My son Eli is brilliant. At two years old, he can read words like contagious and valued. He can also count to 100. Did I mention he was really cute? At doctor’s visits the nurses come in just to compliment his long, curled eyelashes or his charming smile. The oldest white ladies stop me at the grocery store to tell me how beautiful he is and he smiles the biggest smile and whispers “thank you”.
I remember dreaming of him before he was born and imagining how much I might love him. I never thought about how much everyone else would love him though. Maybe that is because I am very shy and would rather walk through everywhere unnoticed. He on the other hand is not. He will read to strangers in public or sing them a song. And I can’t say I blame them when they ooh and aah and stroke his face or kiss his cheek.
After all I think he is pretty amazing too. Like most mothers I devote a lot of my energy to him. I teach him to be polite. To love all people. To use manners like “yes ma’am” and “no thank you”.
We read LOTS of books together. In fact, books are his favorite kind of toy. I find him lining them up and talking to them or swimming in a pile of his favorites. All of his ipad apps are educational and so are his selected tv shows. I don’t know if you know the show Super Why, but I have 71 episodes of it recorded on my DVR.
On my teacher salary, I’ve done my best to make sure he has the best. He goes to a private preschool. Everything in my house comes from Trader Joe’s and he has never had a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Birthday parties are inspired by Pinterest (yes I am guilty) and I even try to give him a bath every night except Fridays because I am way too tired on Fridays.
But I don’t know if you’ve noticed that I am black. And so, so is my son. In fact, there are a lot of “Black” things about him.
He is being raised by a single mother. He has two half brothers, one of which is the same age as him. He will never grow up in a house where everyone has the same last name. He wears hoodies and Jordan’s and bobs his head when a good song comes on the radio.
And one day his long eyelashes and cute smile won’t be the first thing that everyone notices about him. Those same ladies that kissed his cheek might clutch their purses when he walks by or lock their car doors. And all of the books he has read or his ACT score will do nothing to prevent this from happening.
I can teach him everything I know. I can tell him he is smart and he can believe it. But I can’t keep him from learning other things about himself. I can’t protect him from the images of himself he sees killing and robbing people on the news. Or from the idea that being successful means having to be a professional athlete or a rapper. Even after all of the organic food I have fed him, I cannot reduce the possibility that he might end up eating a federally mandated plate of slop behind prison bars someday.
When someone is racially profiling him, they’re not going to stop and listen to his background first. They won’t know that his mother has a master’s degree and helps under-privileged children every day. Or that his father works at a university. They won’t care to know that he comes from a middle-class background and lives in a good neighborhood in a cottage with a red door.
I don’t have the privilege of knowing that I can do everything right as a mother and my child will be okay. I can make countless sacrifices and raise him to be good enough to be the next black president of the United States. But I don’t get the right to decide that his life is valuable or the comfort of knowing that I will get to see him grow into an adult one day.
I recently decided to work less and spend more time doing things with my son that my mother did with me. Like bring him to school and volunteer in his class. I do not have a husband so I don’t get to just enjoy the joys of baking cookies and know that my bills will be paid. So, why would I take a paycut and struggle financially? What will I get out of that?
Moments. Moments that I won’t be able to get back. Moments that are passing by that I am missing. The same moments that I am sure the mother of Trayvon Martin wishes she would have had more of. The same moments that Michael Brown’s mom may wish she did not miss because she was working hard to provide a better life for her son that he will never get to see. Moments like graduations and weddings or even smaller ones like awards ceremonies, school plays and classroom holiday parties.
I plan to cherish these moments and fill my little Eli up. And to teach him never to dim his light. I will let him embrace everything that is amazing and that he has to offer as a black man. I will encourage him be strong and powerful and I will not teach him that being successful or happy means to be less of that to fit in. I will teach him that he has the privilege to be himself and that he is everything he came into this world to be with beautiful eyes paired with long curling eyelashes, a charming smile and a bright personality that can never be duplicated. And because of that his life, as black as it may be, does matter.