Monday, August 23, 2010

Bringing Up Boogie: Black Boys Shouldn't Shoot


From the second my sonogram revealed I was having a boy, I vowed not to dress him like the lame little boys in sailor suits and rompers way past the age where sailor suits and rompers are acceptable. And then I went home and made it clear to all family and friends that all clothes for my baby boy were to be gender neutral. No little baseballs or footballs scattered across a onesie. Nothing that said, "Mommy's Strong Big Boy." I didn't want to politicize my child, but I also wanted to raise him from day one to be aware of the boxes this world wants to place little brown boys in and I wanted him to defy those boxes—to be an advocate by example and upbringing. A smiling revolutionary. Someone who would change the world with good in his heart and not a chip on his shoulder, because it is the right thing to do. 

Of course all my ideals and grand speeches fell on def ears. My baby boy got "Grandpa's Little Slugger" and mini-baseball uniforms, blankets spotted with every sporting utensil (or whatever). Everything was blue and blue and blue and boy and boy and gender stereotyped. Instead of having to constantly battle, I finally just let it go. But there was one thing that I've held firm for the last four years. 

No. Guns. 


No army anything. 

No military regalia.

And most of all, NO GUNS.

People actually respected that request more so than the other ones. There was the one uncle (from Texas) who brought my then 2-year-old a tiny neon-colored water pistol. My son never saw it or any other gun replicas. And despite constant warnings from parents of other boys that my son would use most anything—remote controls, dolls, straws—as a weapon, Boogie never did that. The coast was clear. I was convinced my son was going to stroll through adolescence without any gun play. 

And then came last weekend. Some friends had organized a block party in Addams Morgan in DC, and seeing as  Boogie is a high-energy people person who enjoys being outside, I figured this would be a good opportunity for him to run around and wear himself out and play with some other kids while I caught up with some friends. Thing is, when we got to the park, everyone was armed with neon-colored water guns—adults and children alike, screaming and having a great time spraying each other with the cool water in the hot sun. I saw my baby boy's wide eyes get even wider and I groaned to myself. I was hoping he'd be more interested in climbing the jungle gym and giving me a stroke by leaping off the highest point. But nooooo: He looked up at me with those beautiful brown eyes, silently pleading to join in on the fun. I tried to distract him by asking if he was hungry. He shook his head no and then added, "Maybe later." Then I saw it, those Golden Arches in the distance. 

And yes... I did. I distracted him with the promise of a Happy Meal—just marched him right on over to Mickey D's, hoping all the way that whatever toy that was in that magic box would be enough to distract him from the water gun fight down the street. He sat and ate, talking his usual mile a minute, even charming a guy cleaning up after a birthday party into giving him a balloon. Yes! Happy Meal toy and a balloon! Those water guns didn't stand a chance.

That stupid toy and balloon were soon forgotten, though, when we made our way back to the block party only to find that double the amount of people were there now and those who weren't dancing were... in an epic water gun battle. Now, though we've never spoken about it, somehow Boogie instinctively knew I wasn't down for the guns. He's never had one, and I wasn't about to let him get one, not even on this day. After all, this world is too unkind to little black boys and I really didn't want him to ever know what it feels like to shoot anything, even if it was just water.

Call me oversensitive but I'm convinced that because of this rule of mine,  20 years from now, we can call my  baby boy alive.

Anyway, I turn my attention to a friend and leave Boogie to play with some other children for just a minute when he wanders back over to me with a neon-colored water gun in his hand: "Look, mommy, I have a water blaster." Water blaster. He didn't even know the word gun. My heart sank as I took the piece from Boogie and gave it back to the person who'd given it to him. "Thank you so much but I don't allow him to play with guns," I said simply. As I was saying that, my son's body language completely changed. His face fell and his body sort of slumped into a physical, full bodied frown. It broke my heart. I weighed the fact that literally everyone in this place had one and the fact that I swore that he would never get to play with guns. I considered the fact that he called it a "water blaster" and decided, "OK, fine. He can play with it here. But only here."

