The Talk: What I Must Teach My Black Son About Living in America

When I left Griffin, Georgia, in 1992, I took all my parents’ stories of racism and growing up Black in the South with me. My four years at Dillard University solidified my thoughts on how to live as a strong Black man in America. Once I was married, my wife and I vowed to prepare our children with the lessons we learned from our parents coupled with our own experiences. We realized that the talk was necessary if we wanted our children to be able to navigate being Black in America.

After the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and mostly recent George Floyd, I desired to be more intentional about my Blackness. I wore my t-shirt with “Black boys deserve to grow up too” on it to my son’s baseball practice. One of the white mom’s sent me a direct message via the team’s GroupMe expressing her admiration for my t-shirt and her apologies for me having to express it. She acknowledged that, as parents, we have general worries, however, she never has to worry that her boys will be targeted for the color of their skin. At this moment, I was reminded once again that the preparation and conversations I have with my boys are more intense than those of their white classmates or teammates.

In most White families with teenagers, “the talk” is usually a conversation about sex or interaction with the opposite sex. Of course, Black parents have that same conversation with our teenagers, however, the phrase, “the talk,” has a different meaning in our homes. For many Black families, having the talk refers to a conversation about race and the unwritten rules that America has crafted for survival. It involves instructions on how they must deal with the police, cautions about dealing with their white peers, and other social norms that will keep them safe. The talk is a matter of life and death for us.

Topics Covered in ‘The Talk’

Some of the topics included in these discussions include, but are not limited to, the items below:

  • You’re Black and you should be proud of that fact.
  • You have to work twice as hard as your white classmates to get similar recognition.
  • You can’t do what your white peers do. You must be more vigilant as you will be called out more often than them and treated more severely for any bad behavior. America is less forgiving of Black males. This is more important now with social media.
  • Never leave a store without a receipt because you are more likely to be accused of stealing
  • If you are ever stopped by a police officer, don’t move and keep your hands where they can see them at all times.

Timing of ‘The Talk’

On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling was murdered by two white police officers in Baton Rouge. This incident forced my wife and me to have the talk with our oldest son, who was 14 at the time, a little sooner than we had planned. We could not wait another minute. We had to give him everything we thought he needed, especially when dealing with the police. He knew the event had happened 20 minutes from our home but was shocked at how we reiterated how he should respond to the police. At periods during the conversation he was confused. We had shaped him to be respectful, but we also encouraged him to speak up for himself and others when they were being wronged. His mom stressed that it did not matter who was right or wrong when dealing with the police, the goal was to make it home alive.

The actions of officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, caused me and my wife to relive history. Once again, we were forced to have the talk much earlier than we had planned. This time, the conversation was with our 11-year-old son. Like the first time, our thoughts were filled with years of anger and determination to ensure that our son was prepared when he encountered the police. However, because of his age and experiences, the talk was a conversation of exploration and open discussion. We questioned what he had seen and read on social media. We added how his phone can be used when stopped by the police. Although the talk is ongoing with him, the goal is the same: make it home alive.

Going Forward

My wife and I also have a son who is eight years old. We know that we will also have the talk with him. We also know that the conversation will be unique to him as it was with his brothers. My prayer is that history will not repeat itself and I will not be compelled to have the talk with him at 12 after another tragic event.

History has shown that if my sons take every step we have shared with them in the talk, there is still a chance their lives may be taken because of an act of racism. Although I know these conversations steal some of their innocence, we would be doing them a disservice if we did not do it. We stress to our boys not to fear the police but when you have an encounter with an officer, remember the main message from the talk: make it home alive.

Have you had the talk with your child? What was the age of your child? How did she or he respond? What topics did you include?

If you identify as White, my desire for you is twofold. First, it is imperative that you consider the magnitude of what I have shared with you. Keep in mind that my story represents only one facet of the Black experience in America fueled by years of racial injustices.  Second, I encourage you to engage in conversations and activities that involve Black people. I am convinced that healthy communication and interactions will lead to a greater understanding of who we all are. The world will be a better place because of it.

What are your thoughts? Share in the comments section.

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