Letters to Our Sons
Mothers of African American boys and men face more than the economic realities of racial inequity—they wake up every day knowing that their precious children face negative stereotypes about black males that put them at risk in all aspects of life. Moved by the local and national dialogue on racial disparities, as well as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the local African American community’s swift and passionate response to it, we asked seven Black women to share their thoughts with us in the form of a letter to their children. All seven mothers were eager to contribute. What follows are intimate and poignant reflections on race, gender, family and community.
To my sons, Elijah, Isaiah, Kahari and Jahlani,
I know you don’t like it when I worry about you, but I do. I work hard to keep my anxieties silently tucked away so that I don’t burden you. But it’s always there. I see the ugliness of this world, the harsh reality that you are Black males and the odds are stacked against you, and this weighs my love down like an anchor. See, my dears, I struggle with loving you. I always wanted my mama love to be the kind of love that continuously builds your confidence, makes you feel supported enough to pursue your dreams and wraps you tight enough with a dose of criticism and reality to help you face all of the detours and adversity in life. But my fear is that love won’t be enough. I’m afraid that in spite of my love, you will end up in a place doing nothing more than being you and something horrible will happen to you. I know you don’t want to believe it, because you’re of a generation, living in a place like Madison, that may not believe this reality will ever affect you. And honestly, I pray it doesn’t. I have to believe it won’t. But unfortunately, we live in a country where the combination of your birth by race and gender can still be a deadly one. So, please know that when I am critical or concerned, it comes from a deep place of wanting you to experience the abundance of life. I want the world to see what I see in you and not write you off. I want you to walk down the sidewalk, wearing your hoodies, laughing with your friends, with a deep sense of freedom. I want you to know who you are as defined by culture as well as humanness. I want you to discover your talents and find a world that nurtures it. I want you to believe that you are not defined by your birth certificate alone, but by the power of the path you will walk as a man. I want you to experience love from others and to be lifted to new heights. I want you to live. I want you to live! And so, my loves, in spite of my fears, I wrap you tightly with a love unimaginable so that you may defy the odds and show all of us a world that lifts up our Black sons.
– Nichelle Nichols Chief Academic Officer, Boys and Girls Club of Dane County
I’m not sure you’ll ever understand just how much I love you. Your entry into this world was not a smooth one. But I remember waking up the day after my caesarian section, after the heavy medication wore off, rolling over and seeing your tiny little face. Your body wrapped up in my favorite blanket that I received at my baby shower. You were the most handsome human being I had ever seen in my entire life. It was in that moment that all the fears that I had during pregnancy melted away.
As I meet more and more women who are starting their journeys into motherhood, I often think about how our story isn’t as unique as I once thought. There are mothers all over this world who have gone through the same stages I did with you—fearful to anxious to hopeful.
I wonder now, if that’s the reason why the shooting of Michael Brown hit me so hard this summer. When I look at you I see a world of potential. I see someone who will probably be phenomenal at sports. I see a child with incredible wisdom and curiosity. And I see a young man who already has a strong foundation in early mathematical concepts.
The thought that someone could take away from all of this promise wrapped up in one person is more than heartbreaking. It’s soul crushing. I can’t begin to fathom how Lesley McSpadden must have felt when her not-so-little-anymore ball of hope was taken from her. I pray that I will never know that feeling.
In that same prayer, I ask that we take a truly reflective look at ourselves as a city, a state, and a nation to figure out why shooting black men is so easily justifiable in our country. You will make mistakes, my dear sweet son. I sometimes think about how I will react when you make some of the same errors I did. As I run down the list of personal life lessons you could go through, very few of them justify the taking of your life.
As we move into fall and my life gets hectic again with juggling work, and graduate school, and you, and your dad, it’s relatively easy for me to forget about Michael Brown. I can get lost in the daily shuffle and only occasionally think, “I wonder what’s going on in the Mike Brown case.” Ms. McSpadden cannot. The loss of her son creates a hole that she will never be able to fill.
The benefit (if you can even call it that) of this situation happening while you’re so young is twofold. One, you’re too young to remember this, and in my idealistic world, this won’t happen again. Two, since I know this is the real world, I have time to attempt to figure out how I’m going to help you navigate a world that is fearful of you because of your skin color and your gender.
