I write this from the depths of a white mother’s heart, who years ago tragically lost her 27-year-old son, Steven.
While I understand the pain of a shattered and grieving heart from losing a child, I can’t fathom the fear, weariness and accumulative stress many black mothers live with daily, worrying their son (or daughter) might end up in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and in the wrong hands.
Fifteen years ago, when I lived in Asheville, I attended a predominately African American Episcopal church for a year. I loved the congregation and befriended a number of black women. I’ll never forget one afternoon when several of us were setting up for a church reception. Martha’s cellphone rang and she dashed out of the room. A few minutes later she returned, obviously shaken.
“My neighbor just called,” Martha said breathlessly. “She wanted me to check on Jamal (Martha’s son) to see if he was home, because the police are in our neighborhood looking for a young black man for some kind of incident.” Placing both hands over her heart, Martha said, “Thank God, Jamal was home. He just got back from riding his bike.” She told her 18-year-old son what was going on, and to stay home.
The black women commiserated with Martha, one shaking her head saying, “I’m sorry, Martha. It’s scary for us to have to live this way.”
I had no idea. I learned a lot that day.
When I taught high school English Literature and Journalism in Virginia Beach, Va., I had all my students read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” My classes consisted of black, white and Asian students. I had black students come to me after school, in tears, thanking me for leading poignant discussions on racism.
For several weeks I kept a quote from the book on the blackboard. It’s when Scout’s father, Atticus, a lawyer, is defending an innocent black man, and tries to explain to 8-year-old Scout that empathy is the key to understanding others.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
White privilege is real. It’s been at the root of racism in America since the colonial days. “The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal,” writes Robin Diangelo, author of “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism.” “Yet the nation began with the attempted genocide of Indigenous people and the theft of their land,” Diangelo says. “American wealth was built on the labor of kidnapped and enslaved Africans and their descendants.”
Although some transformative changes have been made over the years, according to a 2019 study conducted by Rutgers University, police use of fatal force was a leading cause of death for young black men in America. About 1 in 1,000 black men and boys can expect to die as a result of police violence over the course of their lives.
“That 1-in-1,000 number struck us as quite high,” said study leader Frank Edwards, a sociologist at Rutgers. “That’s better odds of being killed by police than you have of winning a lot of scratch-O lottery games.”
But, it’s not just police departments that need reform. Or new legislation put into place. Authentic reform involves you and me going deep within to see what needs to be changed — in ourselves — to bring healing and social justice for all.
Until then, whenever I see another unarmed black man, like George Floyd, killed in the streets by racially charged hands, my mother’s soul hears their cries. And those of their mothers.
I pray for us all.