I was walking in Harlem one day and I heard and saw a young African American boy, about 10 years old, being scolded by his father. Like most kids, it seemed like his father was telling him to do something he didn’t want to do. The exchange escalated to the point where the father was yelling at his son and it became more intense. The rest of the conversation–-voices elevated, high intensity, passersby watching-–went something like this:
Young Black Boy: "I wish I could kill myself." (Repeat, repeat, repeat.)
Father: "Oh yeah, what good would that do?"
Young Black Boy: "At least I could be in heaven and I wouldn’t have to be around you."
I stop in my tracks.
I couldn’t move. The father continued to yell at the boy, while the mother stood by quietly holding onto a baby stroller.
Now I know emotional blackmail when I hear it and I could see this boy’s pain in his face and in his body language. It was one of those moments when my mommy instinct told me to run over there, hug that boy and tell him millions of moms are rooting for him and his success.
I would add that this life here on earth can be beautiful and peaceful and full of possibilities. "And that, even when it isn’t, you don’t ever give up."
I wanted to run over to his mother with hugs as well and an understanding and empathetic look that would send the message, "I know, sister, it ain’t easy" and then maybe share some of my own struggles in childrearing.
I knew none of these options was allowed.
Back in the day, it was a given in most black neighborhoods that everybody on the block or apartment building was responsible for the wellbeing of each child. Every neighbor could tell you off or tell your parents what you were up to (and their concern was welcome) and a few select neighbors may have had punishment or spanking privileges. Your child was everybody’s child. Your wellbeing was everybody’s well-being.
But, on that day, I knew that our "village" mentality has long disappeared and that I needed to mind my own business, stop standing on the corner acting as if I was lost (when I was really engaged in the drama) and keep it moving to my car.
I drove off very sad that day. I was sad to hear that beautiful young boy declare that he thought death could be better than his life. I was sad to know that at a time when we need other mothers, aunties, grandmothers and sometimes well-meaning strangers more than ever before to help us raise powerful and productive black children that we have rid ourselves of these traditions. To our own detriment, I believe.
At the time when we need full community support to improve our individual health as black women and to have healthier babies, we have instead resorted to isolationism and leave-me-alone-ism, followed by do-nothing-ism. It’s a dangerous combination.
But on that day, I was even more upset with myself. I felt I should have said something, done something anything, despite the consequences. I even dreamed about it–my negligence haunting me in my sleep.
I wonder, if we can start showing African-American mothers that we care, understand and support each other, can we bring “the village” back? If we add community responsibility to the basic tenets of personal responsibility then would you take a stand for me to have a healthy lifestyle? If we rewrite the rules for what actually defines “my own business,” and say every African-American child is connected and if yours fails, mine fails so therefore, by some very fundamental rules of logic and humanity, it is indeed very much “my business,” can we bring it back?