We are going to the bookstore. As I do for most anywhere we go, I give Happy a head’s up about what the plan is.
“Hey, we need to go in the bookstore really quickly to get a gift,” I tell him. “Today, the bookstore visit is just for the gift. We need to be fast to make it to the party. So we’re just getting the gift, not anything else. Okay?”
We run into the bookstore and a holographic wolf bookmark near the entrance catches his attention.
“Can we get this?”
“Not today, baby,” I say. “Let’s go find that book.”
In the kids’ section, we hone in on some options. Happy wanders off. As I debate which book to get, I hear him talking to the shop owner. Satisfied with our choice, I rush to the counter and make small talk as she rings us up. Casually, I turn towards Happy as he continues to talk. His hands are stuffed under his shirt.
I look more closely.
The bookmark is under his shirt.
I drop to my knees, look him in the eye and stick out my hand.
“Buddy, you cannot do that. You have to pay for everything in the bookstore, and today we are only getting the gift. You need to apologize right now,” I tell him as I return the bookmark and he offers his apologies to the shop owner.
Outside, we talk even more about what he just did, about how it is illegal, how he can get in trouble, how it is important for us to always do the right thing. I am not even sure that my barely five-year-old understands what he was doing and, yet, I am desperately trying to make him understand the consequences to this thing that he just doesn’t get.
By the time we reach the car, I am shaking.
I turn to him, each of us seat belted in, and implore him to understand that you cannot take things from stores without paying for them. That if he wants something and I am not willing to buy it, he can always ask if it is something that he can use his money for and, if so, we can get his money and he can buy it.
“So I will get in trouble if I take something,” he asks.
“Yes, honey. You can get in very big trouble.” I emphasize.
“With the police?” He wants to know.
“Yes, you could.” I tell him.
There is white noise rushing through my ears, anxiety knots my stomach. I am fast forwarding over my boy’s life. What if this happens again at twelve or fifteen or twenty? The fear is like the ocean drowning me.
“What will the police do to me,” he asks. “Will they put me in jail?”
This question makes the white noise deafening. My head goes where I do not want it to go, to the raw, devastating wound in my heart of a young black man gunned down by a police officer the week before in Charlotte. A young man whose crime was that he got in a car accident in the early morning hours and walked, hurt, to the nearest house for help. When he knocked on the door at that hour, the homeowner called the police and then he walked, dazed, wounded, in pain, towards the police as they pulled up at the house and was riddled with ten bullets. He died looking for help.
Several times a year, my boy and I get the mixer and food processor out and bake chocolate chip cookies and scones for the helpers in our community. We load everything into plastic containers and make our rounds to the police station, fire department, and library. As a mother, I work hard to help him understand how important it is to help, to know who the helpers are, to help him have a relationship with them.
What happens when the helpers hurt?
We are arguing over school clothes. Happy hates buttons. He hates zippers and pockets, heavy cotton and structure. If he could have his way, he would wear elastic gym shorts and soft t-shirts all the time. That is what the boys at school wear, and it is not lost on him.
In actuality, I could care less what he wears. I had these same disagreements with my mom when I was a teenager and wanted to wear torn jeans and t-shirts every day. But even though I don’t really care what he wears, here is what is not lost on me: my boy’s skin is the most glorious chocolate brown. And people sometimes already have an opinion about chocolate brown boys before they even get dressed. My goal, then, when helping him get dressed is to find a way for his clothes to not communicate something naughty or rambunctious (now) or dangerous or defiant (later) to someone else. My boy is just like any other boy, I want them to understand. He is just as loved and just as valuable—not just to me but to society. I, like so many other mothers of brown and black boys, am haunted by what happened to Trayvon Martin. A brown boy in sports gear or baggy clothes doesn’t always get the benefit of the doubt. I am not naïve enough to play otherwise.
And so we compromise on clothing. To school, he dresses for the occasion, like he is showing up to take care of business. When he is with me or his daddy on the weekends, he can wear the softest, least structured, baggiest clothes there are. Ten years from now, navigating this style conversation will be harder. I won’t be able to play like it is just about the clothes or how we show up for school. I dream of a world where my boy can wear whatever he wishes and not be feared, not be judged, but, right now, I cannot play like I don’t know better.
Happy’s feelings are hurt. He has a profound sense of justice, and I can tell just how offended he is by the way he crosses his arms and glowers as he spits out the words to tell me why his face is bleeding.
If I understand correctly, he asked two boys that he did not know if he could play with them at camp. They told him no. It didn’t sit well with him so he snatched the hat off the boy’s head that said no. The boy reached for it and scratched Happy’s face (I am sure it was an accident, Happy is not) in the process. The scratch drew blood. There is very little that undoes Happy more than blood. And so he is hysterical. Telling me this story with great big tears rolling down his face. We deal first with the blood and the pain. And when we are recovered from that, I give it to my boy straight. You cannot taunt your way into a game. You cannot sulk when someone tells you no. You may not like it that someone tells you no but you have to respect it. And if you don’t think its fair then the one recourse you have is to always be the kind of person who includes everyone, who says yes to anyone who wants to play.
Later, a family member sees the scratch and asks what happened.
I explain the story, making it clear that Happy was in the wrong.
“Well, I am glad he fought back,” she says of Happy. Because Happy is adored by his family and they believe he is infallible. Little kids deserve great affection and while that is not lost on me, it occurs to me that I need to make sure that it is not lost on our family that there is a layer to Happy’s experience that we cannot turn a blind eye to as he grows up.
Happy simply cannot strike out when he’s frustrated. Because it is wrong, first of all, and also because striking out as a boy of color will not be taken casually. As a former public school teacher, I know too much about the disparity in discipline when you look at skin color. I explain this to her, how Happy has very little room for error as a black boy. How he cannot be even the least bit aggressive and expect grace, how he has to learn how to walk away, how to find peace within when he isn’t sensing it outside of himself, how the most dangerous thing he can do to himself is be provoked. And how the most dangerous thing we can do for him as his family is to act like being black doesn’t still come with assumptions and consequences.
Ferguson is on fire. Another black boy shot dead. I sit in my bed and watch my Twitter feed scream at me. I watch the images of police officers wearing more combat gear than my dad had on his war tours face down men that once looked like my boy. I watch tear gas pour and Molotov cocktails seer.
I stare in disbelief. My fingers cover my mouth. Dear God. Dear God. Dear God.
Feeling the pounding of my chest speed up, I know I am probably not equipped to take in any more information right now. But I cannot help myself.
“Oh mama, mama, mama. I am so sorry, mama.” I whisper and weep for Michael Brown’s mother. Every single day it feels like what I am doing as a mother is everything within my power to keep my boy safe—mentally, yes, spiritually, yes, emotionally, yes, but physically, too. Every mother everywhere feels that pressure, feels that responsibility, begs the question. What must I do today to keep my baby safe?
The next morning, I am red-eyed and delirious from my late night consumption of rapid-fire news, from the heartbreak, from the devastation, from what feels like hopelessness. The news is on as I slowly try to get ready for my boy to wake up. Suddenly, he flies into the room, bright eyed with anticipation for this day.
I race to the television and turn it off, but not before he catches a glimpse.
“What were the police doing, mama?” He asks.
I tell him I didn’t see. He is just five years old. Soon enough, it will not be so easy to keep the truth from him.
“Where is my good morning hug,” I ask him and stoop down to scoop him up.
As I take in his morning breath, his little boy scent, the shea butter conditioner in his hair, I ask the eternal question of motherhood, Dear God, what must I do today to keep my baby safe? and feel the unbearable weight of not having the answer.