I almost didn’t attend the world premiere of When They See Us, held last week inside Harlem’s historic Apollo Theatre. I had just returned from a relaxing weekend in Maryland, and thanks to all the travel and my seven-month-old baby boy apparently “dropping,” there was now a dull yet constant ache in my pelvis.
I painfully felt him during each pace as I rushed down 125th Street. My linesister had already warned me of the line around the block to get into the theater, a jumbo mixture of celebrities, press and fans trying to see what Ava DuVernay had been up to.
When I heard that the critically-acclaimed director was taking on the stories of whom she likes to call The Exonerated Five, I wasn’t with child. I wasn’t worried about raising a Black boy in America—a very real challenge of which I’m now acutely aware. Yes, my heart ached when I heard about the killings of Dontre Hamilton, Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Kalief Browder, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray. But after nourishing my beloved in my womb, watching my fiancé kiss my stomach in anticipation of kissing him on his forehead, and dreaming all of the dreams I have for him, my heart does more than ache. It wails. For their lives. For their mothers, too.
From the early scenes in the four-part series, when we learn Kevin Richardson had dreams of becoming a musician, and Antron McCray wanted to become a baseball player, and Korey Wise only went down to the police station so his friend Yusef Salaam wouldn’t be alone, I could feel my son shift in my uterus.
And when the children all went into the park—as kids do—I tensed up. He pushed me back in response with (what I think was) his shoulder. After the police captured some of the boys, and I knew the racist road they’d walk to their demise, my stomach was in knots while tears started steaming down my face. Baby boy kicked me so hard I had to rub my stomach to ensure him everything was OK.
Mommy is just trying to figure out how to raise you footsteps away from Harlem and not lose you. How do you raise a Black boy and not rob him of his childhood when the world is clawing away at it? I sat there trying to figure out how to protect him from police who are afraid of his mere existence; who will see him as an adult even when he’s a child—with an innocence and naïveté only afforded to white children.
Just as love stands the test of time so does hate and racism and bigotry. And while he’s still in my womb, I’ll fight for him to have a better chance in this strange land.
And because he’ll be tall—and I know he will be if my fiancé and I are any indication since we both stand above 5’10—I won’t have much time with his childhood before I have to prepare him to see himself as the abrasive and unforgiving world sees him. I won’t have much time before I show him When They See Us so he can understand the unique power he holds even when the world refuses to understand it.
After the screening, I asked another journalist, who’s raising a 16-year-old son, when did he have “the talk” about police and racism. He replied, “At 11 years old.” The age when other kids are playing with imaginary friends, and kicking balls, and painting, and discovering new books to read, and running around playgrounds and maybe even having their first crush on a girl, our Black boys are mentally preparing themselves for death—death of their innocence, their freedom, their audacity, their boldness, their lives.
As a Black woman raised in Baltimore, I know the cost of living without abandon. I know what happens when you call the cops because you need their help and they end up questioning and assaulting you instead. As infuriating as it was for me learning this lesson for myself as a teenager, I don’t want that for my child some decades later.
I grew up in what they wanted to call a post-racial America, when at times I held the false belief that times were getting better for us, for our communities and for our children. But as Trump continues to intentionally damage our communities, and communities who look like us, and racists walk boldly out of their hiding places, when stories of Living While Black fill up the timeline, if anyone called America post-racial today, we’d think we’re being trolled.
Baldwin already warned me that to be black and American “is to be in a [constant state of] rage.” So I should’ve known that after watching When They See Us I’d be upset. I’m mad because I know how hard my great-grandfather Dr. Carl J. Murphy fought to ensure they saw us as human beings, documenting America’s atrocities in the Afro American Newspaper, becoming so successful it helped fund Brown v. Board of Education to legally fight educational disparities in America. I know how hard my grandmother Ida Murphy Peters fought to ensure they saw us as exceptional, documenting the best entertainers for the same newspaper. I know how hard my mother Vashti Murphy McKenzie fought, pastoring a church across the street from Section 8 housing and offering several ministries that served Baltimore’s forgotten. And stupidly I thought because they had all fought so hard, I wouldn’t have to.
But just as love stands the test of time so does hate and racism and bigotry. And while he’s still in my womb, I’ll fight for him to have a better chance in this strange land. It will surely be the hardest work of my life, but just as his forefathers survived with dignity, I’ll teach him he can too. Just as his forefathers survived with joy in their hearts, I’ll teach him he can too. Just as his forefathers survived with a storied legacy, I’ll teach him he can too. And just as his forefathers chose to never give up in the face of odds even I, his mother, will never understand, I’ll teach he can’t either.
My son, you simply can’t.Share :