‘At what age do my kids turn into a threat?’: Black moms discuss raising sons in America
Posted On June 12, 2020
Jacob Enis and his mother, Nikki Walker, pose for a photo on the porch of her home in Lehi on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Enis, who is attending college in New Jersey, was visiting his mother in Lehi for spring break and has been unable to return home due to the coronavirus pandemic. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Compelling insights from 7 Utah mothers each with a lifetime of ‘deep fear’ for their children’s safety
LEHI — Michelle Love-Day listened to a friend’s tearful fears with the kind of aching empathy that most black mother’s wish they didn’t understand.
“Her children are 3 and 4,” Love-Day recalled. “And she was crying as she said, ‘My kids are so cute right now. We go in places, and everyone loves them, like they’re little puppy dogs. But at what age do my kids turn into a threat?’
“Then I started crying,” said Love-Day, the mother of a 22-year-old son.
Love-Day, Nikki Walker, Toni Ragsdale, Stephanie Hesleph, Rita Martin, Bridget Shears and Carol Matthews Shifflett all understand this fear in their bones.
In fact, when it comes to the realities of being a black mother, especially to black boys, no words need to pass between them to communicate the deep, unmitigated fear they carry when it comes to the risks their children must navigate in even the most mundane circumstances.
In recent weeks, with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the trepidation that lives in the back of their minds since those babies graduated from diapers to grade school, is now the collective horror of a country that still can’t seem to grasp the realities of the dangers they face every day.
“I worry every time they leave out the door that they might not come home,” said Stephanie Hesleph, who has three sons — ages 27, 33 and 40. “I grew up fearing the police. My parents instilled that in me. But this generation, they’re different. They do not fear the police.”
And that, especially for black mothers, is both a point of pride and a terrifying realization.
The mothers interviewed for this story said they know that all mothers worry about their children. They hope they choose good friends, apply themselves in school, stay away from drugs and alcohol, and avoid unnecessary physical risks.
“But the uniqueness of challenges for black mothers is that we have at least an extra layer of fear that we have to share with our children, our sons more specifically,” said Walker. “Moving from New Jersey to Utah amplified that requirement for me as a black mother.”
Worry travels with you
Walker’s Utah friends often assume that living in a Utah County suburb is much less worrisome than living in what is, at least statistically, the most diverse city in the country.
“It doesn’t change anything,” Walker said of Jacob. “My son driving through downtown Jersey City gives me exactly the same type of anxiety as him driving through Utah County.”
In fact, in some ways it’s more frightening.
“I think about what could potentially happen if he gets pulled over driving the luxury vehicle that we drive, a young, 6-2 black man,” she said. “Add his beautiful long (dread) locks, and that fear is so deep.”
She runs through the scenarios that he might encounter, the stereotypes he might face. Would an officer believe a 22-year-old college student should be driving such a nice car? Would he wonder how he could afford the vehicle or an expensive hairdo? Would an officer or someone who might find him “suspicious” and call the police understand why a young man might choose that particular hairdo, which for him is tied to ancestry, roots and spirituality?
“Moving to Utah didn’t quell my anxiety for my black son,” Walker said. “In fact, I believe it might have exacerbated it.”
The scenarios described by mother after mother echo with similarities, regardless of where the children were raised.
Love-Day, an educator for 18 years who now works in the Jordan School District’s main office, recounts the time her only son, now 19, was running late for his shift at a Subway restaurant inside a Walmart near his school.
“He came home and his pants were ripped, and I asked him what happened,” she said of her then-17-year-old. “He told me that he jumped the fence (around the school) and cut through a car dealership’s parking lot, so he could save time because he was running late. I literally got in his face and said, ‘I don’t care if you’re 30 minutes late, don’t you ever do that again.’ I was very aggressive about it because I was just scared for him in that moment.”
Her husband sat him down and talked to him about why the color of his skin meant he couldn’t take shortcuts across people’s property.
She said they had an entire ritual of checking in when he on his bike to or from work, and it included a long list of things he should not do, things his white friends did without a second thought.
“It’s little things, like don’t cut across someone’s yard,” Love-Day said. “Just small things that white parents take for granted. We know we’re the only black family around.”
Being the only black family in a neighborhood or the only black student in a class can be painfully isolating, especially when black children see their white friends doing things they’ve been instructed to avoid. She runs through scenarios and worries that if he’s slow to respond, police or authority figures will see it as defiance.
Ragsdale, 49, said her motherly concerns for her four daughters were different than the fear she felt for her son, even though much of her anxiety was concerned with race.
It’s different with girls
“With my girls it was more about fitting in, dating, getting a job, not being promoted, things people would say about them or assume about them, and hurtful things that were said to them,” she said. “With your son, you don’t know if he’s going to come home or not or if he’s going to be accused of something. Either way, your fear is that his life is shortened.”
She said the weight is something every black woman she knows carries, and they have become accustomed to just living with it.
“Just like you learn to live with a limp,” Ragsdale said. “You learn to live with the pain. You know it’s not something that is going to go away. You just teach your son that he is different.”
