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An excerpt from “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America”

February 10, 2015

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.

Dear boys:

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.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2015 7:07 pm

    Great letter. Look forward to meeting you. Meeting with your dad on Thursday. I’m founder of The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project. As you know, Burroughs was an advocate for the views and vision of Frederick Douglass. The project is based on Douglass’ quote: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. A study of Burroughs’ life and works suggest that she would say: “We’re all in this intersection together, maybe with different ideas and views, trying to get to the same place”. Therefore, we need a vibrant and continuous dialogue. Keep up the good work, as your are contributing productively to the dialogue. Colonel (ret.) Jim Wyatt

    • March 18, 2015 1:09 am

      Good evening Colonel Wyatt: my father spoke very highly of you and I would like to connect with you when you have a moment! Thank you for your kind words. Karsonya

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