On February 18, we attended an event sponsored by The Cradle called Raising Black Boys, part of a new initiative they have launched, Our Children: An Education and Empowerment Initiative. We have no connection to the Cradle, but the panel looked excellent, the topic is often on our minds, and it seemed like a great way to immerse ourselves in a conversation that is so important to us.

The event description from the Cradle website stated, “We are bringing together a panel of distinguished African-American men to talk about the challenges they face being Black men, and fathers, in today’s society. They will share the types of discussions that are taking place in their own homes, as well as the everyday fears they have about their sons’ safety and how they are raising them to become strong Black men.”

The panelists included:
Kenard Gibbs, VP, Black Entertainment Television & CEO of Soul Train Holdings
Ronald Holt, Commander, Chicago Police Department, Special Activities Division
Dana K. O’Banion, Attorney and Children’s Book Author
Tim King, Founder, President and CEO, Urban Prep Academies
Jonathan Peck, Principal and Owner, Strategic Advice Services; Co-Founder of Concerned Black Men of Metropolitan Chicago

With that said, I entered into the evening excited to be able to hear the experiences of African-American men and see what takeaways we might deposit back into our conversations at home. I am unsure what percentage of the audience comprised adoptive parents (given the event was sponsored by an adoption agency) but I can say that the audience was a racially diverse.

The event was structured so that the moderator posed questions to the panel and each question was answered by a few panelists. There was a bit of audience interaction (questions) but not much. The main questions discussed were as follows (paraphrased from my notes):

  1. Growing up, what was your biggest fear and how is it different from fears your sons or students might have today?
  2. We have often heard about “having the talk” in African-American households as a way to explain the conversation you have with your son about race. What important discussions are taking place?
  3. Transracial families are nervous about the conversation about race. Any advice?
  4. How do you explain violence in Chicago to your sons/students?
  5. How do we prepare our sons for racial profiling, prejudice, stereotypes and stop/frisk?
  6. How do you address history of racism with your son and what is age appropriate?

I feel like it is particular important to note that Commander Ronald Holt’s son was killed at age 16 in May 2007 while riding the CTA when a Gangster Disciple was aiming for a rival gang member and instead shot Blair Holt. And, Tim King is the founder of Urban Prep Academies so was offering the perspective of working with all black male students. The other men have incredible professional experiences as well and each have at least one son if not two ranging from preschool age through college age. Despite differences in professional and personal experiences, there was a lot of overlap in the responses given.

A definite theme throughout the evening was the importance of raising sons who know who they are  – who are honest, truthful, smart and intelligent.  But also that there is no guarantee. Tim King explained it as giving them shields (self-awareness) and swords (intelligence). Another common comment was that there isn’t one talk about race, there is a series of talks. And, that parents cannot have their heads in the sand about race – the conversations are happening in the public sphere and have to be happening at home too. I think the bottom line is that there isn’t a guidebook – Tim King made that clear – and yet, I think it is likely what so many parents wish they had to keep their sons safe. I felt like Dana K. O’Banion had the most practical advice. He has two teenage sons and struck a balance, I thought, between practical advice (use the news as a way to naturally talk about things) and relational (send your kids texts and tell them “I love you” and “behave”).

For the most part, the event was what I expected. There is no magic “talk” that keeps your son safe but you still have to talk about about race and the reality of the way black boys/men, in particular, are viewed in society. The thing that surprised me the most, I think was actually the emphasis on character-building. This sounds funny to say it because character is the most important thing to me. But, somehow, I suppose, raising a black boy made me think safety as trumping all of that. Or, the cynical part of me thinks “well, great if you raise your black son with character, but what if they get hit by a bullet intended for someone else  – maybe even from a police officer.” And, that’s the point, really, isn’t it? It’s crucial to prepare my black son for the reality of the world, but the one thing he CAN control is his own character and his own response to other people even if he’s being treated unfairly.

That last sentence feels like it should be the end, right? Here’s the thing, though – as a white woman, I cannot help but wonder what nuances of race might be present in my son’s life if he were being raised by a black family. I want to take to heart the things I heard the panelists say about character and about the on-going nature of “the talk” rather than a list of thing that must be covered. But, I wonder how many things are taught through watching that just won’t be a possibility in our family. You know – the things that become the tapestry of who we are, of who are families are. The things our kids overhear us talking about with friends and family, even if they aren’t “part” of the conversation per se. So, can I model what it looks like for me to show respect to all people wherever we go (yes, on my good days!). But, the reality is that people are responding to me as a white woman and my husband as a white man. I have these flashes ahead where I imagine Little Man acting in the way that he has learned to act by watching us only to face confusion when he encounters someone who sees his black skin and makes unfair assumptions about him. Perhaps by raising him with open dialogue and a strong sense of self, he can learn to let it roll off. I just wonder if I can.