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‘Soon he’ll be seen as threatening, not cute’: What it’s like to raise my black son in America

COMMENT

As a Somali immigrant to America, I am expected to be grateful to be here. But have I sold my soul to the devil?

Black mothers have much to fear when it comes to their children. American soil is saturated with the blood of black people: slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and the war on drugs, and police brutality have ensured that black people know pain and loss intimately.

Black mothers see their children in Trayvon Martin, who was just buying candy for his little brother, when he was killed by self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman. The police let Zimmerman go home after questioning him at a police station, and he was later acquitted by a jury of his peers. He would later post pictures of Trayvon’s dead body on the internet.

Tamir Rice was only 12 years old, a year younger than my own son, when he was shot by a police officer. He was playing with a toy gun.

Black moms know it doesn’t matter whether their kids are good kids; whether they are polite and respectful kids. Martese Johnson, a black student at the University of Virginia — an excellent student, spoken of highly by both students and teachers — was aggressively detained by police one evening as he was partying with friends. Before restraining him, police hit his head on the pavement. You can find the bloodied pictures on the internet.  

It doesn’t even matter whether they are actually innocent. Emmett Till was killed because a white woman accused him of grabbing her and being sexually crude towards her. The two white men who murdered him were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury and could never be retried. His accuser later admits that she fabricated that story. He was just 14 years old — a year older than my son.

So, where does that leave me, an African immigrant, born in Somalia? I am black. My son — ethnically both Somali and African-American — is a black boy, growing taller by the day, and is already mistaken for a 15-year-old because of his height and deep voice. Each passing day brings the realisation that soon, if not already, he will go from being seen as cute to being seen as threatening. And my heart breaks for his innocence.

I find myself in an odd position. As an immigrant from what was considered (and still is, some would argue) a war-torn country, I am expected to be grateful to be in the United States, grateful for a second chance at life. But I ask myself: have I sold my soul to the devil?

This has been my home for more than 20 years. I came here as a 12-year-old child, fleeing the civil war. But this is negligible when compared to the 400 years that black Americans have been on American soil, treated first as property and then as second-class citizens.

As the mother of a black boy, I obviously share the same anxieties as all black mothers across America.

I can’t breathe. I constantly worry about my black son. My black son who, when lying on the couch, nearly covers it with his length. My black son who is growing out his afro, his crown and glory. My black son whose roaring laughter fills up our home with warmth and love; music to my ears. My black son who loves spicy tortilla chips, and playing Rocket League on the Xbox. Together we play Monopoly, Sorry! and Connect 4, and he beats me every time in all those games, relishing in his victory.  

My black son, so polite that teachers and store clerks and strangers regularly compliment me on it. My black son, whose peers say he gives good advice, and who may want to become a counsellor in the future. My black son, who says he is going to get a master’s degree one day because he saw his mother work so hard for hers.  My black son, who promises to take care of me when he gets older; who tells me, whenever I complain about how expensive something is, that it won’t be long before I can afford anything I want. My black son who I’ve named Qalbi (my heart) Deeq (complete) because he completes my heart.

It wasn’t too long ago when I had to tell him about Trayvon Martin, about Tamir Rice, about Amadou Diallo, about Ahmaud Arberry, and others. The list is so long. Every discussion about racism and police brutality feels like a betrayal on my part, as though I am the one that is cutting short his childhood, his innocence.  But I know I have to have these conversations with him, for his safety. This past week, I told him about George Floyd. He saw the video of George’s death on the internet. Knowing that George called out for his mother during his murder sends chills down my spine. I can’t help but think of my own son in that situation.

How do I prevent that from happening? What can I exactly do? As black mothers, we live with this dread and helplessness.

We. Can’t. Breathe.

We don’t see just a man in a single moment when we look at George Floyd. We see America’s entire racial history culminating into that one moment. George’s anguished last moments, so similar to the lynchings Billie Holiday described in “Strange Fruit … hanging from poplar trees.”

There is no separating George Floyd’s killing from the struggles black people have faced ever since the first slave ships landed on these shores. That is America’s past and present. 

As black people, when we see George, we see ourselves. We see our friends, our loved ones. We see our children.

We see more than just a man in a state of distress. We see our collective history as black people in the United States — a constant state of distress. George Floyd is us, and Derek Chauvin’s knee is the oppressive racist system that’s built this country on the blood, sweat, and tears of black people — all the while denying us life, liberty and our own pursuit of happiness in the land of the “free”.

As we grieve George, we mourn and grieve our children’s innocence as once again we have to explain how this country’s racism has taken yet another black person’s life. We have to drill our youth with information on how to behave when they are confronted with police, while fearing deep down that even that may not be enough to save them from a racism that is intent on killing them anyway.

We love our children. We love them now, and tomorrow. We want to see them grow up, realise their dreams, have families of their own, and lead fulfilling lives.

So, we hold our breath each time they walk out the door, and we hope and pray that they always come back to us safe and sound.

But while they are away, we can’t breathe.

 Ifrah Udgoon is a high-school science teacher based in Columbus, Ohio in the United States

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Ifrah Udgoon
Ifrah Udgoon is a high school science teacher based in Columbus, Ohio in the United States. Originally from Somalia, but raised in the US since age 12, she navigates the duality of being both an American and a perpetual foreigner while raising a teenage son in what is not a post-racial America. She’s passionate about arts and education and uses both in the practice of freedom by continuously advocating for higher education within her immigrant community, as well as educating the American public on immigration and multiculturalism

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