This article is part of Parenting in an Uncertain Age, a series about the experience of raising children in a time of great change.
When I saw the sign for the Emmett Till Museum, I knew I had to take the next exit. As a Ph.D. student in American history studying the civil-rights movement, it felt almost like an obligation. My only hesitation was that my 7-year-old son was in the car too.
Was he ready to learn about one of the most notorious lynchings in the nation’s history? Could I bear to watch his eyes lose some of their glow?
The road that led from the highway to the one-street town of Glendora, Mississippi, was barely more than a trail. Only the concrete slabs remain of the home of one of Till’s lynchers, and just beyond it stands a gray building with corrugated metal walls. Inside is the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, or ETHIC, a locally run museum, but in 1955, the year Till was killed, the structure housed a cotton gin. It is likely the place where Milam and his conspirators retrieved the 75-pound cotton-gin fan that they tied around Till’s neck with barbed wire to weigh him down after they threw his corpse into a nearby river.
It was a lot to explain to my son. I didn’t show him any of the gruesome pictures that made Till’s murder internationally known. I simply told him that some men had killed a boy because they thought people with brown skin had to be controlled, violently if necessary.
My son grew very still as he listened. “But it’s not like that anymore, is it?” he asked. “Well,” I replied, “it’s complicated.”
A lynching may be especially difficult to explain to a child, but I am far from alone as a parent who struggles to talk to his kids about race and its grim history in America. We take great care to teach our kids to treat others kindly, to share, and to forgive. But teaching them about America’s racial history is another project entirely, burdening us with the knowledge that in giving them the truth, we are taking away some of the joy with which they behold the world.
Every parent—whether deliberately or not—sends a message to his or her children about race, but the legacy of race-based chattel slavery means that for black parents the process of deliberation is unavoidable and particularly fraught. Every black parent has to have “the talk,” about how to survive an encounter with the police. In truth there is not one talk but several. There’s the talk about how people will fear you and consider you threatening no matter what you do. The talk about working twice as hard for half as much. The talk about how black kids don’t get second chances.
And even then, no matter how carefully parents inculcate a sense of racial awareness, there is the ever-present threat of bigotry’s random brutality. To be a black parent in America is to be in a state of constant vigilance. All parents know this caution to some degree—keep sharp objects out of reach, make sure they don’t play in the street, check out what kinds of friends they’re making. Black parents, on top of that, have to worry about shielding their children, and healing them, from antiblack racism.
They also, in having these conversations, often have to revisit old traumas of their own: having the word nigger hurled at them, having lost out on jobs or promotions because others viewed them as less competent than their lighter-skinned peers, having been pulled over simply because of their skin. I, for instance, dread talking with my son the first time he goes out on his own with a group of other black and brown-skinned boys. Having that conversation will take me back to the discomfort of how, when I was a kid, police officers seemed to have nothing better to do than follow me and my friends at the mall or the arcade.
The talking, the preparation, the vigilance is endless—and, frankly, exhausting. I admit I get tired at times, as I try to fight off anything that might smuggle a notion of inferiority into my black child’s mind. I have to investigate the racial representation in the latest animated movie and try to decode any of its subtle biases against people of color. I try to find children’s books that don’t feature black kids only in supporting roles or in the ghetto. I have to consider not only the racial composition of my child’s classroom but whether the leadership is diverse and racially sensitive as well. I absolutely will not buy him toy guns or let him play with them, even if the neon color of the plastic practically glows. I won’t even let him fix his fingers into the shape of a gun.
In the Deep South, where I live, racism is more physical and visible than it is in other places. We live in the Delta, so we drive past cotton fields frequently. When the plants are blooming in late fall, my son points out how beautiful the acres of fluffy white bolls look. He’s right, but at the same time I feel the need to remind him that people with skin like ours were forced to pick that cotton by hand for years and years.
It makes me mad to think that I have to explain all of these harsh realities to my child while others are subtly teaching their children ideas that continue to dehumanize people of color. I imagine them around the dinner table, parroting tropes about black laziness and welfare fraud, talking of “those people” and asking why they don’t just help themselves. Some wonder aloud whether the country would be better if we had never had a black president. Maybe there is some cosmic parenting dynamic at play: For every adult who is trying to train his or her children to confront racial intolerance, there is another teaching his or her children how to perpetuate and preserve it.
Next month will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. My son is now 7 years old, and I plan to take him to a commemoration at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. He’s been once before. The museum is built right onto the Lorraine Motel, and I have explained to my son that the wreath on the balcony marks the precise spot where King had been standing when he was shot.
I want to tell my child that today life is better for black people. It is certainly different. People of color can enter any public building. We can make meaningful movies that bring in a billion dollars. We can even be president. At the same time, I have to prepare my black son for a nation still gripped by the myth of white supremacy. The best I can do, I’ve concluded, is err on the side of honesty. If my black son has to learn that society will hate him, then let him hear about it from someone who unconditionally loves him.