Love always and forever, Mom
– Darlinne Kambwa-Bell Cross Categorical Teacher, Mendota Elementary School
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” The words of Michael Brown haunt me.
Even unarmed and in a position of surrender, our Black sons are still seen as a threat, dangerous and unnecessary in America.
Six feet, three inches. That is how tall you stand. You are intelligent, funny—no, hilarious—inquisitive, gregarious, handsome and most of all, you are my baby. At least that is how I still see you, even though you tower over my five-foot, four-inch frame. But, when you are out of my presence, you are seen as seventy-five inches of Black threat. Every extra inch of height, every extra pound of weight, every deeper hue of darkness of his skin, a young Black man in America increases his risk.
Whew! Thank goodness we live in Madison, not Ferguson, right, son?
You are actually in even more danger in Madison, Wisconsin, of dying a slow death behind bars of steel in prison, the place that kills the dreams of Black mothers and Black sons. I am haunted by the fact that a Black man has a fifty-fifty likelihood of being sent to prison by the same crime that a white man will walk away from. Wisconsin incarcerates more Black men than any other state. I am not worried about you robbing a bank, gang-banging, carrying a concealed weapon; I have raised you better than that. I am worried that you will just be walking down the street at the wrong time and place and then the rest will be the end of your his-story. And some police officer or some “well-meaning” citizen will wash his hands clean in the blood of another young Black male, while one more Black mother is left once again to pick up the broken pieces of her life and expected to go on.
“Be careful,” I tell you, my son. “Be aware of your surroundings, who you are with and what they are doing.” It breaks my heart to tell you these words, but for your own safety, I do. “No matter where you go or who you are with, don’t ever forget that you are a Black male.” I say those words to save you, protect you, but I also realize that those same words break your spirit just a little bit more each time I utter them to you. And the reality of the reality that we live in makes you feel a little bit less American than your white friends get the privilege of feeling on a daily basis.
“I don’t feel safe in my own skin in America!” That is what the sign read that you carried down the streets of Ferguson, walking in the direction of the last steps that Michael Brown took moments before he was brutally, needlessly killed. He was shot, six times, without thought of who he might be, not just today, but one day. He was shot, six times, without a thought of who might love him. He was shot, six times, without a thought of the countless Black mothers of Black sons, women who didn’t even know him but would mourn his death.
I have talked with many Black mothers of Black sons since my return from our trips down to Ferguson … their hearts are deeply wounded from this incident. Though they don’t know Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, their hearts go out to her and their fear, like mine, increases knowing that but for the grace of God, it could have been our sons. And each time a justifiable homicide ruling is rendered, we know that the bounty on the heads of our sons goes up.
I know that it is hard to move forward, when it feels like you are moving backward at the same time. My grandmother, who raised her Black sons in the forties and fifties, feared for their safety; my mother, who raised your uncle in the sixties and seventies, did not; now in the new millennium, I do, again.
I want the best for you, Christian, and I don’t want anything or anyone to get in the way of the greatness that I see in you.
Love you with all my heart, Mom
– Lilada Gee Founder and Executive Director, Lilada’s Livingroom
I see your thrill, excitement and enthusiasm for high school. It brings me joy to see your exuberance. Your approach has been one of responsibility and preparation for this next chapter, starting with last spring when the course book arrived in the mail and you had the opportunity to apply to AVID. You said because you wanted to go to college, you wanted to be in AVID and you wanted to take English honors. Inside, I smiled and said to myself, “He is growing up.” Aside from this tactical preparation, I am proud of the confidence and self-assuredness you have. How, as you say, you want to “do you!” It is that boldness, coupled with your planning, that gives me a sense that you are ready for this next step.
In August, we signed you up for more dance classes to support your goal of becoming a professional dancer. You know my concerns about your needing to keep your grades up with this high school transition. I fear it all may be too much. You and Dad assured me you can handle it. I sure hope you’re right!
Each day you say school is going well. We see your social transition is going very well. You were “turned up” after the ninth-grade party and student/parent dinner meeting at West, where you introduced us to some of your friends and gushed about Homecoming. I hope the academic transition is going equally well.
