What Do I Tell My Sons?



By NaShonda Cooke

Those are the words my mother use to tell my siblings and I all the time. I am the oldest of five children (including 2 brothers), and mom was adamant about us finding someone who could help us get back home to her safely.

Of all the lessons my mom taught me to teach my own children, this is not one I am comfortably able to honor. I am the mother of two girls, but I am also a veteran teacher who is the director of >>Men of Honor. Through my school district the group serves the needs of African American male students. I address their needs socially, behaviorally, and academically with a direct connection from the classroom to their homes. We talk about everything from drugs, to gangs, to messages sent via TV and music. And we talk about police officers. We talk about the law. I’ve had several officers come and serve as mentors during breakfast and speak to the boys about how to respectfully and peacefully interact with those in roles of authority. I make sure all of this happens but I cannot say to them “If you ever need help, find a police officer.” I just can’t say that to my sons.

Recent violent events that have happened for the past several weeks have me at a standstill. I’m reading the newspaper and watching news reports and I feel like I’m starring in the movie Groundhog Day , except it’s nowhere nearly as funny as Bill Murray’s day. I’m tired of seeing the headline “Unarmed black man shot and killed by police….” Based on Celisa Calacal’s >>article for Think Progress, “194 Black Americans have been killed by police so far this year … These numbers do not include the fatal shooting of a protester in Charlotte, North Carolina on Wednesday, who remains unidentified.”

We all know this is nothing new. The only difference is technology is available to make it public knowledge, and the brutal moments are available for all of us to see. It reminds me of how a majority of the country didn’t know what was going on in the South in the 1950s and 1960s until TV caught a glimpse of it. Remember >>Emmett Till ? If it weren’t for technology and the courage of his mother the world would not have none how ugly and unjust racism really is. Now we have it in color.  Just like the  ugliness of our country’s past,  white America can no longer deny what the other side of the story is. Here we are…again.

All of this is happening in the 21 st century during the time when I am a mother-figure to 50 African American boys. What do I say when I can’t say “Find a police officer”? I can’t even say make sure you are being respectful and follow the law to them, because it doesn’t seem to matter. They may end up dead anyway! WHAT DO I SAY?!

I asked several friends for advice. What are you saying to your sons? Most feel at a loss but are trying to use this as a hard life lesson; a teachable moment. I asked them about their conversations at home. How are your boys responding to what’s going on?  Here is what other mothers are saying around the state about the recent events.


B: “Again I find myself stumbling, trying to find the words to explain to my children what has happened, why again Black men have been killed by those sworn to protect them. Again I talk with them about being white allies, about protecting and standing with our friends. I try to answer their questions about why the world treats them differently from their teammates and neighbors. Again my words feel sorely inadequate. And I think of mothers of color trying to have these conversations with their children. As sad, angry, and tired as I am, it is nothing in comparison to the pain and despair friends have shared that they are feeling. Enough is enough.

K: “There is never any excuse to take another human beings life.  When I look at my child I can’t imagine being scared for him to walk out the door every day.  It’s wrong, and until we stand with our African American brothers and sisters and say NO MORE… We cannot truly call America a country of freedom and equality.”

M: “I’ve stop avoiding the news with my children. Used to, I would shield them from the killings and the protests, until I realized that my black mama friends didn’t have that luxury. So we started talking about it. We started talking about how people with brown and black skin are often unfairly judged and targeted. We talk about their privilege as white children in a white family, and the responsibility they have to do better. To speak up. To love all people. I feel powerless to change the world and our society, but I have all the power to teach my sons to love, respect, and advocate for their black and brown brothers – and to never say silent.”

C: “Our intelligence or lack thereof doesn’t even matter….but….our #blacklivesmatter. You know, I tell my 15 year old son every day that it doesn’t matter that you speak intelligently, wear your “britches” properly, have always made honor roll, don’t like rap music or sports, or that you are taking high school and college classes at the same time. What matters is your skin is black and I want you to make it back home every day.”

S: “I’m heartbroken.”

D: “Honestly, I’m just sick and tired…I’m at lost for words…it’s beginning to be sickening… Actually it’s been that way …”

J: “Yes I have 3 sons, all of color…My sons’ lives matter”

L: “I kept both of my sons home from school for an in-depth conversation about racism after police in separate states shot and killed two more black men. What do I say to them? Everything. Everything I know, or any new thing I learn, is something they hear about directly or indirectly by overhearing the conversations I have with others. I don’t whisper about it—no one is colorblind in this house. As a white mother of white sons, I’ve always felt that any effort I made to shield my children from the real life experience of the classmate in the desk next to them would result in another generation repeating mistakes. I refuse to be complicit in raising uninformed men.

My youngest son, 7, has always fought against directed conversations about racism, even though he’d engage on his own if I didn’t push him. Recently I realized he felt responsible for the actions of all white people, throughout history. We’re working on it, and it’s hard for him, sure. However, it’s not dead-over-a-toy-gun-hard, so we’re staying the course.  

My oldest son, 9, is fascinated by listening to adults talk, so in addition to things I tell them directly (and after he dug out a 1930s version of Tom Sawyer two summers ago, he’s been told a lot), he’s also listens to the regular conversations I engage in about it. His grasp of how the past informs the presents blows me away, and reinforces my decision to be upfront about it all.”

K: I am the mother of 3 young black men; 21, 14, & 11. I AM weary!! I am mad! I am frustrated! I feel powerless! I am scared for my sons anytime they are not with me. WHY?!?!! Turn on the news. I have had to tell my 11 yo too many times in the past 18-24 months of what not to do when approached by an officer or a person not of color when out and about in the community when he is not with me or his dad that it is really tragic. He questions me constantly about “why do the police hate us? I can’t answer him. I try and have to stop. He said something so seriously Sunday that I cried. I was watching the news about the bombings and he came in and stood there, quietly, and then he said, “Whoever is doing this won’t die when they catch’em ’cause they won’t be black like me.” What do you say to that, NaShonda??? I just held him and cried.

T: I’m tired of having the same conversation with my children. I’m tired of having the same conversation with my friends. I’m tired. Enough is enough.

My friends feel my pain. I am tired of this too. It’s absolutely ridiculous to know that the color of someone’s skin determines if they are unarmed or not. Skin color is not a weapon!

These conversations we are having are incredibly difficult. I just get so depressed and I feel helpless. But now my helplessness is turning into anger. I am tired of having these conversations with my Men of Honor, with my sons. I hate that they know the names Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Treyvon Martin, a continuing list of boys who look like them and men who look like their fathers, uncles because those men died at the hands of an officer. I want them to go to sleep with positive images in their heads. Images of the possible future they have. They can become physicians, attorneys, educators, politicians, anything they want. I also want them to build positive relationships with those who are sworn to protect them. You’d think neither one of those goals or accomplishments is going to be successful.

Well, I refuse to give up. I refuse to allow my students to give up on themselves and this world they are destined to succeed in. I will continue to empower them. They will know that they are beautiful creatures with beautiful destinies that await them. They will not only live a long successful life but the will also give back and build up their community. I encourage my fellow sisters, mommas, grandmas, cousins,  and aunties to do the same. Love these precious gifts until they love themselves. Tell them they are appreciated, respected, and needed. Tell them you have their back! Someone has to.

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