The other parent apologized for not checking with me which was really cool. Before I let Boogie run off to play, I told him that this was only for fun and he shouldn't aim it at anyone who didn't have one too. No grownups unless they're playing. And if someone says stop, you stop. He gave me an "Okay, mommy." Then he tried to shoot the thing. My boy had no idea how to even  hold it. It was clumsy and awkward in his tiny hands. He finally figured out which finger was supposed to go on the trigger and the best way to aim and hold it and then he was off. I watched him play with some other kids and he was less shooting and more flinging the water in the gun at people. Another little boy showed him the correct way to shoot and, even as I turned away and continued talking, I could hear him laughing and screaming with joy and having a great time.  When I turned my head to make sure he wasn't climbing on anything or anyone he shouldn't, I saw my sweet, little baby boy, coming down the slide with two water guns in each hand shooting. 

He went from a "what's this" to an assassin in 10 minutes. 

All of a sudden, he's Rambo. 

I watched him leap from behind poles and attack. He stuck the pistol in the waistband of his jeans and climbed the jungle gym so he could rain water on an "enemy's" head. It was scary. 

I called him over to see if he was OK and he trotted over smiling and soaked to the skin. 

"You all right, buddy?"

"Yes. I'm having fun. I have to go back!"

He runs off and I lamely yell, "Well! Don't shoot anybody in the back! If you have to shoot make sure you shoot them from the front!"

What am I saying? I knew I was taking it all too seriously. It was just fun and games, but with all the attacks on black men and children accidentally shooting each other, and children shooting each other on purpose, I'm just not comfortable with him and guns. I'm not comfortable with him being comfortable with guns. But I have to find a way to get over it. 

I watched him for the rest of the time we were out. Then in the car, I tried to have a conversation with him about safety and not touching one unless I'm around. Somewhere between my explaining to him who Amadou Diallo was and what the NRA is, my little boy fell asleep.

He's 3 1/2 and he just had the time of his life playing water games with other children. I watched him in the rear view mirror, his tiny head slumped to the side, still clutching his "water blaster." He had a slight smile on his face and his T-shirt was just starting to dry. I put my attention back on the road and decided that all my hard fast rules needed a bit of tweaking. I can't protect him forever. I can only make sure he leaves with enough information that he makes choices that he can be proud of. 

And, I decided, I need to hide that water gun before he wakes up.

* * * * * * * * * *

About our MyBrownBaby contributor:
I am so pleased to introduce Bassey Ikpi's "Bringing Up Boogie" as a new weekly feature, exclusively at MyBrownBaby.  Bassey Ikpi is a Nigeria-born, Oklahoma-bred, PG County-fed, Brooklyn-led writer/poet/neurotic who is the single mother of an amazing man-child, Elaiwe Ikpi. She's half awesome, a quarter crazy and 1/3rd genius... the leftover bit is a caramel creme center. A strong advocate of mental health awareness, Bassey is currently working on a memoir about living with mental illness and producing Basseyworld Live, a stage show that infuses poetry and interactive panel discussions about everything from politics to pop culture. Get more Bassey at Bassey's World.

If you would like to be a featured contributor on MyBrownBaby, email your essays/ideas/blog posts/rants/musings to Denene at denenemillner at gmail dot com. 

Photo credit: Jenster181 via Flickr

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  1. BOOGIE!!! Wow. This was awesome. Bassey, I think you've done a fantastic job of protecting him so far. For him to not even know how to hold it at first. I'm not a parent, but I can only imagine the toughness of raising children in today's hyper-violent world. But one thing I do know is that Boogie's Mom is awesome. And Boogie is extraordinary. He will be even more extraordinary as he grows up.

  2. Awww're awesome & your awesomeness has no choice but to rub off on Boogie (oh my word just read Luvviw saying the same was written...2x)! I'm having a similar battle with my 4 yo & video games. I want him to read & write & speak 5 languages & he wants to play Mario Kart!! We'll find a happy balance somewhere. Kudos to you!

  3. I absolutely ADORE your tweets about Boogie so you can definitely count me in as a regular reader of this column.

  4. Hi Bassey, great post!!

    I to was at the event you speak of. My son is 15 years old and in his short life we have had to deal with a lot of gun violence, starting with his dad. I was always very protective of him as far as weapons and guns were concerned. He knew the rules, no water guns, no shooting video games, etc.

