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Back-to-School Blues: Prayers for Black Boys

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This week, my son Michael started kindergarten. And I'm a nervous wreck for all the reasons every mother gets worried about the first days of school. But I'm particularly anxious for a few reasons only black mothers will understand.

african american mom holding smiling 5 year old son

Kimberly Seals Allers: Studies show that black male achievement begins to decline as early as the fourth grade, and that by high school, black males are more likely to drop out. Fourth grade! We need to start asking why.

To be honest, my fear of this day has been a long time coming. 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.

Consider these facts:

• The number-one cause of death for black males between the ages of 15-25 is 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. 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 18th birthday and then his 25th 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.

As Michael sets off for kindergarten, I have to recognize that 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 will they think 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 every day throughout the school year his teacher would tell all the parents hanging around for pickup how he reads stories to the other children, helps them tie their shoes (because they don't know 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 now that the school year has begun, so does my work as a black mother. 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.

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15 comments so far | Post a comment now
Megan September 18, 2009, 12:47 PM

I have to say I am raising a black son and while I do have these fears, I never doubt my ability as a parent and I have no worries my boy will not end up a statistic. I wish they would do more in depth studies. I want to know How many black boys who have parents that push them, stay involved in there lives and school work end up in jail or dead? I want to know how many black boys who have parents who are educated end up dropping out of high school? I feel like if your doing your job as a parent your worries go away. If I prepare my son for his spelling test I know he will pass. And when he gets older I will prepare him for the future and I know he will succeed.

TN September 18, 2009, 1:08 PM

I too, believe in the power of parenting. If our parents will take the time to consistently remain engaged in our children’s lives we create a space where our children recognize that they matter to this world and that they have someone on their team, even when odds are stacked against them.

vanessa September 18, 2009, 2:52 PM

i can’t even begin to understand this type of pain…or worry when you see the statistics lined up like that. Its not always the parenting-my own brother proved that. he had devoted parents who pushed him to go to school, keep trying, get good grades, punished him, grounding him when he did wrong, told him why he shouldn’t do drugs…and he is in rehab addicted to meth. Sometimes, I feel its culture itself that needs to be changed. But that will take time, too much unfortunately. hope they can get the right role models.

Laura P Thomas September 18, 2009, 5:16 PM

Thank you for writing this and giving insight to others.

Katherine September 18, 2009, 5:32 PM

I pray that your son will succeed.

Anonymous September 18, 2009, 5:38 PM

I’ve been teaching for nearly twenty years in a school that has a black population of about forty percent. What Somewhere between first through third grade I see these adorable, likable, smart, polite young black males ostracized endlessly by other black males with less than perfect manners and academic skills. These kids are made to feel like failures by being role model students. So the transformation begins. These once bright, articulate, well mannered boys slowly succumb to the pressure of their peers and start to take on the behaviors of the more challenging kids in the class. It’s like survival of the fittest and if they try to remain sweet and smart, they are shunned by their peers. It is so sad and even though as a teacher I try to discourage this, it’s a much deeper problem than I can handle. Peer pressure is powerful stuff. I suppose parental awareness is a good start.

D September 19, 2009, 3:32 PM

They need fathers, this is a direct of result of single parent homes. Women CANNOT consistently raise men, if they could then the disparites that exist between black men and the rest of the world would not exist.

Christina September 20, 2009, 6:57 PM

I appreciate this article and I share those same fears. My only quibble is that not all “black” sons are being raised by black mothers/fathers. All parents of sons who are darker than the norm have these fears, even those of us who are white or pass for white.

MforA September 20, 2009, 9:17 PM

That’s the truth D. The Bible says so.

V September 20, 2009, 10:03 PM

this article seriously touched my heart. i’m not a mother, but i can imagine having to worry about my son like that everyday when/if i do have one. my mother has a son and she goes thru it everyday with my 21 year old brother who has been locked up three times (misdemeanors). but she continues to pray and so do i for my brother, for your son and for all the black young men across the united states.

Sherry September 22, 2009, 4:26 AM

Thank you for sharing this, it’s very powerful and thought-provoking.

Teresa Ramirez September 22, 2009, 11:45 AM

You are amazing and truly inspiring. Your son is very intelligent. Sounds like he has a good strong head on his shoulders and always will. GOOD JOB MOM!

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