By DENENE MILLNER

He’s 6 ft., 250-plus lbs quite imposing next to my 5′ 2 frame and can bench just shy of 300, which means that if he felt like it, he could flick me like a flea. Lucky for me, I’m his stepmother, and at the very least, he withholds his laughter when I crane my neck, fold my arms, put on my mean mug, and tell him, I can still take you.

Out on the football field, though, my 16-year-old son takes no shorts; as a nose tackle, he’s charged with taking on two, sometimes three opposing players at a time. This requires an incredible amount of mental fortitude and swagger both of which my 16-year-old son has in abundance, especially when he’s making his way to the line of scrimmage. Take a good hard look at him on the 50-yard line, and it’s easy to get it twisted: He looks like an angry, aggressive, big, black jock a guy who crushes the opponent on the field, and off the field, probably doesn’t put much effort into much more than football, girls, and black boy shenanigans.

I don’t know if this is what one of his team’s assistant coaches had on his mind recently when he called the boy over to take a look at his class schedule. Mazi handed it to him and shifted nervously from foot to foot, his mind on who knows what. I can only guess what he expected to find, but when that coach looked at Mazi’s schedule and then back up at Mazi, I could see in his eyes that his perception of who my boy is was completely, forever changed.

See, what that coach wasn’t expecting to see is this.

That’s Honors Physics. Honors Algebra. Advanced Placement Psychology. Honors Language Arts. And Mechanical Drafting the first in a series of courses that’ll put Mazi on firm footing toward becoming an architect. Peep the grades: All A’s, and one B. He’s number 44 in a class of 546 and still climbing.

The boy is bad—smart as hell, incredibly sweet, helpful when he wants to be, and pretty easy to get along with. We argue the musical merits of Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, and Rakim, reminisce over our favorite scenes in Biker Boyz, discuss on the regular whether he’s going to Yale, Harvard, or Princeton, and sometimes he even comes to me in confidence to discuss how to negotiate his tenuous relationships with the cute but fickle little girls he dates.

He is a normal boy.

A brilliant boy.

A college-bound boy.

A sweet boy.

A black boy.

And every time that child leaves this house, I fear that someone will look at him, his size, his skin color, his swagger, and see what they want to see, and not who Mazi is. Not a day goes by without us warning him to be respectful, to watch his tone, to be extra vigilant when approaching people in his path. And last week he got his license and bought himself a car with the cash he makes as a lifeguard, which of course means that now when he snatches his keys and heads for the door, I’m a nervous wreck thinking that he’s going to get stopped by the cops.

I have good reason to be nervous for him, you know. In just the past week, three—THREE!—black men have been shot, two killed, by the police. Adolph Grimes, III, 23, was shot 12 times in his back, 14 times total, on New Year’s Day as he made his way to a family party in New Orleans; Oscar Grant, 22, was shot by a transit officer while he lay face down and handcuffed on a train platform; Robbie Tolan, 23, is recovering from gunshot wounds to his liver and lung after being shot in his own driveway by a Houston police officer who accused him of stealing his own car. Of course, stories about the shootings abound, and in Oakland, more than 100 protesters were arrested as they took to the streets to demand justice for Grant. Organizations like The Color of Change are speaking up on behalf of the victims, and demanding we do the same, while radio personalities like Warren Ballentine are using their syndicated radio shows to keep the stories fresh on the minds of black folks.

Still, after the roar dies down, after the police officers get off (they almost always do), after we commit the victims’ names to the long list of young black men who’ve died or been abused at the opposite end of a police officer’s gun/night stick/bathroom plunger (Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Abner Louima. Patrick Dorismond. Michael Carpenter. I could go on and on and on), who will stop the same from happening to my stepson?

How do I protect my normal, brilliant, college-bound, sweet, black boy?

The urge to protect him will never leave me, this is the unfortunate rite of passage of every parent of a black boy. Once they are big enough and old enough to move out into the world without us holding their hands or watching over them, they are going to be vulnerable to the biases and misperceptions and stereotypes and downright hatred of an overwhelming number of cops, transit officers, sheriff’s deputies, and other law enforcement officials who will cross our children’s paths over the next 40/50 years of their lives. I suppose the best we can do is hope that one day Mazi will put in enough years so that he can have the same worry about his own child as we have for him.

And agitate.

And pray.

Note: To add your voice to the petition calling for a proper investigation into the Oscar Grant shooting, click here.