I am doing my best to be quietly supportive, but I have this inner struggle as I watch you grow. I am pleased and proud watching you make these decisions for yourself, but it is scary. Scary because it means I have to let go of some of the control over decisions I have been making on your behalf all of these years. More importantly, I have to trust that you can make more of your own decisions and be responsible and accountable for them. That is one of the hardest things for me as your mom, because on the one hand, I want to protect you, but on the other hand, I have to let you grow up. It is a delicate balance of trusting that I’ve done my part, yet giving you freedom to make choices so you can learn your own lessons. I pray that the examples we’ve set, the lessons we’ve taught, the love and support we’ve given provide the foundation and guidance you need to be strong and confident in the decisions you’ll make as you grow more independent and are faced with choices and challenges.
I have made the investment, and you are equipped! You have my active love and support to go “do you”!
– Dawn B. Crim Associate Dean for External Relations, School of Education, UW–Madison
You’re older now than I was when I had you. You’re thirty-two. I can’t believe it. I’m glad you’re in California, because if you were still in La Crosse you probably would be in jail or dead. I know it wasn’t easy up there; it wasn’t easy for your grandfather, either, when he went to college up there in the fifties. You called me on the phone and said, “Mom, I want to come home.” To tell you no was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. I would’ve loved for you to be here, with me. Being a single woman, I need my grown son.
You know, son, it’s not about me, it’s about you. It’s always been about what you need. You needed a new start. Wisconsin is no place for an African American man. Statistically, eighty-five percent of all African American males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five go to jail. I told you that. The recent Race to Equity Report confirms that Dane County is one of the worst places in America to be Black. Why would I possibly want you to stay here?
Can you imagine: you’re safer in Los Angeles, California, than you are here, where you were born? It’s a sad commentary. I spoke to you on your birthday, and you told me you were good. You thanked me for my patience bringing you into the world and being patient enough not to take you out. That’s what my old people used to say, I brought you into the world and I’ll take you out. They often talked like that to make us behave. And we did.
When I decided to write this piece I called you on the phone. You reminded me of what it was like for you as a child, especially what it was like for you in school. You had a difficult time in school. I attribute it to the fact that you did not start school until you were six. I had you tested when you were four. I remember distinctly, you knew your colors, your numbers, and you could read. You taught your sister to read, when she was just three. This woman that was testing you, she asked you to group some fruit. After you had done it correctly she asked you why you had done it that way. You answered, “Because you told me to.” She failed you, in more ways than one. She said that you had cognitive issues because you had not told her why you had grouped the fruit the way you did. Ridiculous.
I didn’t know what had happened or why; now I do. It was difficult for you children to be sufficiently educated. I was so active and proactive with your education, especially because you were in the Madison Metropolitan School District. The secretaries recognized my voice when I would call.
You remember when we lived in Monona and the man slapped you in the face for checking to see where your friends had gone? They ran across his yard. But you knew better and you walked around. He slapped you when you knocked on the door, after you saw him drag your friends inside. I’ll never forget it either. When I called the police, they already knew about it. The police officer told me, “Take it to civil court.” I told him, “If I would have slapped some little white kid, you would have the SWAT team at my door.” He hung up the phone on me.
In spite of all that, you’ve made me a very proud mother. I don’t worry about you out there as much as I did when you were here, however I fret still. They shoot black men down in the street everywhere in America. Keep on keeping on, baby boy. Mama loves you.
– Molinda Henry Administrative Assistant to Edgewood College School of Business
My dear sons,
It’s no secret to you that you are the light of my world … I have told you this since the day you were conceived, and perhaps before when I imagined you in my dreams. My thoughts of you began not long after I fell in love with your father as a very young woman. I dreamed of you, your eyes, your faces, your caramel-colored bodies wrapped in soft blue blankets.
These are the beautiful beginnings of little Black boys …
Yes, you were the stuff of my imagination as nature pulled me toward the inevitability of motherhood. These dreams would come to pass, and the joyful news of “baby on the way'”would come not once, but twice in less than two years’ time. Each of you was cause for celebration, your births highly anticipated events. Your grandparents beamed with joy and showered you with gifts even before you arrived, and loved ones near and far waited for the news that Lisa’s baby had arrived.
These are the anticipated beginnings of little Black boys …
This excitement was heightened by months and months of preparation—baby showers, shopping for the right car seat, crib, and bassinette … and the meticulous task of choosing your names, a task your father and I carried out with great care. And when the days of your births finally arrived, our lives were changed forever in the best of ways as we peered into your lovely sparkling eyes to welcome you into this world.
