I remember when you were just born and how surprised I was that, indeed, there’d been a baby in me only moments before. So perfect and beautiful. Somehow you learned to turn over and roll faster than I expected, and you fell off my bed and we both cried. When you turned 1, I was amazed that somehow I’d kept you from serious harm. My confidence in my mothering skills had a lot of growing to do.
Soon you were crawling and walking and imitating all that you saw. The local grocery store was used to small children eating the merchandise while their mothers shopped. Clerks didn’t mind that the moms would just tell them at checkout what to add to her bill because her little boy had already consumed it. But I had to tell you that it wasn’t yours until it was paid for. I knew that what you learned at 2 could determine whether you went to jail at 20.
When you were 3, you saw a blond girl, probably about 13, who was mad at her family and had stormed off to sit alone. You sidled up to her, smiling, offering her your ice cream cone, and she melted. Her parents and yours all laughed. But by the time you were 13, we’d had to tell you to be careful, that even if a white girl welcomed your advances, her parents might not feel the same way.
We also had to give you specific instructions about how to behave, should you have an encounter with the police. While the great majority of our men and women in blue are ethical and professional, a few still make assumptions about what black teenage boys must be up to. Therefore, extra deference, slow movements, keeping your hands out of your pockets and in the officer’s line of sight could be the difference between a few simple questions asked and answered and a “justified” shooting that would end my baby’s life.
Your childhood friends, who also casually ate their way through the grocery store, have never had to worry about police targeting them, let alone the neighborhood watch volunteer. They don’t know what it’s like to have people cross to the other side of the street when they see you and your friends walking toward them. They haven’t seen anxiety cross the face of the white lady in the elevator when the door opens and you’re walking in. Sometimes you smile and make a comment about the weather, just to put her at ease.
Now you’re growing up into what we all call a Fine Young Man. Your gifts and talents are different, and you’re following a path that will take you to many wonderful places. But I hate the fact that part of what makes you who you are — being African American and male — also means carrying centuries of racism on your back. It is so much harder to soar when our “post-racial” society still fears you.
Please always know that I love you, like a mother. Not like a black mother but like all mothers love their babies. Some of us have to fear for ours, too.
Jolene Ivey, a Democrat, represents Prince George’s County in the Maryland House of Delegates. She is the mother of five boys.