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44 Comments

  1. This is amazing:-)

    He is a wonderful young man because he has wonderful parents!

    How did you become such a great mother?

    (Nicole*)
    {4 or so weeks and Lorenzo comes home to me!}

  2. I have been wanting to write about this, but all the words wouldn’t come. Thank you for finding them for me. Beautiful post! As the mother of a just-turned 7-year-old boy who is only about 50 lbs., 4 ft. and change and also busting straight A’s, I fear, too, so much so that I also fear becoming too protective of him or stifling his spirit like too many other mothers before us have in their efforts to protect their sons from someone else stifling their breath. It isn’t an easy state of being, being the mother of Black boy. Fo sho! Thank you, again, for speaking what was on my heart.

  3. Wow, what an outstanding young man. It takes extremely strong parenting and discipline to produce such great (any race, not just black). He is destined for greatness and I know he is thankful for the support he gets everyday. Great post!!

  4. first, let me say, that handsome young man is going to move mountains…if not with his brains, with his attitude and smile! what a great kid!

    as a mom in a mulitracial fam, i worry soooo much about the discrepancies i see with my girls in others eyes. same fam…same love…different skin color. sad.

    and you, momma, should stand tall knowing you have taught him well…good work!

  5. As the father of this sweet, swaggering black boy, I would like to praise my wife for nailing the angst, the fear, the pride and the powerlessness that keeps the parents of black boys up at night. As usual, MyBrownWifey has scored a touchdown!

  6. Stringz Attached by Ruby

    You go Mazi! And yes, he surely is Ivy League bound! Good post Denene!

  7. Kimberly/Mom in the City

    I hear you. My boys are young now, but I’m already praying for their safety when they get older!

  8. wonderful and important post. thank you. i added my name to the list and forwarded the letter to a gang of folks.

  9. You and your husband must be so proud of him Denene! He is excelling in every area he possibly could. Thank you for letting us “meet” him and get to know him just a bit. This was a lovely written and important post.

  10. Beautiful Post! Beautiful Son. Beautiful Man.

    I too, will add my name and forward the letter.

  11. my boy is only 7, but looking at mazi, i can only hope mine is half the wonderfulness yours is!

  12. Now why you gotta go making me teary eyed this early in the morning??!! Teary eyed for the fact that your son is nothing short of amazing and that I know so many more like him. I did a little happy dance after seeing those grades… I started thinking the “3 big names” before you even said them… and thinking, damn, I wish my high school woulda had classes like that. That schedule is the shit!! And teary eyed for the constant fear/worry/anxiety that black parents have about their sons. Its a really sickening feeling to think about what could happen just because someone has something to prove. Sickening that the fear/worry/anxiety over the young black male is universal. Violence should NEVER be universal!!

    We are still feeling the aftermath of Oscar’s death out here in the Bay, but the officer involved was finally arrested. Now here comes the hard part… and more fear/worry/anxiety that he too, will get off.

    ::sigh::

  13. Glory to God for entrusting you to raise his child. This is a wonderful post and much encouragement to me as the mother of two sons. Bless you!

  14. I sure would not keep calling him boy!

    He’s practically a man now.

  15. Thanks for sharing this!! I called my mom in tears last week after the young man in Texas was shot in his own driveway. There was no denying the hard truth with three shootings in our faces. My heart hurt as I asked if she were nervous when she had my brother, a Black son in America, and thoughts of having my own Brown Boy one day entered my head. It’s important for us to have these conversations and have our voices heard

  16. Must you reduce me to tears every day?! I can’t even imagine what it’s like to raise a black boy. I am nervous as heck about it and I don’t even have children. My husband is a police officer (one of the few good ones) and apparently there are a whole lot of police officers out there who really shouldn’t be on the street. They are scared to death of black men and just get trigger happy whenever they see one. This mess seems to be more prevalent in the south unfortunately. I don’t even want to send my kids to school here after working in Cobb County and seeing how black boys and kids of color in general are treated. I will soon be putting Cobb County on blast on my diversity blog because I just found out some more disturbing news about them. I don’t care if this exposes me because they need to be exposed! Okay, I’m off my soapbox now.

  17. Lisa Maria Carroll

    Your son is incredible, and your fears are founded. I was excited when I started reading your post, but then saddened at the reality that your son’s skin color and stature speaks for him before his intelligence does.

