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 1950s were all now approaching puberty.
It was time to learn the facts of life.
In splanches and ranches up and down the block, mothers and fathers were gathering in their knotty pine early American dens with their offspring to awkwardly have “the talk.” Others chose their avocado hued kitchens to hold court. Seated at pedestal dinette sets in swivel chairs bedecked in flower-power vinyl 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 as 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 lifesaver 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 reassures the teen. “Some young people may be happily surprised to discover that some of the things they have been worrying about are just a 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.
TRAYVON MARTIN (Walking home with iced tea and Skittles. Shot by George Zinneman, who was found not guilty.)
KEITH SCOTT (Sitting in car, reading. Shot by police officer, who was not charged.)
ATATIANA JEFFERSON (Looking out her window, shot by police officer, who is still under indictment for murder.)
JONATHAN FERRELL (Asking for help after auto accident. Shot twelve times by police, case ended in mistrial.)
JORDAN EDWARDS (Riding in a car. Shot in the back of the head by police officer, who was found guilty of murder.)
STEPHON CLARK (Holdng a cel phone. Shot 8 times, 6 in the back. Officers not charged.)
AMADOU DIALLO (While taking out wallet, officers fired 41 shots by four officers, who were all acquitted.)
RENISHA MCBRIDE (Auto accident, knocked on door for help. Homeowner was found guilty of second-degree murder.)
TAMIR RICE (Playing with toy gun, shot by police officer arriving on scene. Officer was not charged.
SEAN BELL (Hosting a bachelor party, 50 rounds fired by police officers, who were found not guilty of charges.)
WALTER SCOTT (Pulled over for brake light, shot in the back by police officer, who pleaded guilty to civil rights violations.)
PHILANDO CASTILE (Pulled over in car, told officer he had a legally registered weapon in car. Officer acquitted of all charges.)
AIYANA JONES (Sleeping, accidentally shot by officer in a raid on wrong apartment. Officer cleared of all charges.)
TERRENCE CRUTCHER (Disabled vehicle, shot by police officer, who was found not guilty of manslaughter.)
ALTON STERLING (Selling CDs, shot at close range while being arrested. No charges filed.)
FREDDIE GRAY (Beaten to death by officers while being transported in police van. All officers involved were acquitted.)
JOHN CRAWFORD (Shopping at WalMart, holding a BB gun on sale, police officer was not charged.)
MICHAEL BROWN (Shot by twelve times by officer, including in the back. No charges filed.)
JORDAN DAVIS (Killed because he was playing loud music. Shooter found guilty of first-degree murder.)
SANDRA BLAND (Pulled over for traffic ticket, tasered and arrested. Suspicious “suicide” while in jail. No charges.)
BOTHAM JEAN (Shot at home, which police officer mistook for her own. Officer found guilty of murder.)
OSCAR GRANT (Handcuffed and face-down, officer shot him in the back. Officer found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.)
COREY JONES (Waiting by his disabled vehicle, was shot three times by police officer, who was found guilty of murder.)
AHMAUD AUBREY (Jogging, shot by two men who claimed they suspected him of burglaries. Both men charged with murder and aggravated assault” Chyna Smith
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2020. 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.
There’s just too damned many. Shouldn’t even be one name. This post reminds me of the beginning of the book The Hate U Give, when our heroine was remembering her dad’s safety talks as the cop pulls her and her friend over. She’s going through it in her head and realizing nobody seems to have had the talk with her friend (just before he was killed). That kind of shook me when she was remembering this stuff, and I wondered how young black kids usually were when they got this kind of talk. I’m guessing it’s younger than it used to be, and that’s a damned unnerving thought, that it should have to happen at all.