|"SunMoonDome" Adam Leventhal|
It's not what you might first think of. It's not that they will soon be men and need to know about the changes in their bodies. It's not about how they relate to girls, or about safe sex - although those things are important to talk about with young male children, too.
"The talk," for African-American mothers like writer Donna Britt, is to teach your sons how to avoid being killed by the police in America.
She spoke of how difficult it is to tell your child - your cute, adorable, mischievous, rambunctious little boy - that as they grow taller and stronger and their voices deepen, they will invariably encounter some people who will fear them just for what they look like - and this puts them in danger.
Her two sons, grown now, spoke about their memories of "the talk." The older son spoke of how he felt there were rules he had to adhere to that his other friends -white, Asian, Latino - didn't have. And not only that they didn't have those rules - his friends didn't even seem aware the rules existed. He talked about riding in a friend's car and being stopped by police in Beverly Hills. His friend was sharp with the cop, raised his voice, argued. The man on the radio told how he sat still in the car, watchful, stricken with a growing fear and thinking, "Hey, c'mon, man, remember, you've got your black friend in the car."
If you think this is perhaps overly alarmist, too racially sensitive, perhaps you have a point. But on the other hand, if you are a parent, you would do anything to protect your child from the worst thing than can happen. Donna Britt knows what she's talking about - as she was growing up, her teenaged brother was killed by police in what she called "inexplicable circumstances."
Her second son is named after her brother. She spoke of how "the talk" evolves to fit circumstances. "My son is in track," she said, "and we have a rule - no running in the neighborhood."
American parents fear for their children at all ages, and as they grow more independent, our fears shift. The fear of stranger abduction may be over-blown in America, but nevertheless, we all teach our children how to be safe while in public. Don't talk to strangers. Don't get into strange cars. If someone approaches you aggressively, shout, fight, run to get away.
I am the mother of a son who is now 23 years old. Like most kids, he heard these lessons from me, from teachers, from other parents.
But he did not have to learn when he became a young man, that he might by shot dead if he runs, shouts, fights back.
When my son was in high school, he hung out with a group of kids, and since we lived out in Topanga, many miles from his school, he and his Topanga friends had a lot of weekend sleepovers for their friends from LA. One of these kids was Jamal, a skinny, long-legged rambunctious kid with a great talent for dramatic comedy, crazy acrobatics, and play-acting. Just like the rest of the kids, he was loud, whooping, running, shoving, tumbling, falling, full of energy. I have no doubt that Jamal is now grown and somewhere doing something creative.
But I think about Jamal now that Trayvon Martin's death is in our minds. As a black kid hanging out in predominantly white Topanga - was he always watching himself, holding himself apart, careful about how he behaved?
A recent rash of holiday-time burglaries here in Topanga motivated my neighborhood to start a Watch Program. We met with officers from the LA County Sheriff, posted signs, and exchanged phone numbers and email addresses so any strange occurrences in our street could be reported. So far, it's been quiet, but at meetings some folks did express concerns about strange cars parking on the street, or about the guys who pick bottles and cans out of our bins on trash days.
My son has been away at school for several years now, but he came back to spend the holidays with us. Now he is a runner, and each morning he went out to run our streets and mountain trails. It never occurred to me to worry that he could be in danger of being killed because someone saw him running through the streets - and because he is white, he probably wasn't.
Think for a minute what this means in our country. Some American families have to counsel their young boys against the chance of being shot dead while pursuing their daily lives. And other families don't even have to think about it. How can there be such a divide?
I have a wonderful and talented co-worker who is an African-American mother of two darling sons - one is 18 months old, the other 2 and a half. Let's do all we can so that in ten years time, it won't be necessary for her to sit them down for "the talk."
UPDATE: I see there are some folks who feel the same as I do. Jenn at Juggling Life. Christina at Trees & Flowers & Birds.