When radio personality Carol Daniel and her husband, Patrick Daniel, learned she was pregnant with a boy, her first reaction was sheer joy. "I had had nightmares that I would not get married or that I would not have a child," she said.
But that joy quickly turned to anxiety. "My first thought was, 'I'm having a black man.' "
Daniel’s comments hung over an audience of mostly women — many mothers themselves — who listened recently as Daniel and others told stories of teaching their young sons the painful and ugly truth of life: that being black in America can cost you your dignity, your self-confidence and, in some cases, your life.
Daniel and the eight other mothers who joined her are African American. Those listening in the audience were a racially diverse group.
The speakers shared how they explained to their sons, usually starting at a young age, about the unfairness of life and how they would have to comport themselves for the rest of their lives to stay alive.
The conversation at the Missouri History Museum was “Mother-2-Mother, A Conversation With Black Mothers to White Mothers About 'The Talk' With Their Black Sons.”
The event began as an idea in the mind of Christi Griffin, founder and president of The Ethics Project. In response to the shooting death of Michael Brown and the protests that followed, she worked with the YWCA of Metropolitan St. Louis and the Missouri History Museum to set up the program. Each mother shared her stories with a crowd of about 250 — most of them mothers, some with their children, and also a few men.
Griffin began: “Going back to slavery, mothers have been having talks with their sons about what they could or could not do; where they could or could not go; what they could or could not say. And we are still having these conversations.”
Where Griffin left off, Marlowe Thomas-Tulloch continued.
Thomas-Tulloch is an early-childhood educator. She spoke about having “the talk” with her grandson, who was a student a at Normandy High School. He knew Michael Brown, who graduated from the school just months ago. “He was a good dude,” the grandson told her.
“The first time we had the talk, it was too hard,” Thomas-Tulloch said. “I had to be honest about the truth: If the police stop you, you need to be humble. You need to be prepared to be humiliated. Take your hands out your pockets. I would rather pick you up from the police department, than from the morgue.”
The others shared similar stories. None of the speakers was the stereotypical "single black mother." They came from varied professions; most raised their children in two-parent households.
Repercussions of Slavery
The Rev. Traci Blackmon is pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant. She has a daughter and two sons.
“One wears locs down his back and the other wears a crew cut. They are gorgeous, brilliant and strong. But they are black men in America.”
Recounting “the talk” she had with her sons, she told them, “I’d rather wear you out myself, rather than have police beat you later.”
“It was clear to me that we were seeing the repercussions of slavery,” Blackmon said.
While she was growing up in the South, she said, “What I saw was black mothers and fathers teaching their children what they thought (their sons) needed to know. They were raising the working class.”
“The white boys never got in trouble for speaking their minds. Black boys were told: ‘You don’t contradict an adult; you don’t yell at an adult, you stay where I tell you to stay.'
“Meanwhile, white parents were teaching their children to express themselves. They were training the owning-class. Not saying it was intentional, but it was a mindset that has been passed down through the generations.”
Blackmon’s sons attended Christian Brothers College and Saint Louis University high schools. Though, she said, they never gave her any trouble, she lived in fear whenever they left home.
“Whenever they are away, I pray until they get home. If they are late getting home, I panic.
“They’ve even been stopped because they ‘don’t look like they live in our neighborhood,' stopped because their music was too loud. Stopped because someone robbed a store nearby, and they ‘fit the description.’ They know the deal.”
The phrase, “fit the description” rang true with other mothers on the panel, and many in the audience. While black mothers nodded their heads in agreement, white mothers looked shocked.
“We teach them to be afraid of ‘the system,’ ” Blackmon said. "I would like to say that if you’re stopped by a black cop, you’re safe, but that’s not the truth.
“Every policeman is not bad,” she added. “But if it is your child, you can’t take that risk. You have to have ‘the talk,’ because they have to stay alive.”
Riisa Renee Easley told of how she prepped her 19-year-old son: “Life is not fair. Pull your pants up; tighten you belt. You will never speak like that to an adult,” she told him.
“I have to teach my child to understand that ... there are consequences to every single choice you make.”
“My son, in our south county neighborhood, has been stopped just down the street from our home,” she said.
“'Where are you? Where are you going? What business do you have in this neighborhood',” the police ask him.
