Tyler, Today You Are a Man

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There comes a time in every black person’s life when it truly hits home that you’re black in America.

My eight-year old son, Tyler, has now joined the ranks of those who have been initiated and is now a proud, badge-carrying member. But I’ll get back to that a little bit later.

I wasn’t sure I was going to even write a blog about Black History Month, and, as you can see, it took me a while to wrap my mind around the whole topic, seeing as we are now into March. But after I attended a Black History Month program with my two sons, my oldest son turned to me and asked when we were going to celebrate White History Month. My response: Baby, we celebrate White History all the time. They cleverly disguise it as American History.

His mouth formed a small O, but I could tell his brain was working overtime, so I started listing examples from his recent social studies test – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln …

And then the inevitable happened: My precious eight year old pointed out that since we are American, we should be included in American history. He stubbornly ended with “Having just one month for brown people isn’t fair.”

Tyler isn’t the only one wondering why we still focus on just one month to bring black history to the forefront. Both black and white critics are still raising the question, “Is Black History Month still needed?” Some say that it’s necessary because African-American history still isn’t yet fully integrated into American history, and we still have to have a Black History Month to remind people how much we contributed to this country. Others disagree, saying that black history is intrinsically American, so much broader than just one month. Having a Black History Month has become a tradition, but we have to seriously consider whether or not it is time to move on.

But let’s backtrack.

Last week, in a major discount retail center, as I tried to give my eight-year-old a lesson on shopping for deals after Valentine’s Day, he got another lesson altogether. As we were checking out, the cashier noticed the tag was missing on the $2.25 stuffed animal. Tyler offered to go get another one so the cashier didn’t have to. And then – three weeks into Black History Month – it went down.

The white woman in charge of checking receipts stopped us and says to Tyler, “I need to make sure you paid for that animal because I saw you running back and forth with it. And we have problems with stealing.”

I immediately went to see the (young, African American) male manager to explain the situation, and he was very apologetic. I asked for the GENERAL manager’s information, and he was mortified. But when I handed him my business card, he almost peed on himself. It was a little bit of comfort, but not nearly enough when I considered my son’s hurt feelings and my outrage at being treated poorly based on the color of our skin.

The bigger point is that even though I sure saw it as racism, I’m pretty sure my son didn’t.

And that’s part of the dilemma. How do you tell a wide-eyed child, who has nothing but love in heart, that he will be disliked, judged, rejected, detained, profiled and sometimes worse because of the color of his skin? He’s got white friends, white teammates, white teachers. How scary would it be for him to feel he needs to have a sudden distrust of people he cares about and looks up to?

But in the end, all my son really knew was that he was accused of something he would never would have done by someone who didn’t know him well enough to know whether he would have or not — which, when you think about it, pretty much defines prejudice. The mean old woman pre-judged my boy.

Tyler, because he is a black male, will also potentially be pre-judged by admissions directors, job interviewers, recruiters – you name it. And I won’t always be there to make it better.

Stephen Covey says that “There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children – one is roots, the other wings.”

I admit I take a more WHOLE-istic approach to teaching our history to my children. They come from a rich history on both sides of the family – African-American and Jamaican. It’s extremely important to me that they are aware of those that came before and to have pride in their roots.

When they found out their grandfather was the first African-American mayor in the town we grew up in and that my maternal great-great-grandfather helped to found a city in Jamaica, their little chests puffed up with pride. And yes, they eat their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a little more purpose now that they know that a black man was the inspiration behind one of their favorite foods.

The truth is kids who have a strong sense of self and understand their heritage feel validated and don’t look for that validation in unwise places.

When we discuss discrimination and diversity, we sometimes forget that the world we are living in does not belong to us, but rather, our children. They are the ones who inherit our fears, loves, prejudices, etc. They learn it by watching us. In short, children remind us of how simple, complicated and absurd intolerance is. They inspire us to change.

And a change is still needed in the world. Yes it starts with us – and maybe a month. Although I think that learning about who you are and where you come from should be ongoing – 365 days a year – I think some still need an in-your-face reminder about the contributions that African-Americans have made.

In fact, after the in-your-face, impromptu lesson my eight-year-old got this February, I’m sure of it.