By DENENE MILLNER
He’s 6 ft., 250-plus lbs—quite imposing next to my 5’ 2” frame—and can bench just shy of 300, which means that if he felt like it, he could flick me like a flea. Lucky for me, I’m his stepmother, and at the very least, he withholds his laughter when I crane my neck, fold my arms, put on my mean mug, and tell him, “I can still take you.”
Out on the football field, though, my 16-year-old son takes no shorts; as a nose tackle, he’s charged with taking on two, sometimes three opposing players at a time. This requires an incredible amount of mental fortitude and swagger—both of which my 16-year-old son has in abundance, especially when he’s making his way to the line of scrimmage. Take a good hard look at him on the 50-yard line, and it’s easy to get it twisted: He looks like an angry, aggressive, big, black jock—a guy who crushes the opponent on the field, and off the field, probably doesn’t put much effort into much more than football, girls, and black boy shenanigans.
I don’t know if this is what one of his team’s assistant coaches had on his mind recently when he called the boy over to take a look at his class schedule. Mazi handed it to him and shifted nervously from foot to foot, his mind on who knows what. I can only guess what he expected to find, but when that coach looked at Mazi’s schedule and then back up at Mazi, I could see in his eyes that his perception of who my boy is was completely, forever changed.
See, what that coach wasn’t expecting to see is this.
That’s Honors Physics. Honors Algebra. Advanced Placement Psychology. Honors Language Arts. And Mechanical Drafting—the first in a series of courses that’ll put Mazi on firm footing toward becoming an architect. Peep the grades: All A’s, and one B. He’s number 44 in a class of 546—and still climbing.
The boy is bad—smart as hell, incredibly sweet, helpful when he wants to be, and pretty easy to get along with. We argue the musical merits of Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, and Rakim, reminisce over our favorite scenes in Biker Boyz, discuss on the regular whether he’s going to Yale, Harvard, or Princeton, and sometimes he even comes to me in confidence to discuss how to negotiate his tenuous relationships with the cute but fickle little girls he dates.
He is a normal boy.
A brilliant boy.
A college-bound boy.
A sweet boy.
A black boy.
And every time that child leaves this house, I fear that someone will look at him, his size, his skin color, his swagger, and see what they want to see, and not who Mazi is. Not a day goes by without us warning him to be respectful, to watch his tone, to be extra vigilant when approaching people in his path. And last week he got his license and bought himself a car with the cash he makes as a lifeguard, which of course means that now when he snatches his keys and heads for the door, I'm a nervous wreck thinking that he's going to get stopped by the cops.
I have good reason to be nervous for him, you know. In just the past week, three—THREE!—black men have been shot, two killed, by the police. Adolph Grimes, III, 23, was shot 12 times in his back, 14 times total, on New Year’s Day as he made his way to a family party in New Orleans; Oscar Grant, 22, was shot by a transit officer while he lay face down and handcuffed on a train platform; Robbie Tolan, 23, is recovering from gunshot wounds to his liver and lung after being shot in his own driveway by a Houston police officer who accused him of stealing his own car. Of course, stories about the shootings abound, and in Oakland, more than 100 protesters were arrested as they took to the streets to demand justice for Grant. Organizations like The Color of Change are speaking up on behalf of the victims, and demanding we do the same, while radio personalities like Warren Ballentine are using their syndicated radio shows to keep the stories fresh on the minds of black folks.
Still, after the roar dies down, after the police officers get off (they almost always do), after we commit the victims’ names to the long list of young black men who’ve died or been abused at the opposite end of a police officer’s gun/night stick/bathroom plunger (Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Abner Louima. Patrick Dorismond. Michael Carpenter. I could go on and on and on), who will stop the same from happening to my stepson?
How do I protect my normal, brilliant, college-bound, sweet, black boy?
The urge to protect him will never leave me, this is the unfortunate rite of passage of every parent of a black boy. Once they are big enough and old enough to move out into the world without us holding their hands or watching over them, they are going to be vulnerable to the biases and misperceptions and stereotypes and downright hatred of an overwhelming number of cops, transit officers, sheriff’s deputies, and other law enforcement officials who will cross our children's paths over the next 40/50 years of their lives. I suppose the best we can do is hope that one day Mazi will put in enough years so that he can have the same worry about his own child as we have for him.
Note: To add your voice to the petition calling for a proper investigation into the Oscar Grant shooting, click here.