ii. killing/saving/loving black boys
August 19, 2014
(for Kofi and Amir, ©2014)
By Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.
Loyola magazine invited Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland, to share an excerpt of her new book, Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America.
The book, which was published by Apprentice House on Jan. 23, 2015, offers a compilation of letters, poetry, and notes that Whitehead has written to her sons over the past 14 years. Whitehead will host a number of readings throughout the city, including at the Loyola/Notre Dame Library on Feb. 22, 2015, where the original letters and diaries will be on display from Feb. 22 through the end of March.
The more I thought about what happened in Ferguson the more frustrated I have become. Today, I am not sure if I can protect you. So instead I will write and cry and pray.
I would like to write you a love letter about peace/ of a time when black men, like black panthers, roamed free/ of a place where black bodies were not endangered and black life was not criminalized.
Alas, I am not old enough to remember life back that far (if it ever even existed in this country).
Neither am I old enough to remember life before Brown.
I suspect (though) that it was not much different than it is now in places like Ferguson and New York and Florida/ places across America where the crime of breathing while black is still punishable by death.
I used to be afraid of white sheets (wouldn’t even use them on my bed) ‘till folks traded them in for blue uniforms/ and then traded their wooden crosses for billy clubs.
My heart always skips a beat when a cop’s car is behind me while I’m driving at night/ and though you are not old enough to drive, I am already frightened by the day when you are stopped for the crime of driving while black.
There are days when being black in America overwhelms me and makes me want to spend the day in bed/ and times when being the black mother of a black boy in America makes me wish I had enough money to move you somewhere where I could keep you safe.
Safe from them—the ones who see your life as expendable and unnecessary/ and from us—those who look at you without realizing that you are a mirror that simply reflects them.
I often think about slavery and how different life was when you could see the hand that held the chain that was attached to the ball that was tied to your ankle.
We come from a people who experienced this daily and still chose to survive.
Survival is our legacy.
And since we survived the Middle Passage as involuntary passengers on a trip that sealed our fate/ And we survived slavery, whips and latches by learning how to give way and stay small/ And we survived the Civil War by claiming freedom at the hands of those who looked like our oppressors
—surviving is our goal.
We are a long-willed stubborn people.
Who survived sharecropping and the period called the nadir,
The Great Depression, Vietnam, Reaganomics, and crack cocaine.
We are a stubborn and strong-willed people.
Who survived lynchings, cross burnings, and being terrorized for wanting to vote and for trying to reclaim our voices.
We who have been beaten and starved,
Disenfranchised and disempowered,
Overlooked and ignored,
Underpaid and underrepresented.
We survived because we are strong-willed and stubborn.
And though there are times when we are like strangers in a foreign land/ we look around and wonder how we got here/ we take stock and realize how little we actually have/ we wonder how long we will continue to suffer and die at the hands of both the oppressor and of the oppressed
—we survive anyway.
Because survival is our legacy.
There are days when I look at the two of you and my heart swells with pride
As I think about all that you use to be and all that you can become,
And then I stop and catch my breath/ I grab my chest and clutch my pearls/
I blink back tears and shake my head/ for I am sure that the mother of every unarmed black boy who has died kneeling at the feet of a racist system where guilty verdicts are meted out
—one chokehold at a time
—one gunshot at a time
—one lynching at a time
—one whipping at a time.
I think of them daily (what black mother of black boys doesn’t)
I try to speak their names/ going back as far as I can remember/ adding new names daily.
I do it so that I can remember/ so that the two of you can’t forget/ so that together we can add their names and their lives to the wind so that a piece of them and this moment will remain at this place/ even though we will move one
There are nights when I stand in the doorway of your room—not to wake up you up for the revolution, but to simply remind myself that, just for a moment you are still safe and still here.
All I want (at this moment) is what every other mother wants around the world—the simple comfort of knowing that my son’s life does matter and that my work, to pour love, light, and truth into him, will not be in vain.
I move from being upset and hurt to being angry and infuriated: because from Skittles to hoodies, loud rap music to cigarillos, toy guns to iced tea; whether you are 18 or 12(!), college bound or not, a homeboy or a choir boy, hands held up or down on your knees, walking in the street or standing in Wal-Mart, during the day or at night, in Ohio or in Florida or in Baltimore—you two are Not SAFE in this country.
As your very angry mother, I cannot and will not rest until that truth/that sad reality has been changed.
We are survivors.
We are stubborn.
We are strong-willed.
Survival is our legacy and surviving everyday—in this system—is our goal.
There will come a day when you will know what it means to be free/what it means to be safe/what is means to be.
I look forward to being there with you, on the dawn of this new day, and to celebrating with you.
© Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Editor’s note: This is part one of a four part series of op-eds that examine and explore the state of black America.
The history of African enslavement and freedom in America is both engaging and fraught with confusion, half-truths and unsubstantiated facts, making it both hard to understand and explain. But it’s important that we make the effort if we’re to comprehend the current state of black America and its future.
