At what age does a black boy learn he is perceived as menacing and dangerous?
At what age is he told of systemic racism and state sanctioned brutality against someone who looks just like him?
At what age does an African-American learn that “my life doesn’t matter?”
These Are the Facts
The facts of life are vastly different if you are black or white.
There comes a time when every Black parent must have “the talk” with their child. No amount of education, manners or talent will protect them from the facts of life of being Black in America..
These are conversations that white people do not have to have with their children.
Those were facts of life I would learn late.
1967 – Burning Questions For the Baby Boomer
It was 1967 the summer of love and the gaggle of diaper clad baby boomers who had first moved into my suburban Long Island development in the mid 1950’s were all now approaching puberty.
It was time to learn the facts of life.
In splanches and ranchs up and down the block, mothers and fathers were sitting down in their knotty pine early American dens with their offspring to awkwardly have “the talk.” Seated at pedestal dinette sets in swivel chairs bedecked in flower power vinyl in their avocado hued kitchens, questions and answers about the facts of life were being uncomfortably discussed.
Inside one split level home tucked in the cul-de-sac, another set of parents filled with equal dread, sat their 13 year old son down for his “talk.” But their discussion was less birds and bees and more about life and death. What did it mean growing from a black boy to being a black man in America.
Though the houses were identical, the talks were as different as black and white.
Earlier that year, a Negro family had moved into our lily-white neighborhood, with a son just my age.
Ensconced in their newly built American Dream split level with the immaculate manicured lawn, I never imagined their lives proceeded differently from mine. After all, his mother shopped at the same local Food Fair, his dentist dad religiously mowed the lush front lawn, and Roger their son bedecked in Henley shirts and perma-press pants seemed to fit right in. They certainly didn’t seem excluded from the American dream.
But behind closed doors his parents had to prepare him from a world I would never know. But one that I got a glimpse of on TV that summer.
Smoke and Fire- The Country Erupts
That ethereal summer of love contrasted sharply with the blazing race riots that spread from Detroit, to Newark, to Washington DC. It was a summer of smoke and fire as Blacks revolted across the nation as the renewed struggle for civil rights seemed to have a ripple effect.
All the uproar of the riots with exploding heat and violence crackled across the nation and across our RCA TV screens, bringing the flames of black revolt, the burning ghettos, the looting streets, and Federal troops in riot gear, directly into out smartly decorated living rooms.
The riots made the police brutality and injustices all too visible.
I was oblivious that Black parents might have to parent their children differently than white kids because of these injustices. To give them different warnings and reminders when they left the safety of their home.
In the comfort of their Scotch-guarded sleekly designed Mediterranean living room, my African-American neighbors would have to teach their sons to be safe when there was a police encounter, to teach them to do exactly what the officer asked, even if they are being targeted because of their race.
Like generations before them, they had to prepare them for the realities that people of color face. When you leave the front door you would be judged as a black man first.
Facts of Life – It’s as Simple as Black and White
Learning the facts of life remain vastly different for a white child than a black child.
Life’s biggest challenges according to a popular mid-century book entitled Facts of Life and Love For Teenagers, explained what every teenager should know. Besides brushing up on the birds and bees, the book was chock full of tips such keeping up a snappy conversation, what makes a great date, and the pros and cons of going steady.
What it meant to grow up was very different.
“Young people have always wondered about growing up and becoming men and women,” the book begins. “Some of life’s biggest questions arise as you leave childhood and approach adulthood. Of course you want to know what it means to become a full-fledged man or woman.”
For a white teen maturity came with big responsibilities. Getting “in trouble” meant either getting pregnant out of marriage, an awkward date or the horrors of a conversational gap on your date.
To be a full-fledged black man means to learn to survive.
Part of the facts of life and love for white boys and girls was learning the importance of good conduct and courtesy in order to get and keep dates. Life was like a box of chocolates for young teens – you never knew what exciting opportunity you might encounter and you needed to be prepared for. Good manners would be a life saver in awkward situations.
“Remember that boasting and shouting complaining and pouting and temper tantrums are unpleasant to others and that courteous listening, thoughtfulness and consideration of others are always pleasing,” the book suggested.
A Black teen will also learn good manners can be a life saver…literally.
Part of their “talk” is learning rules of good conduct especially around police. If you get stopped for a traffic violation: Always use your Sunday school manners; answer questions “yes sir,” “no ma’am”; don’t slouch; keep hands where they can be seen and above all else do not argue. Do not ask questions. Do as you are told. Do not move suddenly. Do not run.
Good manners mean the difference between life and death.
A Normal Part of Growing Up?
“Whatever your worries, it’s all just normal,” the book reassure the teen. “Some young people may be happily surprised to discover that some of the things they have been worrying about are just normal part of growing up.”
For Black teens, fear will become a normal part of growing up. And it doesn’t matter your car, your college or the street you live on.
African-Americans learn too early their lives don’t matter.
That’s a fact of life.
It’s now time for white adults to have “the talk” among themselves. As a matter of fact, Black lives do matter.
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© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.