Despite my best efforts, I am a single mother. It's a title I'm not too fond of, a repeat of my urban family's legacy of strong black women raising a black boy with men on the fringes. My grandmother eventually became a single mother, as did my mother and now me.
My son, a gigantic 4-year-old with big, bright eyes, doesn't even yet realize that he's a future "black man" and, before that, a "black male teenager," but I do. I am so panicked at the thought that every single solitary thing has to be just so over these next 20 years in order for me to produce a solid, productive adult who understands the world in which he lives, both the realities and the possibilities.
Studies show that African-American women have been outpacing our men in education and corporate America for two generations now. Almost half of black boys wind up a grade behind in school, and only a third of 20-year-old black men are enrolled in college. All the more daunting is the fact that the majority of these boys and men were just like Jason, raised in a home by a single black mother. I have a lot of work to do to ensure that my child clears these hurdles, but they are hurdles that are so elusive, I have yet to get a firm grip on where exactly they lie.
I am a journalist who has covered crime and urban blight, and I love my job. My background, I believe, allows me a certain compassion and sensibility toward the subjects of my articles. But that doesn't mean that when I head home into suburbia, I am not completely awestruck at the fact that my son is only a couple of generations and a few miles away from poverty, crime and abject desperation. He has no idea. Do I tell him? Show him? How? How much? He has to know eventually, for his own good.
I remember my brother, who is a few years younger than me, not being aware of the subtle snubs and racist attitudes he occasionally faced while attending a prestigious private school, and being dumbfounded when he and a pack of friends were all taken in by the police for drinking in a public park and he (the only black kid) was the only one not just released to his parents. How do you explain that?
The plan for Jason, of course, is private school, at a cost of close to $20,000 a year. But then I owe it to him to balance that with a hefty dose of African-American culture--the culture he will surely miss out on at an elite boarding or country day school. Added to the mix is the fact that I am a Generation-X child of hip-hop who embraces rap music and identifies with the likes of Allen Iverson. How do I balance all that? I imagine conversations that will go something like, "OK, Jason, general bling-bling is fine and has its place if you work hard for it... but not watching videos of booty-shaking objectified women!"
He comes from an athletic background, so naturally everybody is attempting to put a basketball or football in his hands and get him signed to Reebok tomorrow, but I shun the pressure, until I realize that I have put my own pressures on him, too. I could read at the age of 2, and called his pediatrician when he couldn't (she laughed at me). I skipped grades and breezed through school, and want him to do the same. All he wants right now, the summer before pre-K, is Thomas the Tank Engine.
I talk to my mom all the time about raising a black man, and there's good and bad news. The good news is she did a pretty good job; the bad news is she's far from done, and my brother is 25. We worry that he moved to a bad neighborhood and may become a victim of crime or, worse yet, accused of one; that he isn't assertive enough at a job where he may be hindered by his race; that black women intimidate him, and that he'll be profiled by police because his pants are baggy. Times are ever changing, so even my mom's experience is slightly different from what mine will be.
Blessedly, there are great men all over the place who love and nurture Jason: my uncle, who drives 40 miles round trip out of his way each Tuesday to take Jason to the barbershop; my dad, who relishes getting it right with his only grandchild. And there are even books intended to coach me on issues like black male masculinity, peer pressure, academic achievement, the lack of fathers and goal setting. I appreciate and seek out all of it. But I still realize that at the end of the day, everything Jason is, everything he trusts about who and what he can become, will come from me. So at night--especially when I have just returned from a long work trip that has taken me away for days--I peek in at him, asleep in his room surrounded by trains and DVDs and basketballs, and I think about all the things I know I have to do for him. And then I get to the real work: I pray.