My son was small for his age, having a birthday late in the year and always looked younger than he was. We all do. It’s the family "curse".
When he began high school at the age of 13, I insisted upon driving him. He insisted upon taking public transportation. Living in New York City, part of the rites of passage for most of our children includes independent travel through the hundreds of miles of subway tunnels, elevated train tracks and bus routes. Daunting to tourists and suburbanites in for a show but not to the savvy city kid raised on pre-paid MetroCards and sightings of rabbit-sized rats. I won the battle the first day; he, the second. Sort of. I made him ride the bus, which was about a 90 minute ride; the train would have saved him half an hour. I gave him money to call me when he got there and he was supposed to call me when he was leaving. This was before cell phones became the mandatory kid-accessory. That would come on his third day of school, September 11, 2001.
I wanted him to ride the bus because I figured he would be safer on the bus, more protected. He had made the football team and became friends with other kids on the team who lived in our neighborhood and rode the train. Friends with names like Big Lou and Tall Mike. For a month he begged to be allowed to take the train, assured me that he would be fine, introduced me to his "bodyguards" and I relented.
And it happened, shortly after.
But we had had the conversations. I gave him pop quizzes when he came out of the shower, at dinner, in between his second and third helpings, because you never approach a hungry male asking anything-and after I had hosed him awake. And he went to private school, had his whole life. Wore a uniform which was known to every transit employee between here and there. He was articulate, bilingual, could speak "adult" as well as he spoke "teenager". He was clean cut, no earrings, no tattoos, no saggy pants, no gaudy chains. In the fall and spring, he wore the hoodie of the moment, in the winter a black Northface and black Timberlands with his oxford and khakis, just like every other young man at the all-boy school he attended-Pinero, Caluccio, Feist, Harden, Schwartz. It would be hard to tell them apart if they were all on the school steps with their faces turned away from the street parents used for pickup.
And it happened anyway.
One day, he was stopped by the police on his way home. Asked to present identification, asked where he was headed. That was the first time. The second time, he was asked for identification and frisked. Then the third time, the fourth, and the fifth. And he was patted down, had his backpack gone through, returned to him, sometimes gently, most times not.
My brother-in-law is a New York City police officer, a detective within a homicide division. New York’s Finest, they’re called. He gave him a courtesy card issued to officers to give to their relatives in the event they have an interaction with a fellow cop. I have used the card and received a warning instead of an expensive fine. My son has had the card thrown into his face and onto the ground. His "dealings" with the police did not end with his graduation from high school-with honors. Did not end despite his admission into nine of the ten colleges he applied to. It has not ended with his being a college senior with 3.5 GPA in a dual major. My son is no angel; he can be surly, argumentative and obstinate. He has experimented with alcohol and marijuana. He listens to rap music, I have heard him curse and I’m pretty sure he’s no longer a virgin. Your typical all-American boy. Except it’s only typical for African American young men and other men of color to be subjected to this kind of police treatment.
In addition to the coming-of-age conversations parents have with their children, black parents have to add the "What to Do WHEN You Are Stopped By the Police" talk to the list of ones they have with their sons. We have to, for their safety and our sanity. Because in our collective memory, there’s the horrifically mutilated body of Emmet Till. There’s Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell. My son’s name is Sean. And every single time he’s stopped, I feel I have failed him and I have failed in the God given responsibility of protecting my child.
The saddest part of all of this is he’d begun to become "immune" to being stopped. He, like too many other men of color in this city, had become desensitized to being treated criminally. They take it as par for the course; they shrug it off and most will laughingly share their war stories. But listen closely and you can hear anger comingled with humiliation and a weary, reluctant acceptance.
Not exactly the stuff that dreams are made of.
Dionne Grayman is the founder of Mothers Empowered, a coalition of mothers who are in search of their best selves and committed to the business of making this world a better place for our children. At Mothers Empowered the mission is ME! A former high school English teacher, Dionne has taught the full spectrum of New York City’s children ranging from incarcerated juveniles on Riker’s Island to gifted students at one of the city’s most prestigious high schools. She has also served on the executive board of the Community Education Council in District 13 in Brooklyn and is the co-vice president of the PS/MS 282 PTA Executive Board. Grayman holds a bachelor’s degree in English and journalism, a graduate degree in special education, and has completed CCC’s Community Leadership Course. Learn more about Mothers Empowered at www.mothersempowered.org