Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Within black families, hard truths told to sons amid Ferguson unrest

By Michael Martinez, Stephanie Elam and Erica Henry, CNN
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0409 GMT (1209 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Ferguson, Missouri, riots renew painful talks parents give young sons
  • Fatal shootings of young black men complicates how families raise a son
  • 'I stress to him his appearance is important,' dad tells son, 15
  • 'Why should I be afraid to walk down the street?' teen asks

(CNN) -- From parent to son, uncle to nephew, grandparent to grandson, there's a raw, private conversation being re-energized in America in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Missouri.

It's an intimate lecture that most Americans won't know, but parents like Kelli Knox of Southern California know it too well because it begins the loss of their children's innocence and exposes them to a painful national truth that's increasingly become a matter of life or death.

As challenging as parenting is, black families in particular are assuming more burdens: At kitchen tables and in living rooms, they hold honest talks with their boys about how life can be different for them and what they ought -- and ought not -- to do in public, especially near police.

10 rules for surviving police encounters
Trayvon Martin's dad: 'It takes me back'
What black parents tell their sons

Think twice about wearing a hoodie. Pull up your pants. Shut your mouth around police. Swallow your pride. Don't drive with more than three friends. And keep your hands where they can be seen.

These are just a few examples of the rules that parents tell their young black sons -- and sometimes daughters -- about how to stay safe. Though stark and blunt, the admonishments follow a trend of violence that touches upon the most fiery issue in America: race.

The 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the 2013 police shooting of a North Carolina man who was apparently seeking only help and this week's riots against Ferguson police -- these sensational cases all involve shooting victims who were unarmed, young black men.

My son knows he could be Trayvon

"I've had this conversation with my son since middle school on how to behave," said Knox, 46, of Inglewood, California. "When the police come, this is what you do. This is how you speak to them. Do not get into a power struggle. Listen to them. If they are trying to give you a ticket, get the ticket. Because it's not worth it. It's just not worth it."

A 'sad' day and time

Whether at reunions, picnics, or the mall, families and friends make it a point to apprise sons, nephews or grandsons of what Knox calls "the rules of engagement" for young black men when they encounter police or other figures of authorities.

Robert Spicer tells his eldest child, Crishawn, 15, to be aware of even how he dresses.

"I stress to him his appearance is important, the way he conducts himself, the way he talks to people," said Spicer, 44, a tow truck driver who lives Los Angeles.

His wife, Lashon, 42, said the California couple worry about their four children every day.

"You don't know what's going to happen between dropping them off and them coming home," she said.

Isaiah Paysinger, 15, (right) with brother Zion, 14
Isaiah Paysinger, 15, (right) with brother Zion, 14

Brent Paysinger, a Church of God in Christ pastor in south Los Angeles, and his wife, Andrea, constantly urge caution with son Isaiah, 15.

"Basically you have to separate yourself in this day and time. It's sad but it's true. They profile you just by first appearances," Andrea Paysinger said.

Raising Black Children in America
On the streets in Ferguson
Police name cop who shot Michael Brown

Such talks have taken on greater urgency in the wake of the Ferguson police shooting and killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown last week, one expert said. Witnesses say Brown was holding his hands in the air when he was fatally shot.

The hashtags #IGotTheTalk and #IGaveTheTalk trended on Twitter this week, with parents and children sharing on social media when they had such tough conversations.

"Here we go again" was the reaction of education expert Steve Perry about the Ferguson incident.

"We have another instance in what an African-American man loses his life because of something that seems like it went awry," Perry said.

As a principal of a nationally recognized magnet school in Connecticut and an African-American father, Perry said it's important for parents to explain to youths the expediency of just getting home safely.

"If you have a black son, and you're not taking the time to explain to him what he needs to do when he's out in the streets, how he needs to dress and how he needs to act and explain to him that he actually does have a target on his back -- then you are not doing your job as a parent," Perry said.

Kelli Knox and son Joseph
Kelli Knox and son Joseph

Other experts say other minority families should hold such a talk with their children.

"The bottom line is we are living in a post-Trayvon Martin, post-Zimmerman trial world, and any parent of color -- Latino or African-American parent -- must have these conversations with their children. It is just really reality," said Sonny Hostin, a former federal prosecutor and legal commentator. "It is the same conversation I think that many parents have about stranger danger; the same conversation that parents have with their children about look both ways before you cross the street."

A case study

Perry recalled how he, too, was racially profiled by police. He offered the account as a case study in how black youths should respond in such scenarios.

"When the police pull you over, you have to do everything you can do to mitigate the situation to lower the level to just get home," Perry said. "I've been in that situation myself. I was riding home with my wife and kids and I had a hoodie on and I guess I was driving something nice, that I shouldn't have been driving faster than the police thought I should've been driving, and I was pulled over and the police officer got real slick. He said some things to me that I thought were completely inappropriate.

"I said absolutely nothing. I looked forward. I made no fast movements. I did everything I could to just get my family home," Perry said.

Perry later complained to the officer's boss and received a written apology, he said.

Perry blamed a broad trend for the way young black men are treated.

"Black males are criminalized from the time we enter the 'system,' and I'm talking about school," Perry said. "From the time children enter the system, African-American males are the most suspended, most punished of any group. Period."

How children react

The guidance can be difficult for youngsters to swallow.

Crishawn Spicer, a 15-year-old high school sophomore (left), with siblings Kaila, 3, Cameron, 12, and Kyle, 5.
Crishawn Spicer, a 15-year-old high school sophomore (left), with siblings Kaila, 3, Cameron, 12, and Kyle, 5.

