It never fails—whenever we take a car trip of more than 20 minutes all three of my sons fall asleep. Something about the subtle buzz of the car engine and white noise of the road lulls them to sleep every time. I like to take sporadic peeks in my rear-view mirror to amuse myself as I countdown to nap time. It’s become a bit of a running joke in our family, so much that my husband and I often snap “gotcha” photos for our gallery of adorable evidence.
At 7, 8 and 10 years old, our sons have managed to stay in the adorable stage (all the parents understand what I mean). They still talk about SpongeBob’s friends like they are family members and arguing about the best Beyblades is about as complicated as their lives get.
During my quiet time on our car trips, I drift off in a different way. I think about that innocence and when they’ll no longer fit comfortably in the backseat of our family sedan. I worry about when my cute little kids will be perceived as threatening Black men.
The fear is real
I’ve always had this fear—from the day I gave birth to my firstborn. The fear intensified eight years ago when the hashtag #Hoodies4Trayvon started. The murder of Trayvon Martin shook me to my core. That’s when I realized that my children were special to me, but they weren’t especially special. Suddenly, my name was Sybrina Fulton and every mother who’s ever lost a child to overt racism. “A child,” I thought. That adorable stage and its safety net were cut short.
I was broken and scared for my babies and all Black men for that matter. And as far as I was concerned, they were Trayvon Martin. I dressed them in hoodies and took a photo to memorialize the moment and his memory because one day I hoped to show my boys the “progress” we’ve made.
I still hold on to that hope.
The trauma is real
Of course, I’ll never look at hoodies the same way. To this day, I get angry if my boys cover their heads inside a store or if it isn’t raining. That one act is still triggering—resulting in a fearful reprimand that normally ends with intentional eye contact and a desperate “Do you understand?”
There aren’t many things my boys can do without triggering me. Black men in our society abide by a long list of “don’t dos.” It used to be eye contact…now it’s an impossible list ranging from hoodies to jogging. So, don’t be impressed by my “well-behaved” boys. Most mamas take that as a glowing compliment, but mothers who know are screaming on the inside, “They don’t have a choice!” Our kids have been in training since they’ve taken their first steps.
Our police academy training
Black parents tuck away their fears and trauma well. After all, we were once trainees too. I proudly wear the badge of the stereotypical Sergeant Black Mom, because I know just like my Gran and the generation of matriarchs before her, that it keeps the cadets alive.
Still, none of us are immune to the insecurity of failed training or the system falling short of its promise. The Black parents I know all fear the day that our children see the dreaded blur of police lights in their rear-view mirror. The day they put their police academy training to use.
Every Black Parents’ Training Manual
· License, registration and insurance on the dashboard before the officer exits the vehicle
· Ensure your window is already down
· Turn on the light in the vehicle if it’s nighttime
· Hands atop the steering wheel in plain sight…and keep them there. Don’t even rub your eye.
· Speaking of eyes, make respectful eye contact…or don’t if the officer appears particularly power driven
· Keep commentary to a minimum (I will spare the reader this long list of scenarios)
· Know why you’re being detained. If the officer asks, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Your answer is always, “No, did I do something wrong?” Don’t confess to anything
I know this drill well because I’m also a graduate of the police academy. My brother and I were subject to police academy pop quizzes whenever we asked for the car keys. The interrogation went something like this: Where are you going? Charlotte’s house. When will you be back? Before dinner (as if we had a choice). If you get stopped, what’s your only job? To get home safe.
As I write this, I realize that we have passed down police distrust like a family heirloom. Except it’s what none of us want to inherit— a set of rules and survival instincts masquerading as “good manners.” I force these conversations on my children and they’re not even close to driving age yet. Every now and then, I’ll remind my husband (a Black man) of his Miranda rights on his way out the door. Of course, what I really mean is, get home safe. Please.
It’s as exhausting as it sounds. Add to that the frustrating mission of trying to get people to understand that this isn’t a case of victimhood. We aren’t whining—we are angry, tired and desperate to be the last fighting generation. Fighting for our kids to safely walk to the store for some Skittles, to play at the park, to go for a run in their neighborhood…to return home and enjoy a bowl of ice cream after a long day.
I fight every day for those boys in the backseat. Sneaking in lessons at the dinner table, the basketball court, walks to the park, but my favorite time is in the car. As a professional communicator, I know that it’s precious airtime with my captive audience and I’m committed to their success.
I teach them that every human being is special—no matter their race, background, sexual orientation or socio-economic status. They know that in life there are the proverbial good cops and bad cops as applied to real-world examples, including personal experiences. And they understand the rules of engagement that Mom and Dad so diligently reinforce.
I wish everyone could see what I see in my rear-view mirror. Empathetic and tender hearts that will inevitably be broken by the reality of racism…unless we fix it. Face what’s broken and stand still in the discomfort long enough to heal the ills of history. Our generation can collectively grab the wheel and mash the gas to leave systemic racism in our rear-view forever.
In my rear-view mirror, I see sweet representations of hope. The last fighting generation who will root out hate. Three human beings who will help change the world.