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#WhatDoITellMySon: I write novels on race, and I still don’t know

I am a black woman and I don’t have a son. I have nephews, little cousins, little brothers and young male mentees in my life. They look up to me because of all I have accomplished — so different from the usual path of my working, lower middle class background, with my elite education and travels and author life. They think I am a superstar. And the ones who are older talk to me and confide in me as if I know something others must not. The problem is, I know far too much of what others do.

I don’t know how to tell them that I used to be their age when I first became aware of some differences in how people who looked like me were treated compared to whites — it came through important movies and media that document the African American experience. Later, it was through my real-life observations of what my family discussed about treatment on their jobs or how daily life and simple moments often resulted in startling matters of trouble or loss with white faces involved.

I don’t know how to tell them that I really believed that success, being a good person and having more money would mean I never knew directly what it was to be degraded, misinterpreted, jettisoned from opportunities, falsely accused, pushed to the back of the priority and care lines and fighting for respect to my womanhood. It was not that I believed these things to be a function of class, profession or personal choices. It was that I believed we had to have a strong voice in the world, and by strengthening my voice in every way imaginable, I could stop mistreatment to myself and others who share my ancestry.

I believed in this so much that I was an activist and educator in my 20s for the “less fortunate” who did not have the power to speak for themselves or surmount challenges based on their race and class. I taught in inner city classrooms where girls told me they had never met a young black woman like me: together, kind, smart and fair. I wrote them reference letters for the future and gave them high grades for trying hard. I heard this same grateful praise in organizations where I volunteered with the homeless and recovering addicts. But, I was a young black woman, seeing how much harder I had to work to prove I was good enough in the mainstream — while I was taxed by my own people, who saw me as so good that I broke down from all the free time and help I gave to too many others.

Image: Kalisha Buckhanon

Then, I was lucky to get the chance to write novels to explore this belief, feeling this more isolated activism would be not only less physically exhausting but more financially beneficial. I thought my voice could travel far beyond me and into those same hands, minds and hearts I had stopped facing directly. Yet, the haunting observations I wrote down about blacks who complained of mistreatment showed up for real in my adult life, and resulting turmoil from too much of it stopped my production of books I had planned to release with regularity.

I attended a top doctorate program for the purposes of reinforcing this belief, thinking that just one more professor to talk about black people and culture in all its glory would ease the racial divide and create more understanding. I would write pages and pages of theoretical jargon and scholarly research outlining the prejudices against my subjects and the meanings of their work in terms of racial inequality. Here, my voice and beliefs were more useless than I could have ever imagined. The minute something happened to me for real — be it unfair treatment or actual events with criminal undertones I believed to be a function of my race — I could not complain without turning people off. I dropped out, not wanting to spend the next five years of my life holed up writing theory on what I could not say for real.

So, if a woman who can teach and lead others in groups, write books and study race at the Ph.D. level cannot figure out what to say to these young boys who will have to figure out what they want to do with their lives, who can? If their own fathers stop believing in solutions, or are not there because of high criminalization or economic poverty — surely a function of their race — what can a woman say to these boys whose complexion marks them as able to be pushed around in manners destructive to the male-protective and macho natures?

Because of my lifetime spent believing in what I believed in, I have not had the time or focus on having my own son to share my old beliefs with today. But, like the black “race women” of the Great Migration and Black Power movements, I am weighed down by the reality all of our men need us to see them as sons — no matter their age — to fight for and protect when our men should be doing that for us. I would tell my son: Black women are tired of holding up our own struggles and backing them up in theirs. And I would tell them that it is not going to change. It just is, and maybe that is just what God or the universe intended.

If a son shows up in my life, I will have to tell him the only thing I have been telling the other young boys and men in my life who will not find an essay I wrote: You have to have a lot of faith in God, belief in a higher power and treatment of yourself like a spiritual being to weather the storm of your lot in life.

This post is part of #WhatDoITellMySon, a conversation started by Expert James Oliver, Jr. to examine black males and police violence in the U.S. (and to explore what we can do about it). If you want to join the conversation, share using the hashtag or email to talk about writing a post.

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