She raised her children in the Salt Lake suburb of Sandy, and she said it was difficult for her son to understand that he could not do or get away with typical teenage behavior that he may want to engage in with his friends.
“I told him, ‘You can’t do what they’re doing,’” she said. “He learned the hard way. … I taught them to be well-mannered, say “Yes, sir,” and to look people in the eye.”
Shifflett’s two boys are in their 30s, but the pain and fear remains ever-present.
“My first thought is that they can’t even walk out the front door,” she said. “They’re automatically criminalized. There is a lot of pain. … And men don’t always share their pain with their mothers.”
She said they try and “contain themselves” because they don’t want to lose their jobs or jeopardize friendships. They feel they are not allowed to be who they are or feel how they feel.
“That’s not good for their health,” she said. “As the mom of black sons, I can’t tell you how scary it is. I can’t even explain it.”
Shears understands it because a store owner called the police on her then-12-year-old son for just acting like a child.
“He had one incident that was confusing and terrifying for him,” said Shears, who raised her son in Chicago, where he now raises her 7-year-old grandson. “He was outside a convenience store with a couple of his friends, laughing and being kids. They were on their bikes, making noise, laughing, joking and they hadn’t done anything. The store owner said they were just kind of being a nuisance, so he called police on them.”
The officer took the boys away in handcuffs.
“They were just hanging out,” she said. “He was trying to scare them, but he went too far. … My son has never really been that trusting of police officers ever since.”
Shifflett said her boys didn’t tell her about some of their experiences until they were adults — everything from being stopped in stores for no reason to being asked for their driver license when they were passengers in someone else’s car.
“They can’t even walk down the street without being told, ‘Oh, you look like someone we were looking for,’” Shifflett said. “Mainstream society doesn’t know what we think about, what we worry about. And it takes a toll on our health.”
Protests make a difference
Some of the women said people have treated them differently since protests erupted in the wake of Floyd’s death. While some said co-workers are afraid to discuss the protests and how these women might be feeling, Ragsdale said seeing protests that have included all races of people in all 50 states and many countries around the world has made her feel supported.
“I will tell you the truth,” she said. “I feel like I belong more, that I matter more than I’ve ever felt in my life.”
She said it’s ingrained in black Americans to always remain hopeful, but now she sees so many people, especially young people, getting involved in protests and other advocacy efforts and that has energized her in new ways.
“When I look around and see all the people 35 and under, my heart bubbles over with excitement,” she said. “It’s just a sea of diversity, and it blows you away.”
Martin said her children grew up in Japan, as both she and her husband are in the military, and her two sons didn’t challenge her when she gave them advice on “how to be black in the U.S.” Her husband did most of the advising, she said, and they didn’t always tell her things until after they had happened.
“Recently my son related an incident where he was stopped,” Martin said. “He was allowed to leave (the traffic stop) because he happened to have on his military uniform. … I felt my son was safer in Iraq than he was here in the U.S.”
And the fear doesn’t leave because her sons grow up or grow wiser. The fear, for all of the women, extends into adulthood and then it is born anew with grandchildren.
She also said she believes the persistence of the protests indicates maybe genuine change is possible this time.
“I think that people are finally starting to wake up,” Martin said. “We’re just tired. After a number of years of being told constantly that you don’t matter, and that you’re treated differently every time you go somewhere, it does feel different. … People have been tired. But I have to say, as civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”
All of the Utah women recount experiences that become painful reminders that they are “different.”
“I was in a supermarket with my son, and a little kid, a very small child because he was sitting in the seat of the cart, pointed at my son and said, ‘There is one right there, Mama’,” said Walker. “I thought, ‘What is this kid sharing with his mother?’ And that’s not the only time. Sometimes people just stare at him.”
But the worst experience she’s had in Utah was at a furniture store. They’d just spent thousands of dollars and a store employee followed them around the store, and then asked to see their receipt.
“It was highly disturbing,” she said. “I felt so attacked.”
She said the experience was painful and isolating — despite the friendship of a fiercely loyal group of “white girlfriends who are an army of whatever the opposite of Karens are” who rallied around her — that she took her son to eat soul food in Sandy to feel a connection to her culture.
“I needed to feel like I belonged somewhere,” Walker said. “I’m still so triggered by the thought of that retailer, I still won’t shop there.”
‘I love it here’
Still, like many of the women, they have built a beautiful community in Utah.
“I love it here,” Walker said. “But there are institutions that we need to dismantle. It’s not set up for us. I am grateful there are people who are moving to change those things.”
Each of them works to create change because they know that’s the only thing that will ever ease the ache caused by the fear. All of them are politically active, and Walker said she makes sure people she works with in her company and her community see her son as something other than a stereotype.
“I make it a point when I am meeting someone in power here, whether it’s political or social, that I bring my black son,” Walker said. “With his dreadlocks. I want them to see him, to understand him to be a human being, someone they could love, someone they will love, and that he is there with me always.”
What they want for their children is what white people enjoy without even realizing it.
“I want my sons to be able to walk around in society without being targeted, without being judged, without being questioned because of the color of their skin,” Shifflett said.
“The assumptions need to go away. And we need reform. Now.”