“He learned early about 'the description' that he constantly fit. I would see my young man come home with rage and pain and anger. I have to be the one to tell him, ‘Honey, I know it isn’t fair. But I’d rather have you come home angry, that not come home at all,’ ”
Kimberly Norwood is a professor at Washington University’s Law School. The mother of three sons and two daughters, Norwood told how she’s had “the talk" with all of her kids.
“My 15-year-old daughter loves the mall. She’s stopped leaving stores, for shoplifting. It’s happened at least four times. Never has she had one thing.
“So our daughters have this issue too, not just the boys.
When she started at Washington University 1990, she was hearing from her African-American male students that no longer was it just "driving while black" that got them stopped by police, she said. “Now we have to deal with ‘walking on campus while black,’ and ‘walking in The Loop while black,' " they told her.
Norwood’s family lives in Creve Coeur. She said she contacted the city’s police chief about nine years ago, when she and her husband were about to leave town for an anniversary celebration. Her children were being left in the care of their grandmother. Norwood's twin boys, at age 15, were going to be walking to school, and “I didn’t want to have to worry about them being picked up or being harassed.”
“It was humiliating for me. I was begging (the police), in a way: ‘Don’t touch them. Just let them get back home,’ ”
When her sons were old enough to drive, she admonished them to keep their driver's license and insurance card on the seat beside them, just in case they were ever stopped by police. When Griffin spoke earlier, she said she had told her son the same thing.
Norwood continued. "Don't make any fast movements" that might give an officer reason to think they had any bad intentions, the attorney mother said she told her twin sons, who are now 22.
"I remind them of this, every time they go out."
Assata Henderson was next to describe having “the talk.”
“It starts when they are very young. They have ‘the talk’ when they are working on cars with their fathers and their uncles, who tell them the same stories and tell them how to handle the situations.
“My middle son was so upset. ‘What do they want us to do? We try to do everything right and they still shoot us down like dogs,' ” she said.
“We love our children and want them to come home alive. ‘The talk’ is about surviving in a racist reality.
Henderson asked the white mothers in the audience, “while our talk with our sons is about surviving, what are you, the mothers of police officers, judges and CEOs talking about with your sons?”
Amy Hunter is director of racial justice with the YWCA of Metro St. Louis and one of the co-conveners of the event. She has three sons and one daughter.
“With our sons, ‘the talk’ is like our ‘rape talk’ that we have with our daughters,” she said.
“We have to pay attention to the way violence happens. What we can do minimize violence?”
She shared a story of her when one of sons was 12, and was stopped, questioned and frisked by police, five houses away from home, because he “fit the description.” He was confused about what had happened, Hunter said.
“My shirt was tucked in, I was wearing a belt. It was a preppy shirt. Is this because I’m black?” her son asked.
“I said, 'Probably yeah.' He starts crying. When he asked how long this kind of discrimination would last," Hunter said, "I started crying. I said,' for the rest of your life.' ”
Speaking to the white women in the audience, Hunter asked for them to join together with black mothers in working for change.
“We missed the moment (to work together) on the Suffrage movement, and we missed it again with the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). Let’s not miss again the chance to work together across the color line.” Hunter said.
“Let’s do something different now,” she said.
Leah Gunning Francis is an assistant professor of Christian education at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves. She said all young black males are at risk of physical, emotional and intellectual harm because of negative encounters and interactions with law enforcement and other authority figures.
The 'Education Talk'
It was first Francis, and then Daniel, of KMOX Radio, who took the conversation in another direction.
"My 'talk' has been solely about education," Daniel said.
She described the injustices and indignities black boys, like hers — and mine — have suffered in their classrooms. She told how her son, at 13, complained of being singled out and disciplined more harshly for minor misbehaviors than his white classmates.
I share parts of each of these women’s stories. I, too have a son, who on the streets and in school was judged — prejudged — for his skin color. Their pain is my pain.
This “conversation” was more like a series of monologues. Each woman could have spoken longer, but the two-hour session came to a close before any dialogue could begin. Originally, Griffin had hoped time would allow for responses from the audience and then a call to action.
But because the story-telling ran long, Griffin is planning a follow-up session, were mothers of all colors can break into small groups, so that all can speak, and next steps can be planned. The next event is scheduled for 6 - 8 p.m., Monday, Oct. 13, again at the Missouri History Museum.
Linda Lockhart is the outreach specialist for St. Louis Public Radio.