Poignant pictures are spilling out of Baltimore. Photos of what we may soon regard as the latest protest in our “Spring” movement show brave bodies in various states of resistance. Some with faces covered, others brazenly identifiable — but all filled with the justifiable rage of living in what feels like a police state where black lives definitely do not matter.
As a scholar of black parenting, one picture stood out from the rest, one that surprisingly united folks from across the ideological divide on “acceptable” forms of protest. First reported on CNN, which has recently come under fire for their selective and sensationalized reporting, the photo shows Toya Graham and her 16-year-old son who, with face covered and rock in hand, had been a part of the resistance events of Monday afternoon. With the cameras rolling, Graham repeatedly smacked and hit the teen upside his head, obviously incensed by what she was seeing and his presence. (I choose not to link to it here.)
Graham had become #MomOfTheYear. For those who saw “thugs” and “looters,” here was a black mother determined that her son not be a criminal. For those who saw “people tearing up their own community,” here was a black mother who seemingly advocated for non-violent protest, in the style of the MLK of revisionist history. On both sides, here was — finally — a black parent who cared. (Even Oprah said so!)
I understand why she did what she did. Fear is a powerful motivator. So is love. As a black mother of black boys, I understand that if my 16 year old child was in the streets throwing rocks at the police, justifiably or not, I would want nothing more than to snatch him up and take him home. I likely would not have beat him over the head, but I would have done everything else in my power to get him off the street and Take. Him. Home. That’s the love of a parent who wants to protect her child. I hope, in her children’s eyes, that she is their mom of the year.
But she’s not THE mom of the year.
She’s the poster child of the moment for how we see black responsibility for the conditions in which we find ourselves.
Had Graham’s 16-year old son been Freddie Gray, killed by the callous indifference and pathological actions of six persons sworn to serve and protect, those praising her “tough love” would have been decrying the fact that she allowed her son to be arrested in the first place. “Why was he even in the back of a police van? He must of done something. Where are his parents?” Her mom of the year status would be used as satire, with the implication being that only bad parenting could have led her son to that van, a son already known to post Facebook pictures smoking a joint and holding a gun.
Her son wasn’t Freddie Gray, thank God. Toya Graham went out there to save the child, her only son, who she already knew had gone wrong. She didn’t come out there to stop her son from protesting per se; she came to get him because he’d been in trouble and she was trying to get him back from the streets. And while she is being lauded now for for stopping him from participating in protest, had her time in the national consciousness been on the flip side, as a mother grieving the lost of her teenaged son in the back of a police van, the national consciousness would be singing a new, cruel, tune.
Whether the message is that good black moms knock their kids upside the head to stop them from “looting” or that bad black moms allow their 16-year-old sons to smoke weed and handle guns, it boils down to this: “If black people would just control their kids, we wouldn’t be having this problem.” The obsession with Toya Graham encapsulates the idea that we — black people, and especially black parents — aren’t doing enough to keep ourselves in check. Good (black) parents beat their kids so they don’t go to jail. That’s obviously the only way.
The story of Toya Graham and the admirable love she has for her son is not one of finally celebrating the “good” black parents out there, but the same old story of how black people’s problems would just be fixed if we simply focused on “bettering” ourselves, our children and our communities, and “preferably by brutal measures so we know you’re serious.” The ages-old lessons black people are to get from the Toya Graham message are: “We will respect you when you start respecting yourself.” “If you all would just control your neighborhood . . . if you all would stop committing crimes . . . if you all aren’t doing something wrong . . . the police would have no reason to mess with you.” Do what you gotta do at home. Fix it.
The message is, in focusing on the parenting decision in the moment where a child was poised to throw rocks back at police officers who also threw rocks is “Please, black people, control yourselves — except it’s okay to be violent to other black people (especially your wild ass kids) as long as you keep that violence among yourselves and, most importantly — ONLY for the aim of keeping US safe.”
The reality is there is no amount of respect or control we can bestow and foster within ourselves or on our children that will limit the state sponsored violence inflicted on black skin in America. Toya Graham may have thought she was protecting her son from becoming another Freddie Gray, but she’s wrong, and so is everyone else who thinks she’s right. She stopped one brick from being thrown. Her son is going to face a thousand bricks over the rest of his life.
