This is not what we dreamed for our sons

Poet Fabu reveals the anguish of a Black mother
This is not what we dreamed for our sons

This story is about the anguish of a mother who loves her son. We are both African Americans who live in the United States. Mothers and all who hear me, I want to clearly write this love for him that is in my heart into yours, so that you understand what many African American mothers feel about the horrible increase of Black men being killed by police officers and random vigilantes, such as George Zimmerman, Michael David Dunn and others. Mothers know what it is to feel life in our wombs. That beginning tickle when your unborn swims around inside of you, insisting “I am here” in secret code before any other person can guess your condition. Pregnancy was as much a part of the future I longed for, as education and writing. My plan was to love and marry a wonderful man, intertwine our destinies, and create and celebrate our oneness with many welcomed children for a good life.

As I grew up into this dream and learned more from my culture to respect human life, I came to understand that chocolate-colored me was not equally regarded. As early as elementary school, I noticed little white boys raised their hands and were called on; they were line leaders; and blonde hair was a guarantee of lavish praise from teachers. I was a girl, completely baffled by this obvious favoritism that never came my way. First, I wondered was there something wrong with my little self, but my momma and my daddy had thoroughly convinced me that I was loved, smart, capable and pretty, too. Looking around our classroom one day with a peculiar childish awareness, I saw that all the dark-skinned children were seated last in the row, stood last in the line, and no matter how hard we waved our little colored hands, we were chosen to answer questions only when no white hands were in the air too. I had to accept the bad truth that the color of the skin I was in was viewed as a problem. I didn’t know what to do, except to feel small, sad and alone.

When I was later called the “N” word, it stung but it didn’t kill me. My shield was my mother’s words. “People don’t know you, the real you. Whoever is mean and prejudiced, something is wrong with them. They are on the outside and don’t have any power to hurt you. What they say or what they do is not important at all. They don’t define you and furthermore, they have neither a heaven nor a hell to put you in.” I used my mother’s words as protection all around me and I learned how to cope with racism in everyday life.

My home was a sanctuary until my father was ordered to Vietnam and we traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to be near my mother’s family. It was 1968 and we arrived during the sanitation strike and witnessed the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a little brown girl trying to simply grow up, and learn myself, I was surrounded with hatred so thick it sat on you everywhere you went in Memphis, outside of your home or the Black community. I began to write in order to make sense of the terror around me. On Easter Sunday 1968, I watched, through our living room window, tanks roll through our neighborhood. It was at that point in my childhood that racial hurt went deeper, and I wondered, was there any place in the world where Black people could be safe?

As a quiet teenager, I read every book I could about African and African American history and culture. When I graduated with honors in high school and from the University of Memphis, I was fortified with a strong sense of who I am, and where I came from in my family and in my race. I decided to investigate the origins of African American literature and applied to the only university in the United States that offered graduate coursework in that specific field: the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I earned a master’s in Afro-American studies and a master’s in African Languages and Literature and headed straight for Kenya, East Africa. I went looking for freedom, rest and the chance to finally blend in. I was desperate to stop being the Black person who always stuck out, who was highly visible and threatening because of the color of my skin.

I picked up my dream again about love, marriage and children, only my children would be born free from American racism in Nairobi, Kenya. My children would grow up in a country where the content of their character really mattered. I married a Kenyan and looked like everyone else in Nairobi crowds. I taught Literature of the African Diaspora at Kenyatta University. I actually returned to Africa, to close the circle left open when my ancestors were forced in chains from African shores. I had returned. I had survived. I was free.

Oh, if only I had chosen wiser and love and marriage had remained. Oh, if only I didn’t have to return to Madison with my one-year-old son. Back in the U.S. and divorced, I had family love and prayers to sustain us, but the battle began immediately to keep this little black boy thriving in his spirit and soul. I didn’t want him to feel what I had felt as a child, that this country could hate him solely because of the color of his skin. I papered his wall with the great kings and queens of Africa. I spoke Swahili to him. I kept books about Black facts, Black inventions and the African explorers who traveled across North America before Columbus. I played jazz and took him down South as often as possible. I nurtured him and his friend who were the only Black students in the open classroom. I worried about his self-esteem, self-respect and racial pride.

One day, a few months after starting kindergarten, he came home at five years old and announced, “Mom, I want to be white.” I wanted to fall down and faint. At five, my son picked up the message that white was better than him, just as I had. Despite my strenuous efforts, he questioned his identity. I told my son, “You have your father’s head shape and your mother’s face. If you were white, would you look like us? You have both your great-grandfathers’ names and they were strong, proud, accomplished men.” I reminded him that he had a counselor who attended our church and she was Black. I kept talking until he felt that being Black and loved, he was an important part of our family.”

Inside I was furious at an insensitive, biased society that could convince young children that being white was best. I doubled my efforts as a parent volunteer in every class and took off work to go on every field trip. We worshiped at church and I begged a good God to cover my son and let him live well and strong in this country where not many Black sons live to be old men. I loved him, explained as best I could, irrational racism, prepared him for difficulties in society for a black boy, and protected him by telling him the truth of what it is to be any shade, any class, and any education level of a Black man in Madison, Wisconsin.

I gave my son the card of our family attorney in high school and advised him to use it if an official harassed him. It was only years after my son was first called the N word that he finally told me about the incident. It was only after he moved from Madison that he told me he could never drive in one of the local communities without being stopped by police. It was only the safe distance of years later that my son shared his experiences as a young Black boy who grew up in this city, attended Madison schools and UW-Madison. I’m protecting him. He’s protecting me, but our society is not protecting us.

This is the anguish of a Black mother who loves her Black son, and the story of many, many Black mothers around this country. Mothers and all who hear me, I want to make you understand, without the shadow of a doubt, that this country has got to stop killing our Black men; our sons, our husbands, our grandfathers, our brothers, our uncles, our cousins, our friends, our neighbors, all of us. I tell you today that the senseless killing of Black men must stop, and those who kill must be punished. We’ve felt the killing of an unarmed nineteen-year-old, Tony Robinson, by a white Madison police officer. This is the anguish of mothers who love their sons in America, and believe that their sons must have the same rights to be Black and to be men and to live.

Fabu is a literary artist, educator and writer. Madison’s poet laureate from 2008 to 2012, she was a Pushcart Prize nominee in poetry in 2013 and 2014 and recipient of the Outstanding Achievement in Poetry award from the Wisconsin Library Association Literary Awards. She is the author of Remember Me: Mary Lou Williams in Poetry, In Our Own Tongues, Journey to Wisconsin: African American Life in Haiku and Poems, Dreams and Roses.

Click here for all stories that appeared in the May 2015 cover story covering the days after the Tony Robinson shooting.