I have never celebrated Kwanzaa. Neither my immediate nor extended family has ever celebrated, or barely even acknowledged Kwanzaa. I only know of one personal friend who celebrates Kwanzaa or knows what it is. When I was growing up most people in our family and social circles viewed Kwanzaa with suspicion as some kind of offbeat, anti-religious, maybe even anti-Christian, observance. Apparently my experience is not an outlier.
A 2011 article on The Root.com, “Who Actually Celebrates Kwanzaa?” discussed the results of an unscientific survey of its readers which indicated that only 35% of those surveyed celebrate Kwanzaa. It’s curious why a holiday created by us, for us is still—almost 50 years after its creation—experiencing such lackluster participation. Different explanations have been offered for Kwanzaa’s failure to capture either the imagination, finances, or national interest of the black American community: the after-Christmas timing of observance—December 26-January 1—is not ideal because it taxes people during the busiest holiday time of the year; blacks don’t really understand the purpose of the holiday and haven’t been able to contextualize its celebration to make it meaningful or practical; the scandals that surrounded its creator, Dr. Maulana Karenga, who was convicted in 1971 of felonious assault and false imprisonment following charges that he tortured and beat women members of his activist circle. Whatever the reasons may be, we can’t deny that the stated principles and purposes of Kwanzaa are relevant to the social, political, and economic realities of black people’s lives, especially now as we struggle against renewed assaults on our very value, freedom, and right to exist.
Cultural grounded-ness is at the heart of Kwanzaa as it was created to “serve as a regular communal celebration to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between us as a people,” and to “be an ingathering to strengthen community and reaffirm common identity, purpose, and direction as a people.” Its origins as a tactical resistance measure against white oppression in the mid-1960s and its presence as part of the Black Freedom movement reveal striking parallels between Kwanzaa and the burgeoning protest movements rising today. #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza describes her effort as a “tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.” Activists have already begun to recognize and highlight the common ground between our struggles today and the antecedent conflicts of yesterday. The night the nation was notified that there would be no criminal indictment of former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing teenager Michael Brown, online images almost immediately surfaced that compared photographs of interactions between protesters and police during the King civil rights period, and those between residents of Ferguson and its police. We know we’re both re-living and creating history.
How do we stand our ground against this re-emerging tide of anti-blackness manifesting itself in unjustified killing, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, police brutality and racial profiling, cultural misappropriation, rapes and violent assaults, lower wages, job discrimination, predatory lending, re-segregated schools, and all the other mayhem coming against us? What was once the war-torn environment of large urban areas like Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, and New York has now migrated across the country and blacks feel like embattled refugees in our own country. Tweets from the black community and allies call for unity, resilience, and focus. Black mothers are reminding families to hold their children close and stand up for their rights to a demilitarized education and to live free from unwarranted surveillance, harassment, and targeting. Leaders of established organizations urge protest leaders to identify shared objectives that can unify our concerns and forge a path ahead for results-driven action. Local communities are holding town hall gatherings to discuss their options for protecting their children and getting their voices heard and heeded by politicians and other neighborhood leadership. Spoken word artists, muralists, poets, writers, bloggers, and actors are expressing their and our fears, hopes, frustrations, and resolves over the conditions we face. Even President Obama has weighed in with his My Brother’s Keeper funding and policy initiative. All are good strategies and all are encompassed within the principles of Kwanzaa.
Modeled after traditional African “first fruits” celebrations, Kwanzaa outlines seven principles of focus and practice to uplift and strengthen black identity and community, one for each day of the weeklong celebration. Umoja (Unity) promotes cohesion in the family, community, and race. Kujichagulia (Self determination) says we can define, name, create for and speak for ourselves. Ujima (Collective work and responsibility) encourages us to “build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems.” Ujamaa (Cooperative economics) stresses entrepreneurship and supporting each other’s businesses for our mutual benefit. Nia (Purpose) reminds us to work together for restoration of our people to original greatness. Kuumba (Creativity) speaks to our ability to use our talents, gifts, and ideas to beautify and enhance our community. Imani (Faith), encourages us to believe, with all of our hearts, in our people, parents, teachers and leaders. Without faith, nothing is possible.
Grassroots activists are already living these principles everyday through die-ins, shutting down of freeways, silent vigils, and large-scale marches. It’s just a small step to de-centralize our activities and set time aside in our families and churches to honor their origins and reaffirm our identity as black people striving, dying, and resisting together. Sometimes we must revisit previously discarded aspects of our culture and revive what’s good and helpful for our advancement as a people and Kwanzaa might just be the perfect way to regroup after a tumultuous year.