"I think sometimes I am an African-American man, young man, why should I be afraid to walk down the street and get discriminated against because of the color I am, or the way I am dressed or the way I look?" said Crishawn Spicer, 15.

Not too surprisingly, the boys may not fully appreciate their parents' caution.

Sometimes, they accept it sheepishly.

"My parents really care about me. That's what they are there for," said Isaiah Paysinger, 15. "Some stuff, me being a teenager, I think they are too overbearing on, but this is for my safety. And with this whole situation, the young man who got killed, I see why."

Knox's son, Joseph, who's now 26, declined to be interviewed by CNN at first. The subject was too emotional, and he suggested that sometimes his mother may be worrying too much.

Then he changed his mind about the interview.

"I think she has a right to worry. She's a little bit too worried, but I don't blame her," Joseph Knox said.

Trim, athletic, sporting a type of goatee known as the balbo, Joseph Knox said he is a law-abiding working professional. He's a technician in the hyperbaric chamber at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The parental talks, he now says, are "very necessary."

"I don't look like trouble. I don't dress like it. I went to college and graduated, and I still have problems like the next kid," Joseph Knox said.

In one example, he was outside his house with his girlfriend when police asked him what he was doing.

"I'm clearly talking to my girlfriend and he says, 'Why don't you go crip walk back up into your house,'" he said.

He said nothing, though his initial response was to "go back and forth with him," he said.

"They want to provoke you but ... my mom and my family told me and taught me how to deal with them," Joseph Knox said. "A kid who maybe didn't have the same kind of family, he's going to go argue with the police like it was the next man and that's where trouble comes.

"It helps to have parents or family to give you an education on how to deal with that stuff," Joseph Knox said.

Part of complete coverage on
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT)
Not knowing exactly where her ancestors come from has always bothered Kelly Wallace, but she's heartened to learn about some of the famous cousins she never knew she had.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Many superstar athletes from Michael Vick to Tiger Woods were ultimately forgiven by fans and the public. Could Ray Rice also get a second chance?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
The indictment of NFL star Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges has revealed sharp differences in cultural, regional and generational attitudes toward using physical force to discipline kids.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
cara reedy
The world often treats little people like Cara Reedy as less than human. She's learned to stand up for herself and shout back.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
The unheard voices of domestic abuse spoke up on CNN iReport when Rihanna's story of abuse came to light. In light of the Ray Rice controversy, we decided to bring back these stories that are still just as powerful as the day they were told.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
More than 3 million children witness domestic violence every year, and the damage can last a lifetime.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
As media outlets Monday circulated video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator, many wondered why the woman -- now his wife -- could remain with him.
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1652 GMT (0052 HKT)
The ways mother-daughter book clubs can help empower girls are the focus of a new book, "Her Next Chapter."
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1344 GMT (2144 HKT)
Colleges are working to prevent sexual assault by educating students on affirmative consent, or only "yes means yes."
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
A mom questions if she wants her daughters seeing a "sado-masochistic relationship, dressed up as a Hollywood love fantasy?"
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
In 2014, why is society still so incredibly uncomfortable with public breastfeeding? Kelly Wallace gets to the root of the controversy.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
Seven years ago, Barbara Theodosiou, then a successful entrepreneur, stopped going to meetings, leaving the house and taking care of herself. She grew increasingly distraught -- her two children were addicts.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, throws America's problem with talking about race into sharp relief.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0225 GMT (1025 HKT)
Mo'ne Davis is the first girl to throw a shutout in the Little League World Series. She's an inspiration, but will she change the face of the sport?
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0036 GMT (0836 HKT)
There is a reason why when people post pictures of themselves during their middle school years on Facebook for "Throw Back Thursday," we all stop and take notice.
It could cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise your child -- and that's not even including college costs, according to new government estimates.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0409 GMT (1209 HKT)
From parent to son, uncle to nephew, there's a raw, private conversation being revived in America in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Missouri.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Children sometimes get left out of our conversations about mental illness. The truth is, they suffer too.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2114 GMT (0514 HKT)
CNN's Kat Kinsman says that talking freely about personal mental health and suicidal thoughts can help others.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1726 GMT (0126 HKT)
morning person
Easy tips on how to improve everything from your dinner order to the song in your head to your career.
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 1733 GMT (0133 HKT)
The case of an Arizona mom who left her kids in a car during a job interview highlights the fluid line between bad parenting and criminal behavior.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
A children's book about gun rights has benefited from an unexpected boost in sales after it became the subject of a mocking segment on a talk show.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Some campers and counselors keep the campfire flames burning with summer flings that become lifetime commitments.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
After letting her 7-year-old son walk from their home to a park to play, a Florida mother faces up to five years in jail for child neglect.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1916 GMT (0316 HKT)
Lindsey Rogers-Seitz, who lost her son in a hot car, hopes mandatory technology in cars and car seats will stop child death from heatstroke in cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
Not to mention your jeans, bras and pillows? Here's a definitive guide to keeping all your quarters clean.
Imagination Playgrounds have snaking tunnels, platforms and springy mats just like any other playground. But they're different in one fundamental way -- they're built by kids.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Grammy Award-winning singer Sarah McLachlan, a 46-year-old divorced mom of two girls, talks about parenting, sex and whether women can have it all.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
Researchers say physical punishment actually alters the brain.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
The case of a South Carolina mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park while she was working sparks debate over how young is too young to leave a child alone.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
CNN's Kelly Wallace reveals 5 common parenting mistakes that many parents admit to making.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Is it a bad idea for parents to let kids drink underage at home, or does an early sip make drinking less taboo? Studies are divided on the subject, which is a tough nut for parents to crack.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cellphones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night
Post your personal essays and original photos, and tell us how it really is.
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT