I figured my mother to be a huge crime-book enthusiast as I was coming of age. She used to incessantly say that her biggest fear was of mistaken identity.
Really!?! A 48-year-old single mother and middle school history teacher being mistaken for murder? On the run as Federal Marshal Tommy Lee Jones leads a search through every “residence, warehouse, farmhouse, hen house, outhouse, and dog house in the area”? Not likely. Although that makes for a great film, dreadfully, that is not what she was referring to.
Now I have my own children, and my biggest fear is their identity being mistaken.
To take that further; their identity being lost or worse, their identity being refused.
Let’s be real, a “brotha is shook!”
That is, as a black man and member of the African-American race, I worry daily.
Can you imagine how I feel when I see a father of two shot in his own backyard armed with an iPhone, a law-abiding Philando Castile gunned down in front of his family in broad daylight, or an injured college football player cut down by police for simply looking for help after a car accident? Conversely, there are sickening stories of white men being apprehended for gruesome crimes and they arrive at the police station without a scratch on their bodies.
Folks, I don’t fear for my life anymore; I plead every day for a solution to extend my black sons’ lives.
I have three children, but I still consider myself new at this. I still wonder, how do I keep their identity?
My answer: I stay present. I kiss them. I hug them. I brush their teeth. I put them to bed. I stay on their butts. I teach them to be “men,” even in the wake of our social fear of not being politically correct.
Most of all, I stand as an example.
Since recently moving to the United Kingdom, I’m literally the only black man my kids know. I’m vigilant of the images they ingest, and I don’t let those images interpret for themselves.
Contrary to what the media would have you believe, black men don’t have a gun glued to their hands. They aren’t always mad in their photos, and they aren’t always the bad guy or the comic relief in movies. Being strong and black is not synonymous with guns, money, drugs or virility. I’ll be the first to admit to enjoying Kevin Hart or Katt Williams make light of this; however, it is offensive and very hurtful seeing it in action.
My job had been eased a bit with Obama as our most recent former president. “Black Panther” currently cornering the superhero market also has helped, as well as Tiger Woods making a resurgence in a gentleman’s game. Though, with that said, we have the blessing of not having cable or even regular TV. NOTE: I’m not “better” than any of you, I’m just cheap and my wife is active and resourceful.
You want to influence your children, their decisions and their identity? Be the most significant “show” in their day.
My children have a beautiful, rich and traceable English-Scottish heritage. I don’t want them to ignore that. We are lucky to have my wife’s family firmly in their lives. But, when people meet my sons, they are as black as the day their distant ancestor was brought to the Colonies.
It’s the handicap with which history has tattooed them. There is no reason to negate that either.
However, we spend our time celebrating the loveliness of other cultures. We talk about the women who wear hijab who we see on the way to school; we talk about the language and food when we travel to Spain and Germany, and why we should try everything.
I’ve even had to discuss how we are distantly linked to the “darker boy” at school who happens to be from Africa. Oh, what a moment when my kids don’t correlate that darkness with themselves or their father! This could be a moment for frustration — but, on the contrary, it’s an opportunity to influence their outlook! If they never gave me the chance to associate that “darker boy” with a positive learning moment, that would have been the ‘fail.’ I was given the chance to help them identify with the beauty of our ancestors. Television won’t give me that, and if I can help it, my kids will not lose their identity.
What exactly is their identity?
My oldest boy is having it burned into his brain that integrity is highly valued and liars do not survive in our household (or the world). He is blitzed by the fact that nothing comes easy without practice, and he recites the Golden Rule to me, every night. He witnesses the way I treat his mother (whom he’s already proposed marriage to, validating that I have good taste).
This will be his reality; I will be with whom he identifies. I refuse to allow external stimuli drive his cultural training.
There are things I can control, and there are things that I’ve unfortunately resigned to being out of my control. There is no realistic socioeconomic status (SES) that will overcome the underlying, but unabashed, racism that persists and will keep me and my children separated from certain experiences. Some even believe there is no way to influence the outcome of black men, no matter what their SES.
Here’s my theory, just like when the government throws money at a problem and it fails to solve it, money will not solve the mindset of a young black man without engaged human commitment.
Encourage the “why?” in your household. “Why does…” “Why can’t we…” “Why are we…”
Then YOUR job is to explain it so they understand it. Questions are not an act of aggression, and independent thinking and challenging what tends to be accepted is the type of strong that young black men need in order to not censor their opinion and ideas.
Do I need to remind my kids every day that they are viewed differently and to be acutely aware of that fact?
I’ve learned that this may not be the way to continue to enter a situation. The word “insecure” was used to describe my behavior.
What? I’m a strong, intelligent black man … I’m the one to be feared! is what I thought initially.
However, introspectively, insecurity is the oil in the engine of my confidence. It doesn’t necessarily drive me, but it keeps my situational awareness mechanical and, ironically, may keep my sureness from “overheating” and at bay.
When I enter a room full of white people, I often feel uncomfortable. Why? Because I have heard about, seen, and experienced enough negative encounters with whites to believe the encounter might end badly, even from a young age; so I scan the room for the closest exit (just in case), another black face, or the white person to avoid.
This is not healthy. It’s a confidence killer and puts me on the defensive and combative, or worse, it censors my opinion.
I don’t want this for my kids.
So, I don’t point out my black sons’ differences. At this age, I celebrate their “wins.” We talk about great competitors, artists, politicians, activists, and scientists who just so happen to look like them. We don’t talk about their struggles, but their accomplishments. My children are young, and we are trying to create positive experiences, leave ideal impressions and build confidence that they are part of the human race — with no sense of doubt. I’m not ignoring the roadblocks that my heroes faced, but today we are building a foundation — they realize greatness comes from first stepping inside the “ring” and not being a spectator, regardless of your color.
My mother did a ridiculously fine job raising a strong black man, no doubt. There has been some luck, but that can be described as when preparation meets opportunity. My identity is the one she instilled in me, and there was no mistake in her method. Will I change the chance of my child being mistaken for a criminal and ultimately shot? Sadly, no, and that fear will persist.
What I can do, though, is give my kids the tools to help reshape what society has decided defines a strong black man.
Kwame Curtis is an Air Force dad and father of three. After four years in South Texas, his family is currently stationed in the United Kingdom and his 4-year-old may never forgive him for the change in climate. He loves to drag his kids to famous sites all over Europe, feed them local food from different countries, and teach them the important things in life, like the words to every Michael Jackson song.