Words by fayemi shakur | Images by Akintola Hanif
“The opposite of poverty is not wealth… In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.”
What’s it like to raise Black boys amid the constant threat of death and violence, either in the suburbs, where they might be shot down, like Trayvon Martin, or in Newark, where a teen carrying earbuds in his pocket was assaulted after police mistook them for drugs? Thankfully, Trayvon's case has received attention from the community, the media and the FBI, but in most cases there are no petitions to sign for the other Black boys murdered unjustly. Black boys are killed every day, and not just by racists and the police but by Black-on-Black crime and gang violence. And who cares? Their stories don't make headlines. Recently in Chicago, 40 people were shot in one weekend, including a six-year-old girl. How do people show their concern or take action when Black children who aren't in the news are assaulted and murdered? How do we move beyond just talking about how sad it is, from hopelessness to love, and from helplessness to power?
My sister jokingly says that I don’t let my son go anywhere. It’s kinda true. I watch him like a hawk. As he prepared for high school, where he was entering the 7th grade, I worried because it would be the first time he would travel alone in the city without me. Although he attends a good school led by an excellent principal, it’s located in an area in Newark that’s hard-hit by violence and constant shootings. So far, it has been a quiet and peaceful school year. I pray over him before he leaves each morning. And sometimes I watch the clock, waiting for him to return. My instructions each day are the same: “come straight home”. While the block and few surrounding streets in our quiet development are patrolled by private security off-duty police and considered "safe,'' the sound of gunshots, police helicopters, sirens and the screech of stolen cars are strangely normal. On one recent spring day, I watched my neighbors and their children enjoying the weather outside, when shots rang out several blocks away. They looked up and around but no one even flinched. We walk by memorials and shrines with deflated balloons, candles and the tearful love notes left behind, taped on chain link fences, spray painted on walls much too often.
Although I believe my son and I walk with a cover of divine protection around us, I’m not naïve about the prevailing threat of violence that surrounds us. When I was 13, I was allowed to walk around town, hang with my friends and go to the mall. But I grew up in a suburban Black town, not an urban city –and I was a girl. My experience was different. I wish I felt my son was safer to explore and live free without me by his side but, it doesn’t matter where we live. This is an unfair burden we bear. I don’t cover my eyes and pretend the outside world is as loving as our home, or that people will be as kind towards him as I have taught him to be to others. I have had to teach my son what to say and how to act if he is stopped and questioned by a police officer. Do not run away; state your name, your age; show your school ID; keep your hands out of your pockets and by your sides at all times; and do not, under any circumstances, answer any questions if they believe you are a witness or involved in a crime. Tell them you know your rights. Tell them you will answer their questions but only if your mother is present. Don’t say nothing. Don’t sign nothing. And demand that they call me immediately or let you go on your way if you are not being placed under arrest.
I have to teach my son to pay attention when he’s on the bus, when he walks down the street and how to sense and predict potential problems. No parent wants their child to have to memorize these things but our children, especially our sons, must, particularly when they are constantly forced to deal with people who fear them. And even knowing all this does not save them. A few weeks ago, 17-year-old Martin suffered the equivalent of a lynching when he was shot by a neighborhood watch captain in a gated community in Orlando, Florida. Trayvon wasn’t even in the hood. He was just going to the store on a candy run, like teenagers do. But he lost his life because some man was afraid of him because he was Black. And this is why as parents we caution each other, and we say: Don’t sleep. Stay woke. We do not live in a post-racial society.
Violence is a disease that desensitizes us all as human beings. The threat of it could come from anywhere. All we have these days is our own good common sense and each other. Our enemy is institutionalized racism. More and more, it seems we tell each other these stories of how we got over, and we cry. We write and sing about the ones who didn’t make it. We need a new song. There are some things we shouldn’t have to accept as “the way it is.” Violence is one of them. Fear is another. Love, community and awareness get us by.
Our deepest love and respect go out to the Martin family and all those who have suffered the loss of a loved one to senseless violence.