Slavery as an institution goes back to ancient times, but African enslavement in this country is generally said to have begun in 1619, when the first 20 captured Africans arrived in Jamestown, Va., to work on the tobacco plantations. This “peculiar institution” — as southern whites referred to slavery — would continue to grow over the next two and a half centuries, eventually ensnaring millions of people in complete servitude that often extended from the womb to the grave.
By the end of the Civil War in 1865, there were nearly 4 million enslaved men, women and children living in states throughout the South. And though slavery officially ended in the U.S. at the end of that year with the ratification of the 13th Amendment (an ending that had begun two years earlier under the Emancipation Proclamation), black people were far from free. From the establishment of the sharecropping system to the “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws, black Americans were subjected to a different set of rules.
For some, this may seem like ancient history, but it is not, as this separationist doctrine remained legally in effect up until 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education decision — and practically in effect for much longer. In 1969, for example, the U.S. Department of Education found Maryland to be one of 10 states still operating a “racially segregated system of [higher] education.” Roughly 250 years of enslavement and decades more of legalized segregation in this country made the ideas of freedom and equality for black people difficult concepts for some white Americans, many of whom fervently wrestled with and fought against them.
The desire to be free, to be equal, and to be unrestricted in movement and opportunity has always existed in the hearts and minds of black people. In fact, one of the earliest documented slave rebellions happened in 1687 on a Virginia plantation. And the first documented court case that legally challenged segregated schools (a prelude to Brown v. Board) was filed in 1849 and argued that legalized segregation psychologically damaged black students. There were always, in a sense, two movements happening: One took place in the courtrooms, trying to change policies, practices and laws; and the other took place in the streets, trying to change the hearts and minds of America’s citizens.
A targeted system of laws and customs reinforced racial segregation and discrimination in public schools, parks, theaters and lunch counters for years, restricting the economic, educational and social progress of black Americans. Yet, within this environment of institutionalized and legalized racism, black people continued to build churches, establish colleges and schools, organize legal campaigns and establish and operate national businesses. It was an ongoing movement of survival and empowerment by black people who chose, every single day, to survive.
From 1954 up until 1972, the country was preoccupied with the modern civil rights movement, which was an organized struggle to force states to uniformly apply the law. During this time black people were not simply fighting for freedom, they were fighting for equality — understanding that their worth and ability to live free and actualized lives were intricately bound to their legal and social status. While lawyers were fighting de jure segregation, activists were on the ground fighting de facto segregation by marching in the streets, writing manifestoes, staging “pray-ins” and getting arrested.
Today, black people have more opportunities than ever before thanks to the unrelenting commitment and courageous activism of our nation’s citizens. Yet America is still not the country of equality that it should be, as deep-rooted feelings of racism and social inequality still linger. The ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement concerning relations with police has made this painfully obvious, along with rising illiteracy rates and unemployment numbers within the black community and the increased backlash against affirmative action policies.
Our American story is still evolving, and the past is a part of it. We must begin to own, claim and examine it so that we can transcend it.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland and the author of the new book, “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America.” She can be reached at email@example.com. Conra Gist is an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
2015 BHM PowerPoint (for GM)
“I want you to be fully present in your own life, a change agent who is not afraid to dare to be who you are. I wonder though, my dear sweet child, how I can mother you when I have not been able to mother myself? How can I give you the tools to survive this brutal world when I have not been able to craft these tools to save myself? How can I stand up for you when my whole life has been spent trying so hard to stand up for myself? I am not perfect. I am flawed. I am pregnant. And in nine months, I will be your mother.”
–And so begins Karsonya Wise Whitehead’s first letter to her oldest son. For the past 14 years, she has written letters, poems, notes, and words of inspiration to her two boys, Kofi Elijah and Amir Elisha. She has documented everything from their first steps to their first encounter with racism; from their questions about race to their questions about falling in love. She has borne witness to their tears of joy and pain, their cries of frustration and discovery, and the difficulties that they have encountered growing up black and male. This is her love for them poured out onto the page, a document that traces her (and her husband’s) journey to try and raise happy and healthy black boys in a post-racial America.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,600 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.
Interviews, Webisodes, and Keynotes
1. Webisode: Notes From A Colored Girl 4:42
2. Interview w/ NYFA 20:48
3. Keynote: Metropolitan AME 29:06
4. On Emily Davis 3:54
5. From ASALH 0:46
6. On Emilie Davis’ Journal 1:24
7. On Frederick Douglass 2:06
8. On Free Blacks in Philadelphia 2:05
9. On Exclusivity of Black Elites 1:41
10. On Yellow Fever 0:32
11. On Black Volunteers 0:47
12. On Disease Among the Working Poor 0:38
13. On Tension Between Allen and Rush 0:48
14. On Emilie Davis 1:43
15. 2013 Women’s Leadership Workshop 51:33
Karsonya Wise Whitehead on “Notes From A Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis”
Below please find the webisode/documentary produced by Philadelphia: The Great Experiment (historyofphilly.com) where I talk about Emilie Frances Davis–the free black woman whose Civil War pocket diaries inspired me to write and research her life in my award-winning book, “Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis.” (the book can be purchased on either amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com) Enjoy!
Watch it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6r5vHv0I-Y&list=UURkeGJz9o__2JPGnx0SZqOA