By BASSEY IKPI
From the second my sonogram revealed I was having a boy, I vowed not to dress him like the lame little boys in sailor suits and rompers way past the age where sailor suits and rompers are acceptable. And then I went home and made it clear to all family and friends that all clothes for my baby boy were to be gender neutral. No little baseballs or footballs scattered across a onesie. Nothing that said, “Mommy’s Strong Big Boy.” I didn’t want to politicize my child, but I also wanted to raise him from day one to be aware of the boxes this world wants to place little brown boys in and I wanted him to defy those boxes to be an advocate by example and upbringing. A smiling revolutionary. Someone who would change the world with good in his heart and not a chip on his shoulder, because it is the right thing to do.
Of course all my ideals and grand speeches fell on def ears. My baby boy got “Grandpa’s Little Slugger” and mini-baseball uniforms, blankets spotted with every sporting utensil (or whatever). Everything was blue and blue and blue and boy and boy and gender stereotyped. Instead of having to constantly battle, I finally just let it go. But there was one thing that I’ve held firm for the last four years.
No army anything.
No military regalia.
And most of all, NO GUNS.
People actually respected that request more so than the other ones. There was the one uncle (from Texas) who brought my then 2-year-old a tiny neon-colored water pistol. My son never saw it or any other gun replicas. And despite constant warnings from parents of other boys that my son would use most anything remote controls, dolls, straws as a weapon, Boogie never did that. The coast was clear. I was convinced my son was going to stroll through adolescence without any gun play.
And then came last weekend. Some friends had organized a block party in Addams Morgan in DC, and seeing as Boogie is a high-energy people person who enjoys being outside, I figured this would be a good opportunity for him to run around and wear himself out and play with some other kids while I caught up with some friends. Thing is, when we got to the park, everyone was armed with neon-colored water guns adults and children alike, screaming and having a great time spraying each other with the cool water in the hot sun. I saw my baby boy’s wide eyes get even wider and I groaned to myself. I was hoping he’d be more interested in climbing the jungle gym and giving me a stroke by leaping off the highest point. But nooooo: He looked up at me with those beautiful brown eyes, silently pleading to join in on the fun. I tried to distract him by asking if he was hungry. He shook his head no and then added, “Maybe later.” Then I saw it, those Golden Arches in the distance.
And yes… I did. I distracted him with the promise of a Happy Meal just marched him right on over to Mickey D’s, hoping all the way that whatever toy that was in that magic box would be enough to distract him from the water gun fight down the street. He sat and ate, talking his usual mile a minute, even charming a guy cleaning up after a birthday party into giving him a balloon. Yes! Happy Meal toy and a balloon! Those water guns didn’t stand a chance.
That stupid toy and balloon were soon forgotten, though, when we made our way back to the block party only to find that double the amount of people were there now and those who weren’t dancing were… in an epic water gun battle. Now, though we’ve never spoken about it, somehow Boogie instinctively knew I wasn’t down for the guns. He’s never had one, and I wasn’t about to let him get one, not even on this day. After all, this world is too unkind to little black boys and I really didn’t want him to ever know what it feels like to shoot anything, even if it was just water.
Call me oversensitive but I’m convinced that because of this rule of mine, 20 years from now, we can call my baby boy alive.
Anyway, I turn my attention to a friend and leave Boogie to play with some other children for just a minute when he wanders back over to me with a neon-colored water gun in his hand: “Look, mommy, I have a water blaster.” Water blaster. He didn’t even know the word gun. My heart sank as I took the piece from Boogie and gave it back to the person who’d given it to him. “Thank you so much but I don’t allow him to play with guns,” I said simply. As I was saying that, my son’s body language completely changed. His face fell and his body sort of slumped into a physical, full bodied frown. It broke my heart. I weighed the fact that literally everyone in this place had one and the fact that I swore that he would never get to play with guns. I considered the fact that he called it a “water blaster” and decided, “OK, fine. He can play with it here. But only here.”
The other parent apologized for not checking with me which was really cool. Before I let Boogie run off to play, I told him that this was only for fun and he shouldn’t aim it at anyone who didn’t have one too. No grownups unless they’re playing. And if someone says stop, you stop. He gave me an “Okay, mommy.” Then he tried to shoot the thing. My boy had no idea how to even hold it. It was clumsy and awkward in his tiny hands. He finally figured out which finger was supposed to go on the trigger and the best way to aim and hold it and then he was off. I watched him play with some other kids and he was less shooting and more flinging the water in the gun at people. Another little boy showed him the correct way to shoot and, even as I turned away and continued talking, I could hear him laughing and screaming with joy and having a great time. When I turned my head to make sure he wasn’t climbing on anything or anyone he shouldn’t, I saw my sweet, little baby boy, coming down the slide with two water guns in each hand shooting.
He went from a “what’s this” to an assassin in 10 minutes.
All of a sudden, he’s Rambo.
I watched him leap from behind poles and attack. He stuck the pistol in the waistband of his jeans and climbed the jungle gym so he could rain water on an “enemy’s” head. It was scary.
I called him over to see if he was OK and he trotted over smiling and soaked to the skin.
“You all right, buddy?”
“Yes. I’m having fun. I have to go back!”
He runs off and I lamely yell, “Well! Don’t shoot anybody in the back! If you have to shoot make sure you shoot them from the front!”
What am I saying? I knew I was taking it all too seriously. It was just fun and games, but with all the attacks on black men and children accidentally shooting each other, and children shooting each other on purpose, I’m just not comfortable with him and guns. I’m not comfortable with him being comfortable with guns. But I have to find a way to get over it.
I watched him for the rest of the time we were out. Then in the car, I tried to have a conversation with him about safety and not touching one unless I’m around. Somewhere between my explaining to him who Amadou Diallo was and what the NRA is, my little boy fell asleep.
He’s 3 1/2 and he just had the time of his life playing water games with other children. I watched him in the rear view mirror, his tiny head slumped to the side, still clutching his “water blaster.” He had a slight smile on his face and his T-shirt was just starting to dry. I put my attention back on the road and decided that all my hard fast rules needed a bit of tweaking. I can’t protect him forever. I can only make sure he leaves with enough information that he makes choices that he can be proud of.
And, I decided, I need to hide that water gun before he wakes up.
About our MyBrownBaby contributor:
I am so pleased to introduce Bassey Ikpi’s “Bringing Up Boogie” as a new weekly feature, exclusively at MyBrownBaby. Bassey Ikpi is a Nigeria-born, Oklahoma-bred, PG County-fed, Brooklyn-led writer/poet/neurotic who is the single mother of an amazing man-child, Elaiwe Ikpi. She’s half awesome, a quarter crazy and 1/3rd genius… the leftover bit is a caramel creme center. A strong advocate of mental health awareness, Bassey is currently working on a memoir about living with mental illness and producing Basseyworld Live, a stage show that infuses poetry and interactive panel discussions about everything from politics to pop culture. Get more Bassey at Bassey’s World.
Photo credit: Jenster181 via Flickr