An open letter to our 12-year-old son:
When you were a little boy, whenever you started crying, we would put you in your car seat and take you for a drive through downtown Baltimore. We would play Sweet Honey in the Rock and sing out loud until you started moving your head, clapping your hands, and singing along. You grew up on folk music and freedom songs, and though you did not understand them, we had always hoped that the meaning of the words would someday make sense. We vowed, as all parents do, to protect you and to do all that we could to make the world a better and safer place, where you could grow up and be free.
We have done all that we can for you and your brother, and yet, in so many of the ways that are important, we have failed you. The world is not a better place. It is not safer, and people are not equal. We are still being judged (and judging others) by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. We have not gotten to the Promised Land and are really starting to question whether that land actually exists.
We are the parents of two African-American boys, and every day that we leave the house, we know that we could become Trayvon Martin's parents.
We are aware of how difficult it is to raise an African American boy in this city and in this country. We are familiar with the stereotypes and the racial profiling and have read and studied cases where young, black men are always assumed to be guilty and then must prove their innocence. We know that gun homicide is the leading cause of death of African-American males between ages 15-19. Your father and your grandfather have experienced more times than they would like to admit what it means to be reminded that you are black and male — and therefore you are dangerous and criminal.
Your mother cried when the George Zimmerman verdict was announced, but those tears are nothing compared to the ones that she sheds over the senseless violence that happens every day across this city. Even though Baltimore does not have a written "stand your ground" law, we do have unwritten "ground standing" laws in the inner city that define masculinity and respect in relation to how black boys treat and respond to one another.
Fortunately, you are not familiar with either of those laws. Up until this point, you have been shielded and protected from gang violence, overzealous vigilantes, impoverished communities, drugs and substandard schools. We had hoped that with the election of a black president and a young, black, female mayor, and by keeping you in protected environments, we could avoid having "the talk." We thought that we could "achieve" our way out of the talk by providing you with opportunity after opportunity to travel and learn and just experience the world.
After the Zimmerman verdict, and after reading about the increase in violent deaths this year across Baltimore City, we knew that "the talk" was long overdue. In some households, the talk is when your parents tell you about sex, protection, abstinence, pregnancy and making good decisions. In our household, the talk is when we tell you how to act when you get stopped by a police officer or what to do when you are followed in a store, or even how to respond when aggressive behavior starts happening on the neighborhood playground. Our talk is about race relations, the perceived criminality of black men and boys, gang and drug violence, and the unwritten crime of walking and breathing while black.
For 12 years, you have been protected. You have no idea of what it means to struggle. You have never been made to feel invisible and have never felt profiled or threatened. We have protected you when we probably should have prepared you. Now that the jury has spoken and the dust has settled, we will turn our attention to speaking to you and your brother every day about what you need to know and what you need to do to navigate your way through this city and through this country. We still believe that the world will be a better place, but, son, you will have to create it — and where we failed, you will succeed. We look forward to being there on that day and to celebrating with you.
Johnnie Whitehead teaches at the Baltimore School of the Bible and can be reached on Twitter @jwfootsoldier. Kaye Wise Whitehead, Ph.D., is assistant professor of communications at Loyola University Maryland. Her website is http://www.kayewisewhitehead.com and she can be reached at email@example.com.