Ultimately, the issue of racism, systemically, does not belong to black people, because we can never stop being black. We will never be good enough. The issue of racism belongs to white supremacy, and it is a war that is being waged on our backs. We can congratulate Graham for a job well done of beating her son into submission and becoming the “Why can’t all black parents be like that?” mascot of the moment.
Again, I am not condemning her – she did what she thought needed to be done.
But while she can try to knock some sense into her kid and into submission, the fact that she is so-called #momoftheyear for violently removing her son from a protest against police violence won’t stop her son from being target practice for state-sponsored violence. The next time the police see him, they won’t see his #momoftheyear with him. They will see him, and his skin. And that will be enough.
by Amanda Enayati
There is a pile here: two big boxes and three large envelopes. The boxes are stamped Penguin Random House and the envelopes are from Simon Schuster. The boxes contain my first book, due to be released in early March. The envelopes contain a book I contributed a chapter to, alongside a slew of well-known and bestselling authors.
They’ve been sitting in the corner for weeks now, unopened.
“Why won’t you open them?” My ten-year-old daughter has asked me more than once.
“I don’t know. I’m waiting for a sign,” I’ve said more than once.
Truth is, I’m terrified.
I spent so many years bum-rushing the gate that it never occurred to me to think through what would happen if it ever opened.
What if I made mistakes? What if it sucks? What if everyone hates my book? What if everyone hates me? What if what if what if what if …
I snatched my book, which is about stress and what it can teach us about how to live, from the jaws of time. I wrote it while taking care of two kids, dropping off, picking up, helping with homework, buying groceries, making dinner, washing dishes, cleaning toilets, vacuuming, working part-time at a consulting gig — and without hired help because, shit, that’s expensive and it’s either childcare or the kids’ music classes. I know most of you won’t bat an eyelash at any of this, because you’re doing exactly the same thing (and much more) yourselves.
So why don’t I feel like I’m enough? Why am I spending so much of what should be a glorious moment of triumph huddled in an imaginary corner, biting my nails, envisioning worst-case scenarios, fearing disaster? What if what if what if …
I suspect my stories. I do. I think we get these stories early on. They are handed to us by our parents, our families, our communities, our ancestors, our friends, our media. And we walk through our entire lives, sticking to these scripts. Often blindly. And if your stories are not good ones, if they don’t serve you, well …
At this point, I have a pretty good sense of my script. And in many ways I have managed to flip it. The past is just a story we tell ourselves. I have learned how to create better stories—great stories sometimes—stories that help me, that serve me. Being a child refugee from a revolution; living for years without a country or your immediate family; not fitting in; being called ugly over and over again because you’re too dark, too foreign; suffering from PTSD after 9/11; almost dying from cancer—in my new stories, all of these are strengths. They are superpowers. They make me special. They make me different. They make my book different than the scores written by the supremely privileged whose advice I just. can’t. relate. to.
But I also know that I have to remain conscious, in the moment, mindful, on guard, because the old stories, the toxic ones, are there, ready to kick me down and keep me there.
I think of how my kids move through the world sometimes. I marvel at them. How they own the moments; how they relish the joys and successes; how they examine the failures; how they don’t take any of it personally; how they keep a sense of humor about most things. I raised these two. I told them about the bad stories. Warned them not to believe the bullshit. To hand it back to where it came from and say: “No, thank you.” To write their own stories. I want so badly to be like my children.
The book, Seeking Serenity, comes out in two weeks. It’s time: the best of times, the worst of times. It’s now.
I am out there battling the dragons, quieting voices of defeat, countering them with new narratives. And I know I’m winning because these lands I find myself in are new. I have never ever seen them before.
Yesterday I had a companion. And as battle raged, she sang to me.
“She’s living in a world and it’s on fire,” she sang.
“She’s got both feet on the ground … She got her head in the clouds. And she’s not backing down.”
Yes, I replied, yes, Ms. Alicia Keys.
This girl is on fire, we sang together, she’s on fire. She is she is she is she is she is.
Today. Maybe today is the day I will open the boxes.
Amanda Enayati is a columnist, author and speaker whose essays about stress, happiness, creativity, technology and identity have appeared widely. Her book, Seeking Serenity, will be published in March 2015. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter.
“That was the past. They should get over it.”
You might think that these words came from the mouth of a conservative white male who is tired of talking about slavery, tired of talking about Jim Crow, and more focused on modern-day theories of black cultural pathology to explain today’s disparities (someone like him). But you would be wrong.
