I remember the night that my sons made the transition, completed this rite of passage that catapulted them from the, “Isn’t he cute?” comments to stares of suspicion. They were 12. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready for them to go on dates, or take their first drive, or get a job. I absolutely wasn’t ready for them to be stopped by the cops.
It was October 31st, 2008, and we had just returned from hours of face painting, pizza eating, bobbing for apples, sliding down huge inflated slides, and boxing with inflated gloves at a church about 30 minutes away. It was still early, around 7:30, and my kids wanted more candy—although they each had a bulging basket, so I let them out in front of our house, told them we’d make a quick trip around the neighborhood and call it a night. They began walking to the next door neighbor’s house, and I began to turn the key to open my front door. We’d won a cake that night in a game of musical chairs, and I planned to drop it off in the kitchen and join them. But before I could even do that, out of the corner of my eyes, I saw flashing lights, and the cops were jumping out of a squad car yelling, “Hold it right there young man. What are you doing?” I sat the cake on my porch steps and began walking towards the scene, not believing that my sons—in full Halloween finery and clutching baskets full of candy- were being questioned by the police who assured me that they were only stopping them because someone reported that it looked like some young men were “casing a house”. How unlikely that excuse sounded to me since the hood of my car was still warm, and I hadn’t even had time to open my front door.
We went inside right after, and my kids gave all their candy away to the next group that knocked on the door. No one had much of an appetite.
That was my baptism into the life of a black teenager in America. My sons weren’t wearing hoodies or gang colors; their pants weren’t sagging; they weren’t out late at night, when all “good kids” are home in bed. They were 12 and trying to trick or treat on their own street, in a neighborhood they’d lived in for five years. The neighborhood they went to school in. They were knocking on doors of their neighbors trying to get candy. They were trying to be kids.
Over the next seven years, my perception of law enforcement took a real beating. Maybe it was because my kids were harassed sitting at playground swings after school in the neighborhood playground adjacent to their school. Maybe it was because on their first double date at a local mall, I got a call halfway through the movie that I needed to come quickly. Security had escorted two drunken adults multiple times to the exit of the mall, and these adults, who happened to be white, had decided to taunt my sons and their friends. An argument ensued, and when security called the police, the adults—who had cars—all left the scene while the teens were left waiting for me. I walked up to hear officers threatening my son with jail time for disorderly conduct because of a request to pull the video footage to see what really happened since the whole altercation was caught on film. Maybe it was
because the first time they rode in a car with a friend who’d just gotten his driver’s license, they happened to see two female classmates, who happened to be white, walking home. They innocently offered them a ride. A few minutes later, the new driver was explaining that he wasn’t trying to kidnap the girls, check his student id officer. We go to school together. We all live in the same neighborhood. Maybe it’s because my son was caught on camera walking by the door of a locked classroom at his school, and when a phone ended up missing at the end of the day, he was the one being questioned by the police. Who was he, Casper, able to float through walls at will? Maybe it was because both my sons and my husband at the time, had guns pulled on them while doing yard work in our backyard because a suspect was fleeing police custody, and it looked like he came that way.
Maybe because the time of my sons’ lives that was supposed to be the most carefree—their teenage years, when they were supposed to make memories that they laugh about, that last them the rest of their lives, was filled with the number 33. Thirty-three, that’s the amount of times that my sons were collectively detained in the span of 8 years. An average of four times each year. I know that’s a lot less than some articles I’ve read where young men say numbers like 100 or 200. But I can’t mentally process 33. Once a season, on average. They can’t look back at a single milestone—their last time trick-or-treating, their first date, their first ride in a car driven by their friend- without there being a memory of fear, a sense of being a target. And as a mother, who wants the best for her sons, who wants them to be happy and healthy and whole, their childhood or lack thereof, angers me.
And the other things that happened around them, terrify me. See, no kid grows up in a vacuum. And my sons were popular, and involved. Football, basketball, track, band, debate team, lyricist society, Black student union, mock trial team, choir— keeping up with their schedule was a huge addition to my full time job. And by the time they hit ninth grade, they had a local pack of companions, ten in fact, a few a little older, a few a little younger. As parents we had cookouts and sleepovers, car pools and birthday parties with this dozen in attendance. They pictured graduating together, going to college together, doing the same things they were doing now as friends, with their kids. When graduation came, of that dozen, two were dead- one stabbed by a Hispanic classmate at a high school my kids no longer attended, and one killed in a home invasion. Four were in jail. Six walked the stage—four friends and my two sons. So 40% of my sons’ friends made it to 18. Six in all, including my sons, were alive and un-incarcerated. So, even graduation was bittersweet.
I’ve heard it said that more black boys are born than black girls, 8 boys to every 7 girls, but by the age of 18, there’s one boy left for those seven girls. The other 7 are dead or in jail. I heard a comedian once say, people say black men are an endangered species. No they’re not, if they were, they’d be protected by law. I’ve posted statistics about police profiling, about Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin, and been called a racist for pointing out what happened to them. That and the fact that American society tends to blame the victim, thinking there must be a reason why “these things” happen to “those people” led me to not want to put my name on this piece. After all, I work in a conservative field where people are quick to judge. So for seven years, I’ve stayed mostly silently, posting here and there when the pain got too deep. But now, I’m writing to America. As a mother, as a neighbor, as a friend, as a church and community member and begging, pleading for each of you to see the bull’s eyes on my sons’ backs. Pleading for you to see the targets on my students’ backs, on the back of every Trayvon Martin who is still walking around carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, minding his own business. And take them off.
Marlena “Zen” Johns has lived an adventurous life, raising twin sons and teaching high school for twenty years. She was Teacher of the Year for AHS in 2011-2012, a Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction and a University of Chicago Distinguished Educator. One of her plays was performed at a local community center. She won a prose contest sponsored by the University of Houston. Two of her poems are set to be published in the upcoming summer and fall issues of Restless,and Five 2 One magazine, and three will be featured in an anthology titled Let’s Talk about Being Human.