  18. That is great! You have to tell me your secrets. I currently am a step-mom to a 12-year-old. He is about my height, not into sports and is in all honors class as well. I don’t know what I’m going to do when he turns 16.

  19. Denene, I’m so glad you posted this! I’ve been a long-time subscriber to Color of Change’s e-newsletter, and I rely on them, in a sense to keep me aware of the under-the-radar injustices in this country. As older sister to 3 young black boys, and mother to 2 little girls who will no doubt someday be involved with little black boys, my stomach is in constant knots about the Black boy vs. Police issue.

    I warn my brothers all the time about these issues, and even my husband, who’s 29, about the reality that they are feared and targeted, and lumped into the categories of thugs and dope boys, no matter how they dress or sound.

    Awareness, how they present themselves, and faith have to be all up and through our psyches, because it’s real in da field out there!!

    Oh, and don’t sleep on Lupe Fiasco — he get’s busy!!

  20. Jewelry Rockstar

    Thanks for sharing this. Please don’t every fear for his safety. Keep you mind only on good thoughts. The light of God surrounds him, the love of God enfolds him, the power of God protects him, the presence of God watches over him.

    You and daddy keep up the good work, we need more like him.

  21. I am linking this over in my blog. So many times we hear of negative things about our black men..it is about time we showcase something positive.

    God bless..he is an inspiration

  22. okay, I have linked this post to my blog, come check it out sis!

  23. Michele@Integrated Mother

    What an extraordinary young man, and one who is fortunate enough to have a mother who teaches him how to live (at times, literally) in today’s mixed up world.

  24. Beautiful post! As the mother of a young son, you’ve captured my feelings as well. Thank you.

  25. I had to smile when I read your post. My son is 23, 6’2, about 225lbs and has been a big beautiful black boy since grade school. Pray. That’s what I’ve been doing for years. I never worry, I just pray and the Lord guides my babys footsteps. As a matter of fact, he wants to be in Law Enforcement and is studying Criminal Justice. Take a look at my sweet man on my blog when you get a chance.
    Blessings
    Lisa

  26. An amazing post. I’ll be praying with you that he never runs into the kind of people that commit these crimes against black men. More I’ll be praying that the prejudice and abuse of power that causes these killings stops for everyone.

    Your son is incredible! I hope to raise my kids to be half that dedicated and well rounded.

  27. That was an incredible, incredible post- and he is an amazing young man!!!

  28. Thank you for this post it was beautiful and your wonderful son definitely deserves to be showcased and in the spotlight!
    As the proud mother of the most beautiful two year old ever, I often think about the future..HIS future, and hope and pray that he will be prepared for these kinds of challenges when he is older (of course my wish is that these sorts of things won't exist by then.)
    All we can do for now is be the best mother's we know how to be and arm our kids with the necessary knowledge and tools they need to be spectacular human beings!

  29. Jenn @ Juggling Life

    I don't even know how I ended up here today, but this post made me so happy and so sad. So happy that you've raised such a great young man and so sad about the worries you have for him.

    I recently posted something about this issue. I wouldn't normally pimp my own post, but I think you might relate to it.

    http://jugglinglife.typepad.com/juggling_life/2010/03/race-in-america-one-mothers-perspective.html

  30. So glad I've been following your links from Facebook today. Wonderful post. My son's father is a US resident. My son was supposed to join him there after high school. Didn't work out. I can't say I'm sorry because I don't know how I'd sleep with this kind of reality. I don't know all the names of the murdered young men on your list but I remember Amadou. It still hurts a lot.

    There's a part of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings where the young boy stays late at the cinema and the grandmother goes walking into the night to find him. She doesn't know what she'll find, and the fear is palpable as the reader walks with her in the darkness. Being a boy and being black was enough to put your life in constant jeopardy. How much have things changed, really?

    I used to wonder why black Americans were so race conscious (I'm from the Caribbean which is quite multicultural and laid back. Boys don't routinely get killed for being black.) Now that I'm more aware of the realities black Americans face daily I understand somewhat. I even on the receiving end of some racist nonsense while visiting the US and the experience was an eye-opener.

  31. What a great boy you have! I am a new follower of your site and Twitter.

    Look forward to reading more.

    @Rachlwhite

  32. Thank you for this…
    You are an incredible writer and teacher … thank you for highlighting the injustice that still permeates society and for helping to keep us all awake and aware. I am humbled by your words.

  33. Can’t a black man do ANYTHING without getting harassed, abused, or suspected of something?

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