This powerful first-person account by Aleta Payne first appeared in the Washington Post earlier this month. It brought tears to my eyes as I read it in our own Cap Times last night. The piece drives home the multifaceted nature of the achievement gap, underscoring the fact that the search for a single solution is seriously misguided and that we must each do our part.
Sam came home from the overnighter visibly crushed. He curled around his hurt as though he’d been punched in the gut, and he refused to say what had happened. My husband and I fought panic as all the horrible things that might happen to a 14-year-old away from home pounded through our brains. We cajoled and interrogated as he tried to disappear into the living room sofa, until finally, enough of the story emerged to reassure us that our oldest son hadn’t been physically injured. But his suffering was still real.
His friends had asked him why he didn’t act black.
My husband and I were dumbfounded. We had been challenged ourselves with variations on this same question 30 years ago. But back then, we were being teased by our African American peers, many of whom were growing up in communities where they saw little opportunity for success or achievement and where frustration took root early. Sam’s questioners were white suburban teenagers, living college-bound lives of comfort.
Poised to start high school, Sam is at the age where he wants nothing more than the acceptance of his peers. So this question staggered him. And while we learned the basics of the story then, the details have emerged — syllable by reluctant syllable — in the months since. That it had not happened that one time but had built over months. That it was always the same small group of boys who generally treated him as one of their buds. That he’d stopped being able to laugh it off as the question wore at him.
“People think I should be able to rap or something,” he said. “Like they see in movies and crap.” Strong words from our almost silent son. “They want me to act like something I’m not.”
Sam is studious and quiet, much as his father and I were at his age. He inherited my light complexion and poor eyesight, his father’s analytical mind and love of tennis. Apparently his wire-rimmed glasses and athletic leanings undermined any “street cred.”
Though our North Carolina town isn’t especially diverse, and our three sons attend mostly white private schools in Raleigh, I don’t know that it has ever occurred to Sam that he is sometimes the only child of color in a room. But he certainly felt isolated by the expectation that he should behave like some modern-day minstrel in bling instead of blackface.
I know Sam’s friends. He has visited their homes, and we’ve had them in ours. I doubt that they had any idea how painful their misguided teasing could be. I suspect that if they thought others were treating Sam unfairly, they’d stand up for him. But they have listened to rap and watched music videos that paint a picture of African Americans as loud, rude, undereducated, oversexed. Where guys in grills and girls in short shorts grinding against one another appear to be the norm. The boys whose words hurt Sam are skateboarders and soccer players, not hip-hop wannabes. But they have still been inundated with what it is to be gangsta and they may be dangerously close to believing that that is what it means to be black. Or its inverse, what Sen. Barack Obama has called “the slander that a black youth with a book is acting white.”
I thought, or at least hoped, that my children’s generation had transcended that, even if their parents aren’t there yet. Standing in a boutique hotel outside New York a few years ago, my husband was one of several men in dark suits waiting for a shuttle van when someone asked if he was the driver of the limousine they’d requested. The only thing setting him apart from every other man in that lobby was the color of his skin. Our sons, I hoped, would never deal with such pre-judgments.
I’d had a sense that there was still work to be done when I overheard some young people from our church freely using “ghetto” as their adjective of choice in a conversation. The word was unexpected and discordant, coming from this particular group at that particular time — we’d just driven down a patch of rural highway in my minivan to a corn maze. “Ghetto” could not have been farther from their reality. Their use of it was as out of place as my mother volunteering her opinion of Snoop Dogg’s latest CD.
Combating stereotypes, my husband and I have made certain choices for our three boys. Guns have been particularly unkind to the black community, so the closest they’ve ever come to one, even as a toy, is a Super Soaker. We strive for proper English, limit what music they download and which movies they watch. The boys know about the accomplishments of their ancestors — not just historical figures in a textbook, but a grandfather who emerged from poverty in strictly segregated Alabama to become a college president. The work of our ancestors is not finished, but I’d thought there was less to do.
Some parents, white and black, may not recognize the accumulated damage from what is being sold to all our children. Perhaps they want to be the cool mom and dad or perhaps they just don’t want another fight with their teenager. They may screen the movies their children leave the house to see, but they allow them to stay home with 50 Cent and his legendary bullet scars or the profanity-laced catfighting on “Flavor of Love.”
The mature brain can understand what’s intended as exaggerated entertainment. But young minds aren’t yet hardwired to decipher what’s for real from what’s for show. And perception can eventually harden into attitude. Pop culture creeps into our lives through every unguarded crevice. My own sons have surprised me with bits of lyrics or lines from movies that they’ve never heard or seen themselves but that they’ve heard repeated by others or seen as a teaser on television. Some of that is fine, or at least benign. But some of it leaves African Americans in danger of being enslaved by imagery as we were once enslaved by law.
And that’s something I refuse to allow to happen to my sons.
Aleta Payne is a writer and editor in Cary, N.C.