I'm Scared For My Brown-Skinned Boy

One word has changed the world for my son and I.
05/03/2017 11:05 am ET Updated May 05, 2017

My son just turned 13. He’s a good-looking boy – sturdy and solid, right on the brink of the growth spurt that will get him to the 6’2’’ his pediatrician promises. His size-12 feet are waiting for him to grow into them, but right now they sometimes get in his way of landing a jump on his skateboard. His big shoes are everywhere around the house: Jordan 11s, Adidas Superstars, Donald Pliner hand-me-downs from his stepdad.

These days, my son comes into a room and I don’t recognize the man-child that has taken the place, all at once, of my little boy. He’s four inches taller than me. His shoulders have a roll to them, and his center of gravity is changed. He’s got a new swagger this year. He has girlfriends.

If we were better about being Jewish, he would have had his Bar Mitzvah two months ago.

My son’s skin is exactly the color of my morning coffee with cream. It’s the Jamaican brown of his grandfather’s skin ― my dad, who died long before my son was born, when I was younger than my son is now. My son’s skin is exactly the same color as mine.

His eyes are hazel, from the mixed up Irish-Jewishness of this mixed-up family. The Irish part is where he gets his big feet.

My son’s skin is exactly the color of my morning coffee with cream.

When he was a baby, my son was bald and my sister called him The Rock. His hair finally grew in, a mass of soft curls, but after his first haircut the curls never came back, and I cried for them. Now he wants his curls back. He wants his grandfather’s natural hair. Last month he begged me to take him to King of Curls in Sacramento to get his hair twisted into dreadlocks. It took three hours.

My son is cool. His style is self-curated and intentional; his clothes are important to him. His clothes are a magic cape to translate him, transport him, teleport him out of this white, suburban college town, to downtown LA or somewhere, anywhere cooler ― someplace where a boy like him can ride his skateboard into a wide, big world. He wants out of here. He can hear a future that pulses with the sounds of skate wheels and old-school beats and crashing surf. It’s just around the corner.

My son, like every mother’s son, is golden in my eyes. He holds and twists and melts my heart. But out in the world, too, my son is a golden boy. His smile makes him friends everywhere he goes, it always has. He’s charming and funny and kind. He’s a writer, a photographer. He does his math homework in his head. He’s poetry in motion on that skateboard of his.

The other day, my son was with his dad, just a few miles down the road in the town next door to this college town. It’s a farm town, older and prettier than ours, with some beautiful old Victorians that remember the better days of small California farm towns. The county courthouse is there, some antique shops, taco trucks and a barbeque place, our mechanic, and the nice man who re-heels my boots when I wear them out or the puppy chews them.

Ever since my son can remember, his president was a man with skin as brown as his.

My son was waiting in the car while his dad ran some boring errand in some boring store. And a man drove up next to him ― white guy, old guy, truck, Trump sticker, all that ― and he yelled the word that I only ever call the N-word, and he drove away. My son sat there in the car waiting for his dad, alone and afraid. Insulted. Assaulted. Initiated, for the first time, into the world of terrible things that happen to brown-skinned boys.

Ever since my son can remember, his president was a man with skin as brown as his, who stood as tall and strong as a man can stand ― a man whose words and actions promised all the things my son hopes for. But now this country is a different place, and the man in the White House offers my son no example, not of skin or words or actions. He makes my son no promises, and he offers him no protection. He poses no restraint to a white man in a truck who believes he has some American right to hurt my son because his skin is brown.

The N-word. I can’t say it. I can’t even write it. The first time I heard it spoken in my presence, I was a decade older than my son is now. It was in a backyard on a back road in Louisiana, and the man who said it was the back-road grandfather of the man I later married, who is my son’s father. I think that moment was the beginning of my leaving that man. I remember the way the air left my body when that word hit it. I remember driving away from that little house in Louisiana and being unable to speak for hours, as if words had become impossible.

But now this country is a different place, and the man in the White House offers my son no example, not of skin or words or actions.

It’s just a word, and my son has a kind of an ease with hearing it. It’s woven into the beats of his music and the flow of the street talk that calls him away from this college town. His comfort comes with a crystal-clear understanding that this word belongs only to those who have earned its usage with the weariness of walking in brown skin down the long road of American history.

But I have no comfort with this word. My father was a brown-skinned man in America a lifetime ago, when this word carried nothing but danger. My father, like most of the brown-skinned men I know, was raised up in Harlem knowing above all that a boy had to shield himself against this word with the armor of a clean, freshly-ironed shirt, an education, and a careful, irreproachable way of walking and talking in the world.

I’m proud of my son’s good manners and his easy way of charming the world, and I don’t want him to carry a shield. He should have every right to his dreadlocks and his hoodie, his swagger. He should be able to walk in the world in his beautiful brown skin, and no one should ever hurt him because of it.

And now this has happened, this perverted American rite of passage, and I’m afraid for my son. I’ve joined all the fearful mothers of all the brown-skinned boys. I’m afraid and I’m white-hot angry, and I am trying to find some words. Words are failing me now. There are not enough words in the world to silence the word that has changed the world for my son and me.

I’ve joined all the fearful mothers of all the brown-skinned boys.

I need to tell my son that this is a terrible thing that should never happen, and that this terrible thing does happen. I need to tell him about his rights and his pride, and about the rights and the wrongs of the world. I need to tell him about assumptions. About men in trucks. About cops and traffic stops. I’m not ready with these words.

I need my father here, to help me help my son. I need him to tell his grandson all the things I don’t know about walking in the world in a brown male body, about standing tall and strong. About the long road of American history, and how you can’t let it wear you down.

Growing up, I was as brown as my son, in a just-as-white neighborhood. To this day my white mother, who raised three brown-skinned daughters, says that she can’t believe the things I’ve told her about the words that came my way as a child in our nice neighborhood. It’s not her fault. She loves her daughters, and she loves my son, and she believes in her heart that her love keeps us safe. She is wrong. 

These days, my son comes into my dreams and I cry at night.

We walk this world in our skin. Our skin tells our stories. Skin is fragile – it can tear so easily. I’ve cleaned my son’s scrapes and bandaged his wounds. I tell him to wear his helmet when he’s on his skateboard, but I know he doesn’t. I’ve kept him as safe as I can, in his boy’s world. But this is a man’s world, and he has to live here now.

Skin heals quickly, fragile as it is. But what about a heart? What happens when words tear a boy’s heart, just when it’s growing so fast, just when he’s becoming a man?

These days, I look out for danger everywhere, the way I did when my son was a baby. These days, my son comes into my dreams and I cry at night. There is such a long road ahead, in this man’s world of his, in this skin of his, for this boy of mine, who’s only 13.

This essay originally appeared in The Establishment

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