A Black mom knows: How I prepared my sons for racism in America

Why We Wrote This

All parents struggle with how to make their children feel secure in a world that isn’t always safe. For Black parents that paradox is particularly acute. Writer and mom Meme Kelly shares her family’s story.

Jose Luis Magana/AP/File
Tomiko Shine holds up a picture of Tamir Rice during a protest in Washington, D.C., Dec. 1, 2014. Tamir was killed by police in November 2014 as he played with a pellet gun outside a Cleveland recreation center.

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At first, my sons laughed. Surely, I wasn’t serious, they thought. When I insisted that they would have to act differently than their white friends because of the color of their skin, they wept.

“The talk” happens early in a Black child’s life, and typically includes a list of instructions that Black parents give their children to keep them safe. It’s a playbook for how to behave so that a police officer or other authority figure isn’t threatened by their brown bodies.

Finally, after drying their tears, my sons promised to be on best behavior. They vowed to be orderly. They swore that if they encountered police, they would be calm, keep their hands in view, and not do anything to cause the officers to feel threatened.

Black parents know that they can’t wait for society to change. We must live with the paradox of protecting our children from racism in the country that we love. And so I pray that my beloved country will be able to find the love to see my children as I do, as perfect boys who’ve made their mama and this country proud.

My three boys were all towering over their classmates by fourth grade. Their dad played basketball at UCLA and I’m nearly 5 feet, 9 inches tall so they were tall, athletic boys. The night before their first playdate in Los Angeles alone, I decide it was time for “the talk.”

“The talk” happens early in a Black child’s life, and typically includes a list of instructions that Black parents give their children to keep them safe. It’s a playbook for how to behave so that a police officer or other authority figure isn’t threatened by their brown bodies: Do not run through stores. Do not play pranks on adults. Do not disobey any laws. If you encounter police, do not act aggressively. Keep your hands still. Speak softly while saying that you’re an honor student and asking that your mom be called.

At first, my sons laughed. Surely, I wasn’t serious, they thought. No way would they have to act differently than their white friends because of the color of their skin. When I insisted that they would, they wept. “We’re good boys with good grades,” they wailed. “We’re popular and great athletes,” they continued. They cried that they didn’t want to think about the color of their skin.

I reassured them that they’d done nothing wrong. That they were perfect little boys. That I was so proud to be their mother. While hugging them, I said, “Your brown skin is the most beautiful thing in the world!”

Finally, after drying their tears, my sons promised to be on best behavior while on playdates alone. They vowed to be orderly, not to bring undue attention to themselves. They swore that if they had an encounter with the police, they would be calm, keep their hands in view, and not do anything to cause the police to feel threatened.

There were more instructions for my oldest. He needed to immediately say that he has an autism diagnosis and needs help following instructions. I practiced with him how to hold his hands still.

By bedtime, I felt confident that they’d do everything in their power to make it home safely from their playdate the next day. I gave them hope before I kissed them good night: “Most Americans are good people, who will see past the color of your skin and glean the essence of your beautiful beings,” I said, softly.

Then, when the house was quiet, it was my turn: I wept. I heard the still, small voice of my Big Mama, who had a fourth-grade education as she shared stories about working as a domestic for white families in the South​. I remembered the “white only” signs that my mother rushed past to get to Michigan to earn her Ph.D. in education in the 1960s so that she could become the first African American and the first woman to be the superintendent of Compton Unified School District.

As I write this, I hear her voice, whispering to me, “I’m tired,” from her hospital bed where she died at the young age of 67 after a decadeslong struggle with cancer. I weep as I think about the Rodney King riots and how my local 7-Eleven exploded in flames after I left with a gallon of milk for my youngest son.

A Black mommy knows that she can’t wait for society to change. She shields her boys from the dysfunction of racism while telling her babies that she loves their brown skin. She explains that racism is illogical while encouraging her brown babies to be all that they can be. She loves her boys while teaching them that their brown skin could be despised, dehumanized, and, sometimes, brutalized in their country that they love. She informs them that those with brown skin can become a menace to society while watching birds, playing music in a car, walking down the street, or driving to work. 

We protect our babies from America’s ill of never realizing its creed that all men are created equal. A Black mom explains the complexity of living in a country whose foundation was built on the backs of strong, enslaved Black men, who built the White House in Washington, D.C. A country that never, completely, destroyed its shackles of slavery, that never tore down its monuments of the Confederacy, and that never, completely, bulldozed the de facto walls of segregation. A country that then tried to erase its bloody history, thus, effectively, infecting all of its systems with the virus of racism. A country that, desperately, needs to heal. 

But no matter how difficult, Black parents must have “the  talk.” We must live with the paradox of protecting our children from racism in the country that we love. And so I pray that my beloved country will be able to find the love to see my children as I do, as perfect boys who’ve made their mama and this country proud. 

Meme Kelly is a writer and the proud mother of three young Black men. The youngest is a creative assistant to successful Hollywood producers, the middle is a marketing executive who climbed to the top of his field, and the oldest, the one with the autism diagnosis, is a fun-loving fella who volunteers and works part time.

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