Yes, these are the celebrated beginnings of little Black boys …
The years have moved by quickly and you are both men now—and the milestones and lessons have been many. We have watched you grow into young men of strong character, substance, responsibility and resilience. Your talents are many and equaled only by your magnetic personalities and forward vision—vision unclouded by the harsh realities that have at times crept into your consciousness, breaking the innocence that we worked so diligently to protect through the years of raising you from boys to men. There have indeed been those days, more than we’d like to remember, when the hard and ugly talk was necessary … the one about racism, prejudice, ignorance and irrational fear of young men who look like you … the one about keeping safe and avoiding dangers when you leave the safety of home … the one about protecting yourself even among those who look like you but who don’t share your mindset of unity, brotherhood and respect.
Ignorance interrupts the innocent beginnings of little Black boys …
We’ve had to prepare you for what no child should be confronted with—the truth that not everyone loves you the same, and that some may at times attempt to bring harm to you … the kind of harm that comes from shortsighted teachers with low expectations, from a police officer who profiles you in your own neighborhood, from store owners who follow you around, assuming theft, and from everyday people whose limited life experience and ingrained ignorance block their ability to see the beauty, talent and goodness that is inherently you. Though these are the exceptions among many great teachers, humane officers and kind strangers, the stinging bias of those who fall short leaves its mark. And if this were not enough, we have wept together for Trayvon, Jordan, Kimani, Ramarley, Sean, Oscar and so many others …casualties caught in the chaos of hate, fear, suspicion, violence … a chaos so foreign and far away from the loving beginnings of your lives, but unacceptably close to the path you walk daily.
And all I can manage to do is tell you the truth, that in spite of this, the chaos does not define you … the hatred cannot conquer you … the bigotry does not erode the beauty and power of who you are … the violence will not overtake you … and that in walking this life as a little Black boy grown into man, you must always look to the beauty and the innocence of your beginnings to remember that love, and faith, and family, and community, and goodness, and grace will follow you all the days of your life if you just believe, remain focused and persevere. You will persevere.
Beautiful are the lives of little Black boys who grow into men. Hold fast to who you are, my sons, and walk without fear.
– Lisa Peyton-Caire Founder and President, The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness
That panic I get when you do something as simple as take out my trash after dark is back again. It began to build again a few nights after Michael Brown’s death, when you were over to my apartment and offered to take out the trash. In a matter of seconds I had imagined the following scenario taking place:
There may have been a recent robbery or burglary in the area. The security company that monitors the area mistakes you for the suspect simply because you are a Black male. He approaches you as you make your way to the trash can and at the same time contacts the Fitchburg Police Department. Since they park in the lot across from my apartment on a regular basis, they arrive immediately.Once there you’re confronted and the police escalate the situation when you say they have the wrong guy. There are shots and my heart races as I run to find out what’s happening. I discover you … breathless and unmoving, and I cannot breathe any longer.
That’s the reason I asked you to wait until morning. It’s why I was close to tears when you told me that you’d be okay and that you were just taking out the trash. In that moment I was going to tell you to “be safe and pay attention to your surroundings” as I often do. The truth hit me, though, and I could not say those words to you. So I told you that I loved you and watched from the patio as you made your way across the parking lot. I watched you move in the same way your father does and I thought to myself, “There’s nothing I can do to keep you safe. No matter what I tell you to do to protect yourself—you are still a Black man. As a Black man that’s all it takes for you to have your life cut short by some police officer’s irrational fears of you.” In that instance I broke down. It’s why I was in tears by the time you made your way back. It’s why I didn’t want to stop hugging you. I love you and it hurts to know that other folks fear you simply because you are a Black man.
This panic. This fear. This hurt. It’s as if someone has erected a firestorm inside of me. The fire simmers in between the news stories and builds again to a booming blaze when another Black son is murdered. I don’t know how to not be afraid when the very people who should protect you fear you. SaVance, I am always remembering your words to me: “Mom, I’ll be fine.”
I want to believe that you will be fine and that your name will never become another hashtag in a growing list of Black sons murdered simply because their skin color incites fear in white men and women.
Mama loves you! Always.
– Sabrina Madison Poet, Motivational Speaker, Change Agent; Administrative Specialist, School of Health Education, Madison College