How a White Mom Teaches Her Black Son To Stay Alive in America

Educating my son about hatred has taught us both painful lessons about racism

Illustration by Chelsea Charles
Illustration by Chelsea Charles

One morning in March, my eleven-year-old son Felix and I met a van from a local restaurant in the parking lot of a social services building in Madison, Wisconsin, where we live. We were picking up food for our Meals on Wheels clients. The driver was tall, broad-shouldered, and wore a flat-brim cap, jeans, and a heavy sweatshirt. He held the straps of the food bag patiently, so I could get hold of them without taking off my winter gloves. His hands were bare and chapped. He called me ma’am, smiled, thanked me for volunteering. To my son he nodded, “How you doing, man?” Back in the car Felix turned to me. “That’s how I have to act? Extra polite like that? Because otherwise I might get shot?”

Felix is black. His father Jim and I are white. A decade ago, in order to become parents, we filled out form after form, submitted to criminal background checks, drove to Milwaukee to be fingerprinted by Homeland Security, went to doctors for physicals, and opened our home, finances, and marriage to the scrutiny of a social worker. Finally, in the summer of 2006, we were matched with a baby boy in Ethiopia. That August we flew to Addis Ababa. The next day we walked into the orphanage and saw our eleven-and-a-half-month-old, mid-crawl, turn and look at us. He had a cloth book in his mouth. We scooped him up, first me, then Jim. In his new father’s arms the first thing Felix did was take a nap. A couple of weeks later, on Felix’s first birthday, we carried our brilliant-eyed, inquisitive boy through the front door of our home.

In that same house now, Jim and I are middle-aged parents who negotiate screen time, vegetable eating, homeschooling lessons and household chores with our strong-willed, independent son. Jim reads aloud to him—Huckleberry Finn, the Harry Potter series, The Old Man and the Sea. We both sit on the sofa with our dog Maddie to watch him dance hip-hop in the living room. We practice lines with him for the roles he plays at the Young Shakespeare Players, a local theatre for children and teens where Felix hopes to star as Othello in next winter’s production. We eat at our walnut dining table where I scold Felix for scratching the wood with his model cars. We play Monopoly, Canadian Crazy Eights, and the ancient African game of Mancala. We make fart jokes and dance around the house in goofy ways.

But out in the world, Jim and I know Felix’s identity as a black boy puts him at risk. We understood this before he came to us. Weeks before we flew to Ethiopia I said to our social worker, herself white, “I’m going to be the mother of a black man.” A baby, even a toddler, would be cute to white people, but a black teenager and certainly a black man would be in danger in the United States. “But,” the social worker said, “don’t forget: that black man will be your son.”

She had missed my point so badly I felt embarrassed. I wasn’t afraid of not loving my son because he is black. I was afraid of other people not loving him. I was afraid of them trying to kill him.

I grew up in the deep south, on a farm in the 1970s, two miles outside the unincorporated town of Dixie, Georgia. I once saw a white man swerve his pickup truck onto the grass shoulder of the road in front of my family’s house because he saw a black man walking there. The black man was a friend of my mother’s. He dove into the ditch, then stood up and came stumbling across our front yard with mud smeared all down the side of his overalls. My mother opened the porch door and went to him. “He tried to kill me,” the man said flatly.

He was not shocked. I was. I was eight years old and didn’t yet know that, in the words of James Baldwin, white society had “spelled out with brutal clarity” that the black person is “a worthless human being.” Baldwin wrote this in his 1963 essay, “My Dungeon Shook,” in the form of a letter to his fifteen-year-old nephew. Three decades later, when I was forty and adopting, I understood exactly what Baldwin meant.

Today the fear of losing my son shapes my parenting and my marriage. Before I was Felix’s mother, I could afford a certain passivity, or at least I thought I could. I’ve always been opposed to racism. I’ve read black literature. My first full-time teaching position was in African-American Literature at Winston-Salem State University, a historically black university in North Carolina. But while I was, as Baldwin puts it, one of those who “know better,” I also found it “very difficult to act” on what I knew. To be honest, I still do.

But Jim and I can’t escape the fact that black boys and men keep being killed in this country. Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and many others. And here in Madison, in March of 2015: Tony Robinson, unarmed, black.

The killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice was especially devastating. “He was playing with a toy gun in a park,” I said to Jim one morning. I was sitting at the breakfast table, Jim was at the stove frying eggs. Felix was sleeping soundly in the other room. “Police officers showed up and shot him.”

Jim raised his eyes to mine briefly, then lowered them again. “I know,” he said. That was all we said about it. Every time another killing is reported, we find our own ways of dealing with the sadness and fear.

My way often involves clamping down on Felix’s computer use. “No surfing. No looking at the news,” I say as I hover nearby.

“What is it you don’t want me to see?” Felix asks impatiently. “Did another black person get shot?”

For a year or two after Felix came home from Ethiopia I had a recurring dream. In it I was black. It was only an increase in pigmentation. My dream didn’t go deep enough to change history or my consciousness. How could it? Dreams have their limits, and all I have to work from is my own life. Nevertheless when I dreamed myself black I felt a strong wave of relief. I would be able, I thought in the magical thinking that comes with dreaming, to live a life more akin to the one my son would live. Quickly afterwards, though, I was struck with terror at the realization I was black. I knew what it meant in this country: I was “a worthless human being” or, even worse, not a human at all. I always woke from that dream with shame, and with renewed and intense fear for my son.

White people often encourage me to believe in the power of my whiteness to save Felix. Years ago when I fretted to the white director of my son’s Montessori preschool about the racism my son would face in public school, he told me I shouldn’t worry. Felix, he said, would not have to deal with the things other black kids do. Yet, when I shared those same concerns with a university professor here in Madison, himself a black father of two black boys, he told me, “Stay as far away from public school as possible.” His son’s first grade teacher had called his boy out for not completing worksheets. “First,” the teacher explained, “he stops doing his work, then he falls behind, then he drops out of school, then he gets involved in drugs and crime, then he ends up in jail.”

That first grade teacher was reciting the master narrative of the black boy, which always concludes with imprisonment and death—in short, the destruction of the black boy. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about this in his book, Between the World and Me (2015), a long letter addressed—à la Baldwin—to Coates’s fifteen-year-old son. In America, he writes, the black body is treated as currency: “As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom. After the ruin and liberation of the Civil War came Redemption for the unrepentant South and Reunion, and our bodies became this country’s second mortgage. In the New Deal we were their guestroom, their finished basement. And today,” Coates says, we have “a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program.”

In the end, Jim and I sent Felix to public school for a couple of years because we couldn’t afford a private one, and I wasn’t convinced the private school would be any less racist. Besides, public school offered a much more diverse student body. In first grade when Felix too stopped doing his worksheets, his teacher and principal recommended he be evaluated. Information was gathered—from teachers, from his father and me, from tests administered by a psychologist—and then the psychologist called Jim and me into her office. Felix, she concluded, “could end up in jail.”

The narrative of the black boy, in other words, is everywhere, even in the seemingly mild streets of Madison, the ultimate liberal college town. My son has two university professors for parents, is well-fed and housed, walks his dog on calm, shade-dappled streets, is enrolled in art and dance classes and camps, travels from time to time. He does not fear for his life on a daily basis. I recognize that he has advantages. In our mostly white middle-class neighborhood, and the middle class neighborhoods around us, the dangers are subtle. No one, so far, has drawn a knife or gun on him, or on anyone he knows. This is a blessing, of course, but it can make it harder for him to believe he’s at risk. Only bit by bit is he figuring out what he is up against.

In the last year he has been given the middle finger by adults three times, once when he was ten, and twice since turning eleven this past September. All three times it happened, Felix was with me. Once he was flipped off by an older white woman at a dog park who was unhappy that our dog was humping hers. I was clearly the adult in charge of my dog and child, but instead of coming over to me she walked up to Felix and presented him with her gnarly middle finger before exiting the park in a huff. The other incidents happened while Felix and I were delivering Meals on Wheels. In each case I had slowed the car, looking for the right house number. The driver behind us leaned on the horn, zipped up beside us, made eye contact with Felix in the front passenger seat, and flipped him off. My back was to them both times, although the second time I turned around to see the woman’s finger stuck so far out of her car window she had it in Felix’s face. He was shocked. “Why did she do that to me?” he asked.

Felix has struggled to get his mind around the concept of racism. For a long time he thought of it as simply a conscious belief people decided to have or not have; not as a thing so deeply ingrained in them that many of them wouldn’t be able to identify it in themselves. When his white teenage cousin recently moved from Georgia to Wisconsin to go to college—Felix did not know her well but was excited to have her close by—he asked her simply, “Do you believe in racism?”

