“What age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?” — Jonathan Lethem
George Stinney was 14 years old when he was convicted of murder in a two-hour trial and subsequently sentenced to death. Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was lynched by a white mob for allegedly whistling at a white woman. For Black parents of previous generations, George Stinney and Emmitt Till are prime examples of how Black boys in America were historically dehumanized while also being robbed of the innocence of their childhoods.
For Black parents of my generation, the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice have renewed the fears of those past generations. They symbolize the cruel and unforgiving reminders that far too frequently, Black boys are treated like suspects long before they are treated with the humanity deserving of being someone’s son. Trayvon Martin was 17 years old when George Zimmerman killed him. Tamir Rice was 12 years old when a former Cleveland police officer killed him. Zimmerman was acquitted, and the officer who shot Tamir Rice was never arrested.
On June 25, Tamir Rice would have celebrated his 18th birthday, and social media users worldwide celebrated his life by posting pictures of him. That night, my son noticed one of those pictures while he was sitting beside me as I scrolled through Instagram. I tried to scroll faster, already dreading and anticipating the difficult questions and conversations that would follow.
His curiosity outraced my fingers.
“Who’s that?” my son asked.
“Tamir Rice,” I said, staring straight ahead.
“Do you know him?” he asked.
“I didn’t know him personally, but people are posting his pictures because today would have been his 18th birthday.”
“Well, what happened?” he asked.
I continued looking away from him, fully realizing the direction this discussion was heading.
“He was killed by a police officer. He was 12 years old,” I said.
“Twelve?” he asked, as his voice rose an octave higher. “Did the officer get arrested?”
“No,” I said.
“Why not?” he asked, his voice now full of disappointment and disbelief.
There was no simple response. Sometimes, the burden associated with parenting Black children, especially Black boys, demands dialogue that I wish I could indefinitely postpone and conversations that I should not be forced to have. I would rather discuss classmate crushes, video games and how it feels to be a fifth-grader this upcoming school year.
Instead, I must explain why Tamir Rice never celebrated his 13th birthday. I must tell my son why the officer who shot him was never arrested — another sobering, unjust and often repetitious outcome that has become commonplace when Black people have been killed during interactions with police officers.
My son is only 10 years old, just two years shy of Tamir Rice’s age when his life was stolen forever. Soon my son will join the world of licensed drivers and enter that horrifying space where simple traffic infractions can lead to life-altering and life-ending results for young Black boys. As Black parents, we are often forced to wear masks of feigned courage, armed with the frightening reality that even the most routine traffic stop can forever change the dynamic of a family.
Traumatizing my son is not my goal, but not preparing him for a world that has repeatedly rejected Black boys would be the ultimate act of negligence. Not everyone values him, cherishes him and loves him the way my wife and I do. Today, he is “cute” and “harmless,” still short of the threshold of being labeled as menacing or threatening. Yet one day, without proper warning or prior notice, he will be unceremoniously stripped of this innocence, forced to lean solely on the lessons and counsel that we have previously provided him. What terrifies me most is not being there to protect him when that moment occurs.
Many Black parents share these fears, and the past few months have inflamed these fears. So, for my son and many other Black children, the instruction begins now. And although it is not an enviable task, it is a task that must be fulfilled because this is America, and sadly enough, this is the burden we share as Black parents.
Frederick Adams is a criminal defense attorney based in Winston-Salem. He is a native of Bluefield, Va., with a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Bluefield College and a law degree from the Wake Forest University School of Law. Follow him on twitter @FrederickBAdams.