Those words came out of the mouth of my nine-year-old son.
My black nine year old son.
At first, I was simply stunned. Is he seeing what I’m seeing? We’re watching black people — black people like us — being bitten by dogs, assaulted with fire hoses, beaten by cops. But all he saw was “history,” something unconnected to him and his life.
In some ways, his response should please me. Paula Giddings once told me that one of the best ways middle class blacks can be a part of the struggle is to enjoy the lives we have. Because successful black people were killed for enjoying their lives.
My boy lives a good life. He goes to a good school. He’s never been called a nigger or a porch monkey. He’s never been stopped by the police. He’s only encountered officers there to protect him. He leads a good life.
And I’ve successfully protected him. Every school year, there is something and someone new waiting to knock him down. To deny his intelligence. To stereotype him as a troublemaker. And every year, I’ve fought for him. I fought for them to simply leave my boy alone. I continue to fight for him and all black boys in our district.
But maybe I did too good of a job. Because he has no idea that there were fights to be had.
Yes, we’ve talked about Trayvon Martin and Eric Gardner and Mike Brown. We’ve attended rallies against the death penalty, and the state-sanctioned murder of black men. He is surrounded by our black “family,” the close friends that are at every birthday and school play, no matter what. He attends what we call “black camp” when he visits his grandparents on the East Coast for two months every summer, like our folks spent summers down South. We constantly talk about black people, past and present. I point out that they are black. We talk about race in our house.
But somehow, he’s not connecting these “lessons” to him and his life.
Maybe because he lives surrounded by black excellence. He lives on a college campus. All our family friends are black professionals — lawyers, doctors, PhD students, PhD holders. His mama has a PhD. Black people being great is what he sees. He hasn’t learned first hand the barriers one must overcome to be where many of us are.
But our children are more likely to experience downward mobility than other folks. As much as we’d hoped it would, all we — the collective we – have worked for is often not enough to shield them from the realities of blackness. As Chris Rock said, most white people would never change places with him and become a black man. And he’s rich. Although my boy doesn’t get it now, life will make him understand what it means to be black.
Back to our conversation — I hope I quickly recovered from my original shock. I explained to him that he lives a good life quite unlike many black people. That the reason he is the only black boy in his grade at school is because not many black people live here because not many black people can afford to do so. That mama went to an all black school when I was a kid because policies made it such that black people lived in a different place than where white people lived. That black people go to prison more often than white folks, that black people go to colleges like Stanford less than white people, that black people make less money than white people. That even though we aren’t being beaten in the street on national TV, black men are being killed by police officers because they look scary — and that they are afraid of us simply because we are black. That even though we have a black president, the president has a limited role in making things better for people. That black people still aren’t thought to be as smart as white folks. That black people are not respected like other people.
That’s when he looked at me. “Well, I’m going to be an engineer when I grow up, and I’ll show them.” Pause. “I mean, all I want is to be respected. I just want to be respected.”
That response soothed my soul for a little while. But I want him to know he should be respected whether he is an engineer or an artist or an athlete or a teacher or lawyer or homeless. He shouldn’t — and he doesn’t — have to do anything to “gain” respect. He should be respected because he is a human being, just like everyone else. I want him to have a sense of the linked fate that I feel towards other black people, other disrespected people, other people considered “less than.”
That’s going to take many more conversations. But next time, I’m gonna be ready.
By Amanda Frye Leinhos
“So, which one is yours?”
I was sitting in the front row, amiably chatting with the woman next to me at the middle school’s Geography Bee finals. My daughter Mimi, a 7th grader, was one of the 40 finalists, and she’d been a little nervous, so I’d found seats up front for my two other daughters and myself, so that we could catch her eye and make faces and try to help her relax. I had just collected our belongings and sacrificed the seat I’d been saving for my husband, who was late getting out of a meeting, so that the couple next to me could sit down. The white women in this affluent Silicon Valley community generally seem to fall into two types, and the woman next to me was more like a techie mom than a trophy mom – one who did programming instead of Pilates, who’d married late, had a kid in her early forties, and was spoiling the heck out of him. She’d been telling me all about her son, and how excited he was to be here, and how they’d always known he had a gift for learning and retaining these kinds of facts, and how incredibly smart and talented he was. I could see the moment that she remembered — if I was sitting in the front row, it was most likely because I had a kid in the competition, too.
