If I had a dollar for every person who asked me, "How is pregnancy and motherhood different for African American women?" I’d be a very, very rich woman. Yes, the formula for pregnancy is the same for all women. Forty weeks=one baby. But the journey can be so much different. Our experience is different. Our stresses and anxieties are so different. And therein lies the rub.
For example, when I was pregnant with my first child, I prayed to God that I would have a girl. This wasn’t a dress up, little princess, mini-me type of daughter fantasy, I was just literally afraid of raising a black boy. As a new parent, we already doubt our parenting skills anyway, but I certainly didn’t know how I could ever raise a black man in a world that is statistically stacked against him. I was stressed and afraid.
Consider these facts:
- The number one cause of death for Black males between the ages of 15-25 is a (violent death) murder.
- One in four Black men will enter prison at least once, compared to only one in 23 white males having the same experience.
- According to the United States Department of Justice, Black males currently constitute 12 percent of the national population but 44 percent of the prison population.
I thought about how, someday, I would have to sit with my son and teach him his legal rights and what to do and not to do when approached by the police. Stress. I remembered how my own brother was often stopped for no good reason. Many times I was with him when it happened.
I remember our family’s unspoken sigh of relief when my brother reached his eighteenth birthday and then his twenty-fifth birthday and was still alive, never incarcerated and college educated. He had beaten the odds. These are powerful milestones for our black men. I don’t think white mothers have the same worries over their boys. And so you can understand, why I prayed to God for a little girl.
I got my girl.
But my son, Michael Jaden, came four years later.
Lately, I’ve been remembering how my mother would beg my brother, who was an ace student at Hofstra University, not to dress in street fashions like baggy jeans or baseball caps because she feared that he could be easily mistaken for a "thug" by policemen who shoot first and ask questions later. Even then, as a big sister, I felt my mother’s pain. Today, as a mother, I know my mother’s pain and her fear and her worry. It is a stress that is never ending yet powerful.
In September my son started kindergarten. And I was a nervous wreck for all the reasons every mother gets worried about the first day of school. But I was particularly anxious for a few reasons only Black mothers will understand. Reasons why my experience now as a black mother is still highly stressful. Studies show, black male achievement begins to decline as early as the fourth grade and by high school, black males are more likely to drop out. Fourth grade! We need to start asking why.
What’s more, everybody, even the best teachers, has their own biases. They come from our upbringing, the influence of the media and many times we aren’t even aware of them. But what if those biases affect how the teachers and principals view my son, my young black male.
Will they give Michael 3000% percent if they are subliminally thinking he will likely be dead by 18 or that his future is really in sports or hip hop and not in academic excellence? Will they see my beautiful brown boy for the person he really is?
Recently I had an unsettling experience: My son has been reading since he was 4 years old. He was the only reader in his Pre-K class and everyday throughout the school year his teacher would tell all the parents hanging around for pick up how he reads stories to the other children, helps them tie their shoes (because they don’t how), and spells like a champ. He is also the only African American in the class. At the end of the school year, a bunch of moms and dads from the class got together, and their whole conversation about my son was about how fast he runs, how he wins all the races at parties, and how he has a very muscular tone for a 5-year old. These things are true. But not one person talked about how smart he is. Even though that was the messaging they received about my son nearly every day. Not one parent.
And so I’m afraid. And when I send him off to school every day, my work as a Black mother begins. My stress as a black mother intensifies. My job, raising a black male, is to make sure any teacher, principal, or school administrator sees my son for his brilliance and not the statistic or stereotype this world often perpetuates. My parenting needs to be on-point so that my son knows that he is destined for excellence, that he is not a statistic or stereotype and that he is loved unconditionally even in a world that fears him.
This is my new prayer. And I have a strong yet sad feeling that it’s a prayer being echoed by millions of Black mothers all over the world. This is just a sampling of our stresses. I hope more of you are beginning to understand.