As a single mother of two boys, we have serious work to do in the Black community and there are some very deep wounds festering among us. I sense hurt, resignation, resentment, anger, confusion, and emotional fatigue.
Though we may disagree on root causes and solutions, I believe there’s one thing we should all be able to admit: single parenting and the attendant and antecedent dynamics are longstanding and complex, especially as they relate to relational issues between Black men and women. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do think I have at least some level of understanding of these issues, and a degree of empathy for both sides. So in that spirit I offer some words to us all.
It’s futile to attempt to dialogue on the issue of single mothers, their children, and the men who fathered those children, without speaking truth into the situation. So from that point I begin.
Some Hard Truths
1. Strictly speaking, mothers are not fathers. This is true whether the parents are married and raising a child together, or separated. The truth of this statement lies not only in function, but in form. To insist that somehow mothers can be fathers is to ignore some very basic realities.
Fatherhood, like motherhood, originates and is defined not just by what a parent does, but also by who the parent is. So then, gender is a foundational underpinning of parenthood. Men are fathers; women are mothers. Acknowledging this truth in no way minimizes or detracts from the unavoidable reality that there are some women who do things that we would traditionally associate with a male role in a child’s life, just as there are some men who perform some of the actions associated with a female role.
But there’s more to parenthood roles than what we do; indeed what we do, and how we do it, is bound to be influenced by who we are. For example, I can teach my son to shave or tie a tie. I can show him a razor, explain how to put the shaving cream on his face, what to do if he nicks himself, etc. I can cover all the technicalities of the process. His father can explain those same things to him, using exactly the same words I use. But it’s not just about the mechanical process; it’s equally about the nuances that come out while father and son are going through this ritual. His father can tell him about the first time he shaved, who helped him learn how to do it, how it feels to get razor bumps. As a man, his father can help our son identify as a man who now does things that other men do. These are things that as a woman, and by virtue of the fact that I am a woman, I simply cannot do. We desperately need to come to terms with this because as long as we resist this truth, we perpetuate a number of undesirable consequences. These are just a few of those consequences:
• We short-circuit the identity formation and development of our children. It’s important for kids to understand how men and women function differently in families and in society.
• We potentially rob fathers of the opportunity to fully grow and develop in their role. Sometimes all a man needs to step up is for the mother to step back … even just a bit will often be enough.
• As women, we overtax ourselves trying to fill roles we weren’t designed to operate in. If we are indeed the only parent in our child’s life, then of course there are actions we must do. But we can do them while acknowledging that as a woman, there will be something missing because we are not a man.
• Sometimes people and resources that could fill some gaps in our child’s life go untapped because we believe that we are indeed mother and father. Simply put, we don’t look for what we feel we haven’t lost.
2. Mothers and fathers both need to determine if they’re really putting the needs of their children first. I know this one is challenging. So much hurt and pain often passes between parents that our emotional baggage piles up on our sons and daughters, and we often don’t realize what’s happening. When fathers are absent or uninvolved, it causes an incredible strain on everyone involved, including grandparents, siblings, and other extended family members.
But the strain is equally damaging when mothers are hostile, resistant, or overstressed. Let’s commit to being better parents. We must ask ourselves some tough questions, for example:
• Am I willing to let the other parent perform his/her role in the way he/she wants to and is able to? Or do I insist that my child’s father/mother parent like I do?
• Do I pray for my child’s mother/father, that they will be the parent my child needs? Or have I made it difficult to pray because I have unresolved issues that I can’t let go of?
• Do I consistently support the other parent’s efforts, no matter how small I think they are? Or do I instead focus on what I believe the other parent leaves undone?
• Do I make every reasonable effort to overcome obstacles that challenge me as I try to be a good parent? Or am I making excuses for why I’m not taking care of business?
• Do I accept constructive criticism and feedback from the other parent on how I could make our relationship and interactions as parents healthier, and then work diligently, and without resentment, to address those issues? Or am I more interested in being right and winning arguments?
• Do I have a martyr complex? Do I find reasons to refuse help so that my child will see me as the better, more committed parent, and therefore shower more love on me? Or am I actively seeking the other parent’s input and suggestions with a true intention to work with him/her?
