“Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive — in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.” ~Dr. Stacey Patton
Already disheartened and dismayed by the state of Missouri’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of 18-year old Michael Brown, I was completely done in once I learned about the recent killing of 12-year old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer. Outraged, I snapped at White friends to take responsibility for their people’s aggressive tendencies, and urged Black friends to teach their kids how to engage in guerilla-style self defense.
After all, systems built upon assumptions of White supremacy (including the U.S. education, economic, legal and criminal justice systems) demand that Black children be denied the childhood and play afforded other children. Why? Because systems of White supremacy need Black children to be groomed, preferably from birth, to be dominated, controlled, and ultimately destroyed. They must be socialized early to accept their own subjugation. One way to do this is to paint them as monsters in training, criminals and thugs just waiting to happen. This ensures that no sacred space will be held for them to grow, explore, and develop. Instead, they will be treated from the beginning as miniature adults, spared no harsh treatment and allowed no room for mistakes. This is how we end up with schools that operate more like prisons than educational institutions, and a police force that perceives Black bodies as threats to be taken out, no matter how young or innocent.
Dr. Joy Degruy-Leary reminds us that even modern African American parenting practices have been shaped by a legacy of slavery. Blacks have been encouraged (through generations of well-intentioned ancestors whose goal of self-preservation was quite worthy) to focus on childhood as a time for youth to be disciplined and trained for mere survival. Perhaps we need to acknowledge that children also need to be protected, nurtured, and encouraged to absolutely flourish. The larger society is not going to allow them that luxury.
Perhaps one of the most radical things that Black parents regularly do, in addition to instilling enormous amounts of faith and inner fortitude, is vehemently protect the space that is Black childhood. The space that should be filled to the brim with wonder, awe, play, guidance, and love. The space where young humans feel no obligation but to laugh, discover, learn, be affirmed in their existence, and soak up the abundant care and attention being offered them by the Universe. The space that White supremacy would like to eradicate for Black boys and girls.
This is nothing new. After all, the U.S. is founded on a system which bought and sold children as free labor to be worked, bred, and abused as human chattel. Patton’s research painstakingly demonstrates how the beating, lynching, shooting, burning, raping, and explosion of Black children (from newborns to teens) has historically been used as a state-sanctioned means of maintaining White power structures and protecting White economic, political, and social interests. Each decade brings a new form, but not necessarily a decreased number, of brutal acts against Black children. And such crimes mostly go unpunished, because they in fact serve the interests of the White majority, even if they directly contradict the so-called Progressive belief that childhood is a “sacred space” during which people should be afforded free time to explore, investment of education, and protection from adult concerns. Once you grasp the regularity with which these types of crimes against Black children have taken place, and the mind-blowing lack of legal response, the contemporary tragedies of Trayvon, Michael, and Tamir make a lot more sense (unfortunately).
In the face of these tragedies, and the growing list of Black men and boys fallen prey to a system designed to destroy them, how will we protect the development of our most precious resource – our children – and ensure that they don’t miss the opportunity to develop fully (but not too quickly) into the adults we need them to be? White supremacy is determined to portray our children as outright menaces, thereby stirring White fright and setting the stage for mass acceptance of genocide. White society will not stop demonizing Black children, so what are we going to do? Play into society’s wish for us to usher our youth into a fearful and hyper-defensive style of being in a world with which they are not able or ready to effectively engage? Or taking the reigns to pull our children back into Black networks, communities and institutions where we as adults serve as buffers, determining the kinds of interactions that we will allow the world to have with our children?
It’s a hard question to ask, and an even heavier burden for Black parents to carry, but I am convinced that we are all worth the effort. And we cannot afford to keep losing our children to the senselessness of White supremacy. Our children deserve better. Our children deserve to be children.