    I saw him transform on this day as he also had 2 guns and running around having a good time. But I also cringed everytime I saw him with them in his hands, thinking about the loved ones we have lost and also praying that I will never have to experience it again.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. I love hearing your stories about Boogie and from what I hear he is a great kid and your raising him well. I am pretty sure he will turn out fine! :)

  6. Thanks for sharing this, Bassey. As the mom of a 3 year old girl, I find myself fighting a similar battle with ignant ass music. Hopefully I can stave off the hip twirls and body waves and general inappropriateness until she gets much, much older.

  7. Great article. My sister has the same rule with my nephew about guns. No Guns. No water guns. None. He is at the age where he plays video games so there is also a no violent video games rule. So he doesn't play any video games really. A couple of weeks ago her boyfriend took him to the state fair and got him a toy gun. My sister made him throw it away. No means no.

  8. At the preschool where I work, the young boys always try to build guns with legos, etc. even though we don't allow them to play guns. When they can tell I'm about to question their choice of lego creation, they say, "It's's a laser." "No, Miss Leah it's not a gun it's a..umm...a light saber." It's difficult because I can't control what they view and are exposed to at home, but we still maintain that playing guns is not appropriate. Even if they come up with an epic and crazy explanation.

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  10. When Kennedi was in daycare, they did their VERY best to make everything gender neutral. The boys always found a way to make a toy into a 'gun' (one boy used the battery operated mixer from the 'kitchen' area).
    My favorite line:
    "I can't protect him forever. I can only make sure he leaves with enough information that he makes choices that he can be proud of."
    As a parent, I hope that this is the thought/prayer of other parents, too. You are awesome, and so is Boogie.

  11. This is an awesome story and an awesome rule. I wish more parents were considerate of the way "play" affects children and their socialization.

  12. I'm finally getting to reading this, great post!

    I had the same stance on guns with G and the same thing happened. We were at a park and a little boy came with water guns and G wanted to play. I was like awww man here we go, but then I remembered reading something a while back about how it might do more harm than good to keep children away from toy guns. That letting them play with water guns and act out imaginary role play, like cops and robbers, actually helps more than hurts. It's more of a natural instinct for boys to act out in more aggressive play styles, and some argue that rather than prevent them from doing so, we should allow it in closely monitored, teachable ways.

    I let him play with the boy, who had an extra, and G had the most fun I've seen him have. I thought to myself that giving him a toy water gun would be a good way to keep his curiosity tamed. I don't think it automatically leads to comfort with guns or will turn him into a gangbanger or anything lol I played with toy guns, GI Joes etc and I'm no banger. Neither are any of my friends and family who did the same. Thing is, the problem IMO isnt guns. Its what dumb people do with them. I'm looking into getting a gun license and purchasing a fire arm before I turn 35.

    Kudos to you for taking a stance and recognizing that, as parents, our ideas on how we raise our child can, and probably will change a bit over time.

  13. Bassey--
    what a wonderful post!! THank you. I must admit I'm kinda sad that folks didnt take your position on raising him gender neutral too seriously. Like the gun, patriarchy and heterosexism hurt the same way.

    i also appreciate the humor in Elaiwe's first time playing with a toy gun. I think there's a great deal to learn from that moment..he engaged with the toy..

    thanks for your continued courage and honesty!!

  14. Bassey, this is too cute. Boogie sounds like my little brother but I wish we had the same "no gun" rules while he was younger (he's 9 now) and yeah, shooting is just about the only thing he gets excited about. I love this piece and I can't wait to read more from you. Keep up the amazing work!

  15. great post! great column! yay for moms with a no gun policy. i'm one of those moms too. i saw in walmart once that the guns and amunition were some of the cheaper toys to buy.. sadly. the no guns rule is one of the many rules we have.. like not saying stupid or dumb.. those are bad words just like the F-bomb/four letter word or n*gga are bad words in my house. do you know how much they say dumb or stupid in cartoons? ehhh we have a hard job as parents, but we want the best for our kids so we commit to our life long job.


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