Pray, Think, Talk
There are, of course, many more questions that will give us insight on the position of our hearts. But the ones shared here can at least get us started on a road that leads to more transparent, effective parenting. In a future column, I’ll outline some additional ideas to keep the conversation going.
So, what do you think?
Do me a favor. Read this article all the way through, and then put it aside for 24 hours. During that time, pray about what you’ve read and how you feel about it. Ask the Lord to give you insight on what applies to you and what He wants you to do about it. Then read the article again. Please share your thoughts by commenting at any point in this process.
Black womanhood as of late has received a much-needed and long-overdue boost. Increased conversations and initiatives among black and mainstream media alike have moved the needle on the gauge of black women’s images toward change and positivity. Now it’s time to expand the dialogue to include black motherhood.
Defying black motherhood stereotyping is not just so that we can look better on television and in films. Our living above others’ ignorance will break down the walls dividing all black mothers, release us from the mental and emotional strain of constantly defending ourselves, and empower us to bring large-scale change to this country—all for the health, safety, and success of our precious and beautiful children.
It stands to reason that the public image of black mothers is an extension of the opinions held about black women. The Jezebel stereotype of black women being sexually promiscuous yields the stereotype of all black moms being hyper-fertile baby-making machines. The reality is that we have a proportionate share of women who struggle with infertility. Similarly, the prevailing misconception that black women are angry, masculine, and sharp-tongued translates to an image of black mothers being emotionally distant and stoic, harsh disciplinarians, and understandably unmarried or without committed relationships. And just as the perceptions of black women are complicated, so they are also of black motherhood. Kimberly Seals Allers, founder of the mom and parenting site for women of color, MochaManual.com, and national black breastfeeding advocate, accurately describes the true paradox of the black maternal role: “…[B]lack women are somehow viewed as perfectly capable and desirable for taking care of other people’s children, but yet viewed as incapable of taking care of our own.” Mammy, not mommy, seems to be others’ preferred label for us.
Much of the stereotyping of black motherhood stems from the prevalence of single mothers in our community. Public discourse often reveals that black motherhood is assumed to be single motherhood and thus any pathology thought to be associated with single moms is automatically transferred to moms generally. “…[N]on-blacks don’t know who we are. So they think women like Michelle Obama—educated, married, devoted mother—are anomalies, instead of understanding that there are scores of black mothers who are this norm and a relative minority who have been amplified into the stereotype”, says Seals Allers. This type of over-generalization has caused internal divisions to arise within the black community itself. Married moms don’t want to be collapsed into the stereotype, and single mothers are tired of having all the ills of the black community laid at their feet. Even the black church feeds into the negativity projected onto black motherhood. Undoubtedly, it is right for the church to speak truth about non-marital childbearing, but in the case of our single moms, the traditional adage, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ doesn’t seem to apply, as illustrated by Pastor Marvin Winans’ refusal to bless the child of a single mother in the church’s dedication ceremony. Charity Grace could bring her child for a private blessing ceremony but was informed that Winans “does not bless children of unmarried mothers in front of his congregation.” Considering Winans’ own challenge of having to address allegations of infidelity and fathering a son out of wedlock, the irony of his pronouncement was not lost on many, including Stacia Brown, founder of Beyond Baby Mamas, a blog and initiative that provides a space for conversations among single mothers of color. Ms. Brown understands the stigma surrounding black motherhood, especially single mothers, and offers this insight:
A woman’s circumstances around single motherhood rarely [matter]. …I think the conversation about single mothers in the church should start there. Do we know who we’re stigmatizing? Do we know her story? Shouldn’t we extend grace regardless?
Indeed, a powerful starting point for changing public perceptions and stereotypes of black motherhood is an honest look at our own minds and hearts. How can we credibly critique others’ mishandling of us if we mishandle, judge, and excoriate ourselves? Do we believe our mothers are lazy, neglectful, and inept? Some of us might be, but aren’t we allowed diversity within our ranks, just like any other demographic group? We won’t all be Claire Huxtable; some of us will be Mary Lee Johnston. Showing ourselves grace, kindness, and compassion is an important self-care tactic in an overall resistance strategy. Another prong of our strategy should be to actively rebut the misrecognitions where, how, and to the extent we can. Brown makes a good point when she says, “Taking on all critics can be exhausting and it makes for a relentlessly defensive life. My personal approach, outside of my Beyond Baby Mamas efforts, is to be the absolute best mother I can be. Providing your child with a great family life won’t completely silence critics, but it’s the best counter-argument we can make.” Seals Allers echoes a similar sentiment when she suggests that we are experiencing image management fatigue and just want to focus on being the best mothers we can for our children. Personal excellence is a workable strategy to relieve the internal stress, and this is important because chronic stress seriously impacts our mental and emotional health, thereby affecting all of our relationships. But allowing so much wrong information and degrading imagery about our lives to persist is also damaging and hinders our needed involvement in critical cultural conversations and policy development.
