~for Freddie Gray
No amount of reading or foster care education can prepare you for the sheer terror of being a young white woman raising a Black teenager in a large city. You read up on white privilege, you look to other moms who have experience, you consult with Black friends about hair and holidays and clothes, and you white knuckle your way through the news. “Son, be smart, be smarter than they are, we love you so much, there is no room for error.”
You cry the whole way through “Fruitvale Station” because you know that your precious son is a good young man who loves fiercely and can sometimes be impulsive. You know that being in the wrong place at the wrong time means a parking ticket for you and a fatal spinal injury for him. Because there is no room for error.
You can’t stop playing Javon Johnson’s “Cuz He’s Black” through your mind and hoping that you have prepared your brave son for a complex world for which he can’t he prepared. “Does he know we love him?” “Does he know how smart and kind he is?” “Does he know how to keep himself alive when he is being hunted?” Because there is no room for error.
…be smart, but not scared; to be watchful, but not paranoid; to be quick, but not too quick; to learn from mistakes, but not to make them…
You second guess yourself because him living in your home and walking around your community with you somehow shields him and gives him a false sense of security. He doesn’t have to be vigilant. He isn’t learning how to be police-smart while living in your suburb. He isn’t being led by a community of Black men who would put him through police-smart boot-camp and teach him the things you couldn’t possibly know. You feel that by loving him and holding onto him that you are failing him. Because there is no room for error.
Whenever there is a new police brutality case, all of the fears and worries that you tried to pack away last time are broken out and cause you to panic. “Son, please be careful, they are killing Black boys, even the ones who don’t do anything wrong. You have to be vigilant, you have to be smart, you have to be brave, because there is no room for error.”
He knows that he is loved unconditionally and has a forever family, but he is not practiced at how to scan a moving figure for a concealed weapon.
He says “I love you too”, “please’, and “thank you”, but he is out of touch with the code words that signal impending danger.
He has learned the value of hard work and sweat from your husband, but he has to work twice as hard to get ahead and twice as hard to get away.
He knows you would do anything for him, anything in your power, but even he knows you can’t protect him from them.
You are equally grateful to have each other in your lives. There is so much joy and pride in raising a son, and so much comfort in being fiercely loved by a family who chose you. But you can’t help feel incompetent and unsure as you join the ranks of mothers all over the world who raise Black boys to be smart, but not scared; to be watchful, but not paranoid; to be quick, but not too quick; to learn from mistakes, but not to make them. Because there is no room for error.