Every morning it’s the same thing: Should I stay or should I go? This debate is about my running, but it’s not a question of do or don’t. I’ve been a dedicated runner for many years now, so there’s no wrangle around that. Come rain, shine or wretched wind chill, I will be hitting the open road and putting in my mile time. The choice factor has to do with another title I hold around here: mother.
My son is 5, and he’s grown up seeing his mama put on her tights (and hat and gloves and neck gaiter and breathable layers — listen, this is New England) and going for a run. And I like that. I like that he sees his mom being active and agile, committed to things outside of being his mother. The “issue” arrises when he wakes up in the morning and I’m not there. He does not like that, and he’s not shy about voicing his displeasure. “You’re not supposed to be wearing those run clothes, mom! You’re supposed to be still in pajamas!”How dare I make such bold moves?
Read the full essay on Mom.me.
I learned a hard truth about mothering black boys long before I had one of my own.
It was November 11, 1987. I was a teenager living with my family in a quiet suburb in Montreal. We woke up that morning to news that a young man, just 19 years old, had been shot and killed by a constable in a police station parking lot. The teen, Anthony Griffin, was black and unarmed. The officer, white and middle aged, had a standard issue .38 revolver.
(Image: © Andre Chung/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com. Not Nicole Blades’ son.)
My father, a man always ready with an easy, squint-eyed smile, was grim as he told my older sister, brother and me about the killing. The familiar-sounding name of the dead man sent my father to the phones next: to make some calls, check in with friends, see if Anthony Griffin was one of ours, while holding his breath like my mother, praying that “no” would be the only reply. But my “cousin” (i.e., family without blood relation) Leo called and cut into their hopes: He knows Anthony Griffin. Knew him. They ran in the same, loose circle. Of course they did. Leo and Anthony were young black boys, hardly men, growing up in Montreal, still living at home with their long-ago naturalized Caribbean immigrant parents. They played basketball and hockey and went to clubs with their boys and called up girls on the basement telephone late, late at night. Leo was Anthony. They were the same guy.
Anthony Griffin’s last night on earth started as an argument with a cab driver in the city just before dawn. The cabbie claimed the kid was trying to jump the fare and called the police. Anthony was nervous, reported the newspapers, because of an outstanding warrant, and once the police cruiser he was in had reached the station, he bolted. The arresting officer, Constable Allan Gosset, said he yelled at Anthony’s back, twice ordering him to halt. And he did. Anthony stopped and turned around, with his hands up in surrender.
That’s when he was shot. One bullet to the forehead.
Officer Gosset, who had been on the force for 16 years, said he had only intended to scare the fleeing youth into surrendering and that the gun went off accidentally. Charged with criminal negligence, he was acquitted twice—for the initial charge and later homicide—by all-white juries. However, seven months after the shooting, a police commission found Gosset negligent and recommended his dismissal.
By then it didn’t matter. The outrage was already loose; years of patent discrimination and racial profiling by the police had mangled any trust and left Montreal’s black community breathing fire. This murder of an unarmed teen was the last sliver of disregard, the last dribble of spit to the face of a people consistently benched despite playing by the rules. They took their fury to the streets in organized, nonviolent protests holding placards that screamed out for justice. I should say we, because I was there, along with my family, chanting and marching and drawing hard, permanent lines in the cracked mosaic that spelled out: NO MORE.
I yelled and roared with the crowd as we coursed the downtown streets. I was partly caught up in the drink of adult anger and exasperation, but after the heat in my own pumping fists had simmered, I felt scared again, edging up to panic. The reality of it rushed around me and gripped my throat: I was wrong about my parents. They weren’t exaggerating about the Way Things Are in This World.
It took my Barbados-born father 20 years of living in Canada to see that even though the prejudice wasn’t in-your-face, it was still there, rubbing on your thick skin, wearing it down, slow and sure. He started to see the racism was institutionalized; it said yes, you may have a job and a house with a basement and yard, and a comfortable life, but there were limits for you as a black person. He started to see blatant bigotry as a beast running toward you in daylight, attacking you from the front—a far less lethal option than encountering the snake in the grass at night. Then Anthony Griffin was killed, and the alarm sounded even louder for my father. In his mind, this young boy’s execution was the clearest example of how assumptions and racism—even disguised—broil into something truly horrible: his own son could one day be killed simply for being black.
Anthony Griffin stayed with me.