“Well,” she said. “It depends on what you mean by that.” Felix’s face fell. That she was not able to give him an automatic “no” gave him fretful pause. “If you mean,” she continued, “do I think racism exists? Yes, I know racism exists. If you mean, am I intentionally racist myself, and do I think it’s a good idea to be racist? No, I’m not, and I don’t. Racism is horrible.”

“Oh,” Felix said and smiled. “We can be friends!”

Felix wants connection. He also wants things to be simple. He’d prefer to listen to hip-hop on the car radio instead of having a long discussion about why the clerk at the gas station told him not to touch the candy. Nevertheless, Jim and I are always looking for what to say, and how to prepare him for the fear, hate, aggression. With this in mind, several years ago, I attended an African-American parents’ night at Felix’s school. I was looking for guidance. A woman I’d never met leaned toward me over the platter of snacks and said, “Don’t ever let up talking about it with him. Even if it’s painful.”

The boys to whom Baldwin and Coates addressed their respective letters were fifteen. Felix is eleven. His consciousness and awareness are not those of a fifteen-year-old, and neither is his behavior. He acts like a child because he is one. He is also five feet, seven inches tall—and growing fast. People mistake him for a teenager. To me he is my ruddy-complexioned, round-eyed, sweet, funny boy with the charming dimple in his chin. But I know others don’t always see that.

A little over a year ago his father took him for passport photos, and when I came home from work late and picked the packet of photos up from our dining table and opened it I was stunned. I saw a teenager. He was wearing a Converse jacket, his hair was combed into a slight Mohawk, his eyes were serious and focused, looking straight into the camera, with no smile. “Oh god,” I thought, “people in the offices we’re sending these to will see a black teenager.” I know how black teenagers are seen, which is to say, not really seen at all. Mis-seen. It frightened me. Baldwin wrote to his nephew that if you’ve loved someone “first as an infant, then as a child, then as a man, you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain and effort.”

When I look at my son’s face, with the dark hair coming in above his upper lip and the jaw bone that’s sharpened and become more angular in the last year, I still see the fat-cheeked baby who loved blueberries, I see the laughing toddler running down the same hill over and over in the woods near our house with the ear flaps of his favorite wool cap swinging out from his face like wings. I see the boy who snuggles down on our sofa with his dog and his dad at night to read. I see Felix. More than being afraid of what others will see when they see him, I’m most afraid of what they won’t see: a human being.

Last summer, I watched as grieving mothers filed onto the stage of the Democratic National Convention, which until then had seemed to me like a party celebrating progress and promise. “I lived in fear that my son would die like this,” Lucia McBath said. Her son Jordan Davis was shot at a Florida gas station in 2012 by a white man who found the boy’s music too loud. “I even warned him that, because he was a young black man, he would meet people who didn’t value him or his life.” I leaned forward and closed my laptop. I couldn’t watch.

Within a few days, though, I knew I couldn’t afford not to watch. I pulled those mothers up on my computer again and listened all the way through. Not one of them looked comfortable on that stage, but they were there. “I’m not going to wait until Felix is dead to join them,” I thought. I made a pact with myself to speak up any chance I get.

Speaking up doesn’t come naturally to me. I am shy, speak and write imperfectly, feel my deficiencies deeply. But what pushes me, what fills my thoughts with things to say and do and write, is this boy who, when I go to wake him mornings, has fallen asleep with his head on an open book; who, during his breaks from rehearsals at the theatre where he is preparing for the role of Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night, slips down to the comic book store and spends his snack money on graphic novels; who loves bicycle riding, kayaking, driving cars through the landscapes of his open world video games and running around with his friends at the Ethiopian campout every summer because all these things make him feel free. I would give my life for my son. But this country doesn’t want my life. It wants his.

Recently news came out that the police officer who shot Philando Castile, after having been acquitted of murder, was being paid nearly $50,000 as part of his “separation agreement” with the suburban Minnesota police department. I posted a link of an article about it on my Facebook page with my own exclamation of horror. A former student of mine from Winston-Salem State, a black man named Billy whose advice and guidance I regularly rely on, responded. “If history tells us anything,” he wrote, “then you’ll understand when I say that you have to believe to be disappointed.”