“So, which one is your daughter?”
“She’s just there, in the front row. There are two girls sitting together? She’s the one on the right.”
She shifted and began to gush about what an achievement it was that our kids had made it to the finals and what an accomplishment it was in a school of this size to be among the finalists and how proud I should be, clearly thinking that as a black mother I must have no idea about how important education was to my child’s success and that I should be encouraged to value this experience. She smiled at me, pleased with herself for doing her liberal duty on behalf of the less fortunate. I closed my eyes briefly and took a breath, my usual coping strategy when I’m getting racially read as inferior, condescended to, and underestimated. I was really glad she didn’t try to pat me on the hand. Actually, she should be glad.
“So where is she? I don’t see her.”
I turned to look at the woman next to me. What more could I say? You can’t pick out the two girls in the front row? You don’t know your right from left? I tried one more time, just to be nice.
“Front row. Fourth from the left. One. Two. Three. Four. Ponytail. Glasses.”
The woman looked away, turned toward her husband, and started telling him about how there were snacks on the table in the back of the room, if he wanted some. Apparently, that was the end of our conversation.
I’m a brown-skinned woman, I’ve loc’d my hair, people clearly read me as African American. But my husband is white, and we have three daughters who vary in hue from golden brown to pale. Nadia, our oldest, is dark enough that people assume she’s related to me, but that doesn’t always happen with our younger two girls. Mimi was evidently light enough by this woman’s measure that she couldn’t see my daughter as mine. My presence at this event was already slightly illegitimate in her eyes; she’d already behaved as though she believed black families aren’t supposed to value education. But in that moment we went from illegitimate to invisible, because we didn’t fit her idea of what a family should look like. I’m not mad about it. It happens often enough that I don’t often get angry anymore. Instead I thought, “How sad for you.”
How sad, because no black woman has ever questioned whether my kids belonged to me. And how sad, because our ability to define family broadly and with love is one of the ways black folks have survived in this country. Being able to lean on each other, to care for each other’s children, and to rely on each other for support and advice builds the resilience of black women and black families. My kids have so many ‘cousins’ because of all the friends we claim as family, and these relationships ground them and connect them to a collective identity that carries them through the inevitable challenges they face. There are so many people in our lives who’d have claimed my baby as theirs, and been just as proud of her as I was. And having just come off of a week of vacation and visits filled with the experience of kinship, I wasn’t all that mad about her ignorance. I was just grateful for what we have.
As it turned out, her son and my daughter washed out on the same question, which three-quarters of the finalists weren’t able to answer correctly. No shame there – they all did well. Mimi had regained her cool after the first question was asked, and she genuinely enjoyed herself. At the end, we celebrated and clapped and cheered, and they all received an official certificate and pin for their participation. And I left feeling some compassion for that woman, whose definition of family was so narrow that she couldn’t see my daughter was mine.
Amanda Frye Leinhos is a mother of three daughters and a doctoral candidate in sociology of education at Stanford, where she studies race, inequality, and language and the role they play in schools. She holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from Harvard and was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area.
By Annie Holmes
About a year ago, my husband and I were talking about disciplining our children. We are raising three boys (11, 8 and 8 months). During the conversation, my husband stated, “You are raising boys. I am raising men.” As we unpacked this statement, I found that he was not diminishing my approach to parenting, but that he was drawing upon his experiences as a black man growing up in the Unites States.
We began to talk about the conversations he had with his father, that as a black daughter I was not privy to. We have had to talk with them about engaging with police. We talked about our desire to see them be strong and independent with sky high dreams and a strong education to back that up, while at the same time being vulnerable, caring, kind, social justice minded and honest. We talked about appearance, how they should carry themselves and setting priorities. We both want the same things, but our lenses are very different.
We are consciously raising black boys to be black men. We talk about it. We pray about it. And we prepare them for it. Because, we know that no matter how hard we try, how much wealth we have or what kind of car we drive, when people see our boys, they won’t see the values that have been instilled. Nor will they see their intelligence. But, Dr. King’s vision has not been realized. They will yet be judged by the color of their skin. So, while I try to do my part to change this great big world, we will continue to raise our black boys to be black men.
Annie Holmes is a wife, mother of three amazing brown boys and higher education administrator. Her work involves access, equity and inclusion in learning and workplace environments. Her true passions are family, social justice, and singing. She tends to find ways to do them all.