The Talk – Race in America is a two-hour PBS documentary that premieres Monday, February 20 at 9pm, produced by THIRTEEN. “The Talk” is about the increasingly common conversation taking place in homes and communities across the country between parents of color and their children, especially sons, about how to behave if they are ever stopped by the police.
My firstborn son was four years old when I was finishing my undergraduate coursework at a liberal arts university outside Chicago. My family lived in a campus apartment, a perk of my position in the department of Resident Life. One Saturday morning the campus was near empty as my son and I walked to the lot in which my car was parked. While crossing the service driveway, I noticed a maintenance worker – a white man – speeding toward us in a golf cart. With very little time to react, I reached and grabbed my son’s hand. Totally confused that the driver wasn’t reacting to seeing us by slowing down, I yanked my son to safety. The driver continued at the exact same speed, passing us with an eerily stoic facial expression.
Without his making eye contact or uttering one word, I deduced a message from the driver’s action, or the lack of it. Our wellbeing was not important to him nor was it something that he would even slow down a golf cart to help protect. My blood boiled with anger mixed with fear. Having grown up on Chicago’s Westside, I knew how to process and overcome the emotions associated with my personal safety being at stake. What I had never experienced was someone blatantly threatening the wellbeing of my son, and my educated guess is that it was because of the color of our skin.
As parents of black boys, we are challenged with helping our sons process encounters like these in ways that preserves their self-confidence and assures them that they are deserving of fair treatment, respect, and civility from their peers as well as adults. We must protect them from becoming bitter and disillusioned and preserve their sense of hope.
Three Things to Give Your Sons As You Give the Talk about Race
1. Permission to Combat Lies about Race
Lies concerning race were created and institutionalized in order to justify and fuel the American slave trade. Years later, it remains a necessary imperative for us to teach our sons how to recognize and combat the overt and subliminal messages they receive which suggest that they are intellectually inferior to their white counterparts, or that they are deserving of harm, danger, and even death simply because they are black. For example, before our sons begin their history class in school, we should teach them that the chapter titled ‘Slavery’ is not where their ancestral story begins. We must teach them that men and women who looked like them were the founders and developers of the earliest civilizations and empires in documented human history, and influenced cultural, social, and economic development across the entire globe. We should permit them to respectfully challenge blatant omissions of these truths among their peers and instructors, never to incite division and always in the form of healthy academic discourse.
This allows them to assume the posture of self-confidence they will need in order to not just survive but to thrive in a competitive society.
2. Support as Sons Explore and Pursue Their Purpose
Absent hope, many of our sons adopt a mindset that gradually leads to a litany of self-destructive behaviors. Conversely, a remarkable spark is present in the eyes of young black men who believe they have a great purpose in life. We must do whatever we can to keep our sons hope-filled. Now 17 years after the golf cart incident, my oldest son and I are enjoying a common passion for inspiring greatness in others through music and poetry. A few months ago, we recorded our first collaborative song and titled it “Save The World”. The experience was more than just creating music together. It was like a Rights of Passage marking his transition from being my pupil to him becoming my comrade.
3. A Sense of Self-Respect
When we equip our sons with a healthy sense of self-respect they will respectfully and confidently advocate for their best interests and, more importantly, hold themselves to a behavioral standard that upholds their family values and honors the law of the land. Self-respect will give them the bravery to risk being ostracized and overcome negative peer pressure. Self-respect will help them keep calm if and when confronted with gross misuses of power by those in positions of authority. Teaching our sons to kowtow to people who may or may not have their best interest at heart only supports the notion that they are of lesser value than others.
The Talk – Race in America premieres Monday, February 20 at 9pm on PBS.