrent to misbehavior in Inuit communities, and Shervington suggested something similar: weaving cautionary tales that scare our kids just enough so they’ll be less likely to do things that put in them in harm’s way – think of the boogeyman that terrified some of us in our youth. But rather than being explicit about potential consequences, we should leave room for youthful imagination. “We don’t have to tell them, ‘Because the police will kill you,’” she explained.
Equipped with specific ways to meet my responsibilities as the parent of a black child, I could be proactive and focused rather than sink into generalized worry and despair. There’s really only so much you can do, Shervington seemed to be saying. Do those things and move on. Don’t let racism rob your family of its joy.
Now, after two years of interviewing black mothers, I understand that simultaneously demanding that our children be allowed to be children and carefully introducing them to the realities of black life in this country are just part of the work. Dancing, laughing and finding pleasure in the small things may be of value to most families, but for black families, engaging in joyful practices is necessary to our survival, to our ability to fully claim our humanity.
On a recent sun-drenched day, I watched my daughter climb a jungle gym, agilely scaling the metal bars to move much higher than I’d seen her go before. She giggled when I praised her and was clearly proud of herself. I resisted the urge to caution her, and she didn’t call for my help until she’d tried and failed a few times to find her footing on the way down. This is how it will be, I thought. I may often see danger and hurt lurking, but she’ll be having fun, unaware of the risks involved as she explores the world. My task will be to stay involved, coaching or warning as it’s called for, trying to stay close enough to dart in if disaster strikes, but mostly giving her enough space to learn for herself how to maneuver this life.