Skip to main content

Black moms shouldn't have to have 'the talk'

By Michaela Angela Davis
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1403 GMT (2203 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michaela Davis: Moms who lose sons wear blank look of sorrow. Michael Brown's does now
  • She says they are thrust into spotlight to call for peace as they process private trauma
  • She says moms looking on renew 'the talk' with their sons. Why should they have to do this?
  • Davis: Police are ones who must be educated to deal with young men, not the other way around

Editor's note: Michaela Angela Davis, a writer and activist, was the executive fashion, beauty and culture editor at Essence, editor-in-chief of Honey magazine and fashion director for Vibe magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I am a mother who watched her mother bury her only son.

Mothers who do this wear an excruciatingly blank look of sorrow and disorientation. Their eyes grow dim and damp. They move slowly, laboring to adjust to a horrific new reality.

Not only does the heart of a mother split open when a child dies, but time itself breaks in two, reordered into the time before his death and the time after.

Michaela Angela Davis
Michaela Angela Davis

I know the empty eyes well. My mother had them for years after the death of my 17-year-old brother, Eddie. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Valerie Bell, Sean Bell's mother, have appeared on in news interviews in recent days. They still have those eyes.

Now Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown's mother, has the gruesome, unnatural task of burying her baby boy, a devastating detail often lost amid the aggressive noise surrounding the trauma in Ferguson, Missouri.

Complete coverage of Ferguson shooting and protests

The mothers of Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and now Michael Brown are in a particularly sad sorority. Not only do they have to negotiate life without their sons, but they must conduct the rough rituals of mourning under the incredible burden of the violence, systemic racism, hidden history and injustice that brought them to this place.

There's a dignity that comes with losing sons as soldiers, and there's a sympathy that comes to mothers who lose them to illness or a tragic accident, as was the case of my brother. But these other mothers have none of that relief; their sons were healthy, surefooted and unarmed. Now these women are thrust into spotlights, tasked with asking for prayers and patience and peace in the street -- when their own peace won't come.

We mothers who watch these wounded women go through this, pull our own young men closer and strategize how to keep them from this fate. It's an unfair burden.

In fact, every time a high-profile killing of an unarmed black male by law enforcement hits the news, black parents again have "the talk" with their sons about what to do, and perhaps more critically, what not to do when encountering police.

And every time it's infuriating to reach for this desperate yet fatally flawed strategy: a one-sided instruction to help save them in a two-sided, potentially deadly relationship.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend who is a Hollywood producer with two sons living in an affluent neighborhood in Los Angeles. She told me that the details of her "talk" may be different from mothers in low-income communities, but she's clear that wealth does not protect her sons from dangerous encounters with the police.

Indeed, she told me that some high-income mothers are so acutely aware of the way police view black men in California, that a group of the mothers got together and invited a high-ranking police officer over for tea to introduce him to their sons.

Trayvon's mom: Brown's burial will hurt
Brown's cousin: Still looking for answers

The intent? "Officer, meet my son. He's not a thug, a thief or a threat. If you see him in a fancy car or walking down the street wearing sporty teen boy gear, please don't kill him, OK?"

It's a clever tactic (as pathetic as it is that there is a need for it) and a step in the right direction. Consider: Black mothers and fathers all over the country for generations have been telling their kids how to act around law enforcement, but who is instructing law enforcement about how to act when encountering our boys?

It is painfully evident that much of law enforcement is ignorant of black youth culture. Police are armed with ready guns, misinformed stereotypes and irrational fear. They obviously have not engaged enough with our youth to know about them. Many police officers have no imagination to allow black teens the adolescent recklessness they instinctively give white youth.

If no one institutes a plan to reform the culture of policing by educating police about the culture of black youth, this lopsided relationship will continue to produce tragedies such as what we're witnessing in Ferguson.

The burden has far too long been shouldered by black parents and kids, requiring them to adjust to the injustice of excessive force, police brutality and ignorance.

Police officers must become more responsible for knowing the community they're hired to protect and serve (even fast food workers are trained to know their customers). The residents of Ferguson and cities all over America have been grossly underserved and fatally misunderstood.

We should not be asking outraged mothers, fathers, families and communities to stop hollering. We should be asking trained law enforcement to put down their guns and listen up.

Magazine: The Aftermath in Ferguson

Read more about the flash point in the Heartland at CNN.com/US

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Follow our complete coverage of the protests and aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
What happened when Michael Brown met Officer Darren Wilson? A timeline from both perspectives.
The most dramatic video moments from protests after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0111 GMT (0911 HKT)
Two men, shocked at what they saw, describe an unarmed teenager with his hands up in the air as he's gunned down by a police officer.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
As tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, have bubbled, one official after another has taken the lead, grappling to figure out how to stop it from coming to a boil.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1946 GMT (0346 HKT)
The funeral of slain teenager Michael Brown was a celebration of his life, a search for meaning in his death and a battle cry to change policing in America.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
The QuikTrip that's now in shambles, its iconic red awning a nest of twisted metal, was once a favorite stop for residents here.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 0024 GMT (0824 HKT)
At least 212 people have been arrested over nearly two weeks of clashes with police in. A lot has been said about the fact that just a handful of them were actually from Ferguson.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The fate of Darren Wilson -- the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed Michael Brown -- is heading to a jury.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1648 GMT (0048 HKT)
Questions are being asked about the man who at the moment is responsible for pursuing any prosecution and whether he can be impartial.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0144 GMT (0944 HKT)
Mike Knox, owner of Freestyle Barber & Beauty in Ferguson, Missouri, said police have pulled him over twice for what he calls "DWB" -- driving while black.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1019 GMT (1819 HKT)
As protests continue to rage over the killing of Michael Brown, conflicting accounts and police reticence have made it difficult to ascertain what exactly happened.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
If adults are having trouble talking openly about race and class, it's easy to see why some parents are either afraid, uncomfortable or unwilling to bring the topics up with their children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 2342 GMT (0742 HKT)
In a single column, a veteran police officer has catapulted himself into the national debate over the death of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
This is a collaborative effort of people across the U.S. who are seeing protests in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown. Add your story if you're there.
A Flipboard magazine of CNN's coverage of the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1403 GMT (2203 HKT)
I am a mother who watched her mother bury her only son.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
See photos of the protests currently unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
"He was funny, silly. He would make you laugh. He'd bring people back together," his father, Michael Brown Sr., told reporters.
ADVERTISEMENT