The first time I got an inkling that Mother’s Day could be something other than joyful was when I watched my mother grieve the loss of her own mom, my grandmother Patsy. I remember how we were in the wood-paneled basement of our three-story Philadelphia home when she got the call. I can still her cradling the beige telephone handset on her chest with closed eyes after the sad news came from Louisiana. Decades later, I struggled with my own grief (and still do) when Mother’s Day rolls around. Although I was in the room with my mom and held her hand as she breathed her last, I have to fight to turn my thoughts from grief and longing, to gratitude and joyful memory for having had her in my life.
So, I think of these things today as I write this tribute in honor of Sybrina Fulton whose video message to all mothers is something everyone should view. If this name is familiar, it should be. Sybrina Fulton is the poised, but grieving mother of slain teenage Trayvon Martin, whose tragic death in Florida has sparked news coverage nationally and beyond. Today, on her Twitter account, Sybrina sent a post that begins:
“As I send you this message, my heart hurts and my eyes are full of tears for my beloved son Trayvon.”
There is no way that anyone can attempt to interpret her grief and I certainly won’t try to here. I do know that today is only one of the many bumps in the road she will face on the road to closure and peace about her son’s loss. She has courageously transferred her grief into action, with the formation of the Justice for Trayvon Martin Foundation designed to address what she believes were underlying issues contributing to her son’s untimely death. The second-degree murder trial of her son’s self-confessed killer, George Zimmerman is likely not to occur until October 2013 or later, prolonging her anxiety. Still, Sybrina must be heartened by the generous donations of leave time by her co-workers in the Miami-Dade County, where she has worked for 23 years. Their gifts will allow her to take eight months off and retain a salary while she waits, watches and prays.
Raising a child in any day and age is a challenge. As parents, we want to protect our children from harm and yet propel them to navigate their own way through a future we cannot know. African American mothers often struggle with raising their children through a contradictory message of fear and hope. Our children, like all children, must know how to walk boldly in this world in order to claim all that it has to offer. Yet as parents and elders we know that there are unseen terrors, unspoken threats and invisible enemies lurking. How do we voice these without shutting down our children’s desire to go confidently into their unseen futures?
I call this mindset constructive paranoia. To explain it, consider the definition of paranoia. It is when you think people are out to get you. But…. what if there are some people who really are out to get you? Then, you learn to be guarded around people who might be threats in broad ways in order to be protected against the narrow chances when that caution might be justified. In the wake of Tayvon Martin’s murder, some commentators have referred to this as “the talk” and explicated how some of the elements of this bittersweet conversation between parents and their children.
Look around. If you can, observe children from different ethnic backgrounds in the presence of their parents, and watch the African American kids. Do they seem more restrained on the playground? Are they less vocal in public gatherings? Are they far less likely to, for instance, wander up and down the aisles of a supermarket unattended without some adult sternly pulling them back into view? Or, when some children boldly verbally challenge adults, or break into the front of a line without apology, watch whose parents are nonchalant and whose are agitated. Because one child’s “cute” behavior is another child’s accidental slip into danger.
Sybrina Fulton’s grief is no doubt compounded by this familiar dilemma. She tried to raise her son for freedom, describing him as a typical teen in many a media account. Trayvon got to play video games, travel to New York City, and imagine a career in aviation. And yet he died after being shot on a visit to his father just yards away from the townhome where he slept. Does she wonder, in the irrational way that grieving hearts can do, if there was something else she could have warned her son about that could have saved his life.
Raising children on the cusp of fear and hope is an all too-familiar place for many parents with African American children. It is a space created by the social condition of racial stereotyping and distrust, and it is something we all must battle. Because when a Trayvon Martin dies, and a George Zimmerman kills him, we all lose, and the hearts of two mothers break in unfixable ways.