Farewell Childhood; Hello Juveniles

This article was originally posted on Medium March 3, 2016.

By Zerline Hughes

Today I told my son that he is hated. Harsh, yes. Truth … also yes. We were both angry. Sad. Pissed. Fired up.

The boy left his coat at school on a 40-degree day. Then, he left his backpack on the school bus, not realizing it until the bus pulled off. He was overwhelmed having to also carry his Karate bag and he realized his mistake just seconds too late. Adding to this start of a bad day, he’s on a punishment/break from his iPhone and social media, so he couldn’t give me a heads up about being cold and without his homework. But he did try.

During stops and transfers on his near hour-long subway commute from Friendship Heights, Washington, D.C. allll the way to Hyattsville, Maryland, he asked to use the cell phone of a commuter. Then another. And another and another and another.

He says some ignored him while others — with cell phone in hand — plainly said no. One person — a lady, if that’s what we want to call her — apparently shouted expletives at my child.

He was defeated and finally gave up, deciding to get in touch with me when he reached his destination — the Karate dojo.When he called me, the first thing he said was “I hate people.” I was crushed.

It’s now March and the so-called celebration of Black History Month is over. The bus stop posters with red, black and green trim are now taken down. Corporate efforts of highlighting the contributions of great African-Americans inventors, writers and athletes are shelved for the remainder of the year. Television networks are no longer running special episodes and documentaries highlighting our culture. Now we forget about Black History and go back to the realities of the Black Present.

So, appropriate or not, I had to tell my son that many think he’s a threat and they’re scared of him — Black people and White people. Even though he’s still a kid — not even a month into his teens, he’s considered to be a threat. It’s because he stands at 5’8,” and particularly, because his skin is black. And also because the narrative so many of us maintain is that teens, especially our Black and Brown teens are dangerous, up to no good.

According to Judith Browne-Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, ever since the term “super predator” was coined in the 1990s, we’ve abandoned the reality that kids are just that — kids. Instead, she said, we regularly use the legal system’s word to refer to young people: juveniles.

“We have to stop using the word juvenile … words having a lasting impact,” said Dianis. Damn, she’s right.

Further, today’s generation of kids don’t get to grow up, according to activist and organizer Mervyn Marcano of Blackbird. During a recent panel discussion on how youth of color are depicted hosted by the Advancement Project and Media Matters, Marcano asked, “Who gets the right to childhood in this country?” Understanding that being stubborn and exceeding authority are basic rights of passage for teenagers, he said African-American and Latino kids don’t receive the same benefits and rights of others. I guess they also don’t have the right to ask a stranger to call home to tell their mom that they had a bad day and need some assistance.

To further understand my son’s experience, I interrogated him on how he asked, and the “types” of people he asked, while he wore a collared, button down long sleeve shirt and khaki dress pants paired with basic sneakers. I made him repeat what he asked.

“May I use your phone to call my mom?”

If you know my son, he’s probably the most polite kid you’ve ever met. But none of that matters. Not his button-down shirt, not his manners and not that he was honest and said he wanted to call his mom.

Farewell childhood.

He seemed defeated. And I internalized it. I asked him how he thought that scenario would have turned out had he been White. I think you can guess what he said. So even if it doesn’t seem completely like a “race thing,” because he feels otherwise, it is a race thing — even though some of the people who opted not to help him were Black. Even Howard University students, he thinks. (Thanks alma mater!)

So I proceeded to lecture him on how not only kids are perceived, but how African Americans are looked at in this country — then and now. I reminded him that some people don’t trust or like us. Some feel as though we belong in certain places/sides of town. Some feel like we should “go back where we came from.” We talked about housing projects, government assistance, stereotypes, self-hate, history.

I also had to remind him that despite these small incidents that are happening more regularly to him, he must do his best to love people (or at least like them), take out his emotions appropriately (thank goodness for karate), and remember to love himself and his people — and not hate being Black because of the pressures and experiences that come with it. I also told him this would not be the last incident. It’s part of our history — our Black History — and, unfortunately, our future.

Oh, and if someone asks to use your phone, and deep down you want to help — especially if it’s a child — how about offering to dial the number for them and relay a message to the person on the other end of the phone? That’s safe — and helpful to fellow man.

Hughes’ website is www.notthesetwo.wordpress.com