Growth, they say, lies in the careful balance between reality and possibility, an ever-delicate balance between what is and what is possible. As a mother, you want to teach your child about reality, about the ways of the world—all the while making sure that you nurture the dreams you see in his eyes, the sense of possibility you see in the careful way he leans on his guitar, the focus he brings to his artwork, to that poem he just wrote, to the thousandth repetition of his hook jump. But society makes a point of reminding you at a well-timed pace…

How do you embrace both reality and possibility when reality is so stark, so vile, so unbearable, when the reality negates your very existence, your very right to BREATHE, dehumanizes you and discards you by the wayside like the scum of the earth, the wretched of the earth?! How do I tell my 21-year-old son that his reality can be the reality of a human being making his way through life, that his dreams can be as limitless as the sky, or as small as he cares to make them, simply because he is a full-fledged human being with inalienable rights, and that society sees him exactly the way I see him: as a bright, handsome, warm-hearted young man? How do I assure him that he will not be hunted down on some road and shot like a rabbit, or choked in plain sight, or jailed upon sight for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, just because somebody decided so? 

My son graduated on May 16. He sent us some pictures, but I have not been able to post them. I haven’t been able to share that beautiful news with the strong community of friends who saw him grow up. I did not do the happy mama dance or brag on him for receiving the Orr Fellowship for the next 2 years: 100 finalists out of a pool of 1,371 applications from all over the country. We are so proud of the young man he has become. Yet, I could not bring myself to rejoice freely as I watched pictures of Ahmaud Arbery on television. The picture of Ahmaud wearing a suit—probably his prom picture—reminded me too much of my son. That same gorgeous, velvety-brown skin, and those eyes that held all the promises to come, all the possibility. It was my son on the screen, it was my son being shot on tv, and I couldn’t shake that image from my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ahmaud’s mother, Trayvon Martin’s mother, Michael Brown’s mother, Breonna Taylor’s mother, Eric Garner’s mother, and right here in State College, Osaze’s mother, my friend Iyun, and all those other mothers who had to bury their children.

The public lynching of George Floyd a few days ago brought a level of despair in my heart and my soul that I am unable to describe. The only words I have are borrowed from a gentleman who spoke at a rally in Central Park yesterday: I am not okay, I’m not okay today…it’s too much”

The too much has pushed a silent community to the edge, people taking to the streets to protest in the face of a killer disease we’ve all been sheltering from, braving anything, even death, to be heard. “Our riots,” Dr King said, “are the language of the unheard.” No one condones riots, but solely focusing on them makes us forget the devastating consequences of systemic racism and the aching legacy of racial inequality in this country and in the world.

I have not seen my son since he graduated. We’re about to go see him, to help him settle in his new apartment and get a car. But all I can think about are the many things we must remind him off: if he’s stopped by the police, what he must do, how he must act, all the things he must avoid, all the things he must not do, the places he must avoid… Futile efforts, I know! I watch myself becoming the dream killer, the wing clipper, the possibility thief. Young men stifled in a desperate effort to preserve their lives, to not be handcuffed or murdered when they enter THIS society.

I don’t know yet what I’ll say to my son when we see him next week. I will not hide my hurt or my pain, nor will I let despair weigh on our time together. I will simply be in the reality of what is, while reminding him that dreams are dreamt in the darkest of all times, and that fights are fought in the most hopeless conditions. I will remind him to protect his mind, fiercely, that sacred space that can never be incarcerated. I will remind him, as Nelson Mandela told us, to make sure that no matter what, his choices reflect his hope and not his fears. Perhaps I will simply hold him tight, hold that precious being close to my heart like a mother holds her precious baby. I will hold him like all those mothers who can’t hold their babies anymore. I will hold him and try very hard not to hear George Floyd calling out for his own mother as he expired his last breath under a murderous knee!

Every one of you out there: watch your children breathe, watch that natural rise and fall of their breath, watch your sons or your husbands asleep on a sofa, watch the rhythmic movement of their chests, and cherish it. And as you do, remember that not all black mothers have that opportunity anymore.

Author: Professor Angele Kingue, Professor of French and Francophone Studies, Bucknell University. Lewisburg, PA

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