He stayed with me until he didn’t. Until I grew older and a little colder and simply tired of seeing this erasure story—the one about the unarmed black boy dusted away like pesky lint—play out over and again through decades like some hopeless movie trope, only with slightly different details, different faces, families, cities, and courtrooms. It’s the same verdict, though, the same tragedy with no real change in sight. Black boys were less than; that was their worth. Instead of growing angrier, I accepted this, begrudgingly, as fact.
But then Oscar Grant.
Then Trayvon Martin.
In between Oscar Grant’s killing by a BART police officer in Oakland, California, and Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting by a neighborhood watch captain in Sandford, Florida, something changed. I became a mother—a mother to a baby boy.
Heartsick and angry, I watched the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story roll out. This was Anthony Griffin all over again, 26 years later. I felt raw, breathless, sad, and ultimately helpless. And seeing Trayvon’s mother—numb and broken, a grayness seeping out through her eyes—it buckled my knees. This story cannot be our thing, on loop. Our brown-faced children cannot continue to be shoved into early graves. This hunt must be called off. Mothers, fathers, and like-figures must infuse a newer message and reaffirm it so these endangered children believe it deep in their bones: You are worthy. You belong here. You matter.
I’ve told myself that I have time. My son is only five years old now. Soon—not tomorrow, but soon—I will have to have The Talk about what others assume about him, about his life, about his intentions as he browses through a store or strides down the night’s sidewalk. It won’t matter if he’s wearing a three-piece suit or hoodie and jeans as he walks fresh into the lives of certain strangers, he’ll still get the double-take: that long side look soaked in suspicion and dread, because he’s laughing too loud (and black), walking too slow (and black), driving too fast (and black). His being here (and black) will be a problem for some, and they will see it as their right to bring forth a solution, set a course correction to protect the lives that really matter. And, no, that does not include yours, black boy.
Still, I don’t want to fill him with dread and fatalism. Even though he’ll be inundated with countervailing messages about his lack of worth, I want this child to find his way to becoming a fully realized man—the husks of resentment and bitterness tumbling in the trail behind him, sloughed off like useless, old skin. Like my folks did for me, I want to show my son that while there are people who will likely see him as a threat, there are also others who will be ready to embrace him, revere him, and come prepared to wholly love him.
But I’m not ready for all of that. I’m not ready to blow stinging dust into this kid’s bright, kind eyes. Not yet.
I want our brown boys to have the space and time to be hopeful and undaunted, counting forward not down to the days to come when they can play basketball and hockey and go to the club with their boys and call up girls late, late in their parents’ basements.
I want them to have the passport to be black, and just be.
Finally did it. Finally wrote about why President Barak Obama matters most to me, and to my son’s future. It’s been four-plus years in the making, but it’s finally here. Actually, the essay is on Mom.me’s new blog.
In the essay I talk about attending the President’s second inauguration earlier this week, and how being there live pushed me to share (shout?) my feelings on the symbolic value of a black president.
Have a read and definitely let me know what you think.
After filing my story to Mom.me (I had just 24 hours!), I went out to run my errands. One stop was at the post office. Had to buy a special stamp for a square envelope. Yes, you know I was griping about this. I mean, 65 cents because the envelope is cute? Anyway, I digress … Since I was there, I figured I’d ask about the Black Heritage Forever stamp. Wasn’t there yet. They still had last year’s version. I remembered reading about a special stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
So I asked for those.
Wow, right? Beautiful and profound. It all left me feeling proud, humbled and hopeful.
*The first image is a photo of artwork created by Dominant Primate. Seeing it live, you are struck by the meticulous work that went into making it.
At my son’s preschool they asked the kids to share what they are thankful for, in prepping to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Here’s his answer (that’s me on the right, by the way!):
Oh, and the one on the left who looks like he’s frowning? That’s his Dad. However, the child assured me that “we are all three laughing.”
Thanksgiving really is a lovely time of year — in theory. Push aside for a moment the crazy that is traveling on Wednesday, Thanksgiving “eve,” to get to family. Forget, for even longer than a moment, the Black Friday madness that too often ends badly, with some poor soul being trampled in the stampede of wild-eyed shoppers. And think only about the gratitude. This one day where we pause and give thanks for all the goodness in our lives: health, love, family, food, freedom.
I’m so very thankful for all of these things. This life, it’s truly wonderful.
And since we’re all sweet-potato-pie-mushy right now, I want to use this space to also give thanks for one more thing: YOU! All of you, whether you’re in the U.S. or elsewhere around this globe. Thank you for reading Ms. Mary Mack blog. Really. Thank you for walking along this path with me, learning life lessons and gathering up compassion as we go.
Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving Weekend, friends.