Nearly sixty years ago, Mamie Till Bradley demanded an open coffin funeral for her 14 year-old son Emmett, who had been thrown in the Tallahatchie River after he was beaten, had his eyes gouged out, and was shot in the head for allegedly flirting with a White woman in a Mississippi grocery store. Mamie’s son committed no crime, was given no due process, but the rules of racism, hatred and fear at that time cost him his life.
As a mother, former teacher and advocate for excellent education for all children, Emmett’s story has a certain sad power, particularly when I consider recent events that have cost Black boys and men their lives in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York City. More specifically, these events make us all focus on “the lessons” all Black boys must learn, regardless of how brilliant, talented or respectful they are. In order for Black males to stay alive when stopped by the police they must learn how to interact with authority, and how not to do anything to arouse suspicion while shopping, walking, driving or working. Not mastering these lessons can be fatal.
I often think about how my two sons learned their own lessons during interactions with police. Our oldest son called us one evening while driving home from Morehouse College. A police car had been following him since he approached our subdivision. His voice was frantic as he asked us to quickly come outside because the officers had turned on their lights and pulled in behind him once he reached our driveway. Before we could open the front door to see what was happening, the officers had made their way to our son’s car window. “You live here?” one officer asked while shining his flashlight in his face.
Our son was responding to the officer’s request for his license as my husband and I reached his car. At that point the tone of the officer’s voice changed and he shifted his focus to a tiny blown bulb on the license plate. I’m not sure what looked more out of place in our neighborhood: the old car with chipped paint and missing hubcaps or the fact that a young Black man was behind the wheel. The combination of the two was enough to create dangerous suspicion that could have ended tragically.
Sadly, Black males are no safer from these types of threats even when inside their own homes. A false alarm to our security company once resulted in officers being dispatched to our home. The responding officers rang the doorbell, and upon seeing our youngest son walk towards the stained glass door, an officer drew his weapon and demanded that he open the door immediately. My son froze when he saw the gun. His hesitation only infuriated the officer more, who demanded that he open the door and identify himself. Our son nervously complied, and quickly produced the ID that proved our home was his residence. I am sickened every time I think about how tragically this scenario could have ended if the officer misinterpreted my child’s actions.
As a wife and mother it pains me to watch—over and over again—the agony, suffering and grief of yet another mother who has to look upon the ravaged body of the child she has carried, birthed, loved and raised, as it lies in the street surrounded by crime scene tape, horrified witnesses and dumbstruck officers of the law. Losing our children to these senseless acts only affirms that teaching our Black boys how to avoid and survive interactions with police is not optional.
These lessons are not easy and neither is the context in which they must be taught. They rival the most challenging mathematical proof. In a split second Black boys and men who stand face to face with a police officer have to develop a deep understanding of how the officer is going to respond to them, and then design the perfect response; one that will prevent an armed officer from pulling the trigger. We’ve made it clear to our sons that merely causing an officer to be frightened can have deadly consequences, and that you can’t reason with a bullet after it has been fired.
Are there policies we can pass that will make our schools more effective for all children? Absolutely. What laws can we pass that will end this irrational fear that takes the lives of so many Black boys? I wish I knew. However what I am clear about is that this public discourse, no matter how difficult, is necessary and overdue. And those of us who are working so hard to serve students of color cannot afford to be silent in these challenging conversations or give up before the ultimate solutions are found. Our quest to provide all of our children, and our Black boys in particular, with a great education will only be fulfilled when we no longer have to teach them the lessons for surviving in an unequal society.