I’m guilty of believing, and so are many of the white people I know. I let myself be seduced into believing Obama’s presidency meant we’d made more progress around race in this country than we have. I see now that Obama became our president in part by appealing, as Coates writes in his essay “My President Was Black,” to “a belief in innocence—in particular a white innocence—that ascribed the country’s historical errors more to misunderstanding and the work of a small cabal than to any deliberate malevolence or widespread racism,” but nevertheless I let myself believe. I believed his presidency said good, and even great, things about the prospects for my son’s safety and promise in this country. And I believed, during the 2016 presidential election, that Trump would not win.

Of course, I was wrong about Trump and also wrong about the progress I thought we’d made concerning racism in our country. Because the immediacy and danger of racism is now so much closer to me, I see and feel it more readily and deeply. Consequently I take action whenever I can. Many white people say to me it’s shocking Felix has to be told about racism, that he has to be afraid at such a young age. This is because they are white and are not themselves parents of a black child. How to survive as a black person isn’t terribly relevant to them. It’s not in their faces, in their families and homes.

Last summer I drove Felix to a new friend’s house in the suburbs where I was to drop him off for a play date. His mother welcomed us in and showed us around. In the boy’s bedroom I spotted a cache of Nerf guns. With Felix standing beside me I said to the boy and his mother, “Because Felix is black, he is not allowed to play with any type of toy gun outdoors.” The mother of Felix’s friend smiled kindly. “Oh,” she said, “but it would be safe in this neighborhood.” She’s an attorney, smart, but white with white kids. I accepted the cup of tea she offered me, and then I sat in her living room with her the entire afternoon while Felix played. I didn’t want to risk leaving him there without me.

Jim and I want Felix to create his own storyline. We want him to figure out who he is, find his calling. Which is why when the psychologist predicted jail for Felix, we didn’t tell him. However, a couple of nights ago I saw that the endlessly repeated script of imprisonment and death is entering his psyche anyway. Felix was lying on the living room floor with our dog Maddie. She was sprawled across him with her muzzle wedged into his neck and a paw on his chest. “I love this dog,” Felix said in dreamy reflection and to no one in particular. He lifted his head momentarily, kissed her shoulder, then put his head back down on the pillow he’d arranged on the floor beside her. “If I didn’t have her,” he said, “I’d probably be in jail.”

In my naiveté, I believed we could shield Felix from the black boy narrative by force of our white will. We couldn’t, of course. For his part, Felix can be remarkably self-aware. A couple of years ago he told me, “When I get afraid, I get angry.” His ability to see this in himself gives me hope. But I am also afraid of how his fearful anger might lead him to behave during an encounter with a police officer. His father and I tell him what to do to try to survive such an exchange. “Stay calm. Keep your hands where the officer can see them. Ask the officer before reaching for anything.” (Of course, none of that worked for Philando Castile.)

When we talk about racism, I sometimes see a flash of anger in Felix’s face. He still wants to believe in fairness. He’s eleven, after all, not fifteen. But I don’t know that he’ll be able to deal with the injustice of it any better when he is fifteen. I want him to be prepared, as much as he possibly can, for something more deadly than a finger being drawn on him. I want Felix to learn how far people will go, have gone, do go, to destroy black people. Yet at the same time I want him to feel free and happy, not to have to carry the burden and fear of what people’s “belief in being white,” to use Coates phrase, can do to him. That’s not a luxury we have, though.

When he has made up his mind to do something his father and I disagree with, Felix loves to say a phrase he’s learned from his white friends: “It’s a free country.” No, I tell him. It’s not. “You are not entirely free,” I say. “I’m not, either. We are bound by all kinds of things that limit and confine us.” I know the urge to believe in freedoms that don’t exist, to buy into the glossing over of our country’s horrifying history and present-day realities. But it’s dangerous for him to put his trust in that, and would be irresponsible of his father and me to encourage it.

And, then, because he sees I am embarking on one of his dad’s and my long talks about racism, he tries to shut me down. “Just let me say it’s a free country, okay Mom? Just for a minute?”

Stormy Stipe
Stormy Stipe has published fiction, poetry, and book reviews in such journals as the Missouri Review, the Texas Review, and American Book Review.
Chelsea Charles
Chelsea Charles is an illustrator who resides in Brampton, Ontario, and received her BAA in illustration from Sheridan College.