If in fact, black moms are tired of waging the everyday battles we face and wondering if we can make any difference, we have contemporary examples of powerful advocacy being done on a national and international level by moms of color to inspire us. On the international stage, Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner and co-founder and leader of Liberian Mass Action for Peace, led a resistance movement that ended the 14-year Liberian civil war. In her provocative memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation At War, she clearly connects her groups’ effectiveness, motivation, and source of influence to their status as mothers. Speaking to then Liberian president Charles Taylor during a pivotal negotiation summit she said, ““…[T]he women of Liberia…, we are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for [food]. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’”
Stateside, grief and devastation over repeated and unrequited injustice against our children was on national display when Trayvon Martin was murdered and when his killer was subsequently acquitted of his murder. Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton provided a stereotype-shattering display of grace, poise, and resolve as she lamented his death and is now advocating for common sense gun reform and the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws. She reminded black mothers everywhere that we don’t have to limit ourselves to the common black mom stereotype of private, but impotent grief—cathartic for the griever, but lacking transformative power. Ms. Fulton demonstrated that we can transition our grief to public influence and power. Other noteworthy models of effective black mom-based activism include: Mocha Moms, Inc.’s Occupy Schools™ education initiative, led by Kuae Mattox; Kimberly Seals Allers’ innovative Black Breastfeeding 360 campaign to educate and raise awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding among moms of color; Tonya Lewis Lee’s spokesperson role for the Office of Minority Health’s Healthy Baby campaign to reduce black infant mortality; and 1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence, a non-profit created by Lorrain Franklin-Taylor, who lost her 22-year-old twin sons, Albade and Obadiah Taylor, to gun violence. And there are other potential issues for high-impact policy and cultural involvement of black mothers, including disabilities, sexuality and sex education programming and funding, mental health, childcare, criminal justice reform, and employment issues like a living wage and maternal leave policies.
Black motherhood needs to be humanized and re-conceptualized. We are more than grief and shame and hardship. We are also joyous and communal and emotionally available and wise and intellectual. It benefits us and our society to lean in to the full spectrum of our mothering.
James Fortune has won three Stellar awards and has been nominated twice for a Grammy award. In 2004, his hit single “You Survived” was the second most played gospel song in the country; even now, 12 years later, it remains in the top seven of most-played gospel songs.
In 2001, three years before Mr. Fortune lit up the gospel music scene with “You Survived” and other popular tracks, he stripped his then-four-year-old stepson naked, beat him with a switch, ran a tub full of scalding hot water, forced the already-battered child into that tub, and held him there. When speaking to the 911 emergency dispatcher about the incident, he lied, saying the child burned himself by running the water at a too-hot temperature and getting into the tub. He pleaded guilty to the charge of felony injury of a child, but in a statement after the trial, stressed that he was never convicted of any felony charge. His trouble with the law didn’t end there.
On October 24, 2014, Mr. Fortune was arrested for aggravated assault of a family member with a deadly weapon. The family member turned out to be his wife, and the weapon was revealed to have been a bar stool. In 2016, through a plea deal, he pleaded guilty to the aggravated assault charge—a third-degree felony—and received five days in jail plus five years of probation. Other than some irate women commenters on websites that have covered the incidents, the response from the Christian community seems to have been a collective “So what?”
The “so what” factor isn’t entirely surprising but is nonetheless disappointing. A four-year-old child was burned on over 40% of his body and permanently disfigured, and a woman suffered broken bones and internal injuries. Certainly that child and that woman deserved more from the Christian community than they received. In fact, James Fortune in interviews has thanked fans for their love and support during those times, but where was the love and support for his stepson and wife? Don’t their lives matter?
This isn’t the first time a high-profile Black Christian has become entangled with the law or transgressed the law of God. Contemporary Christian music mega-star Israel Houghton admitted to committing adultery and causing the breakup of his 20-year marriage; World Changers Ministries leader Creflo Dollar was investigated for allegedly choking his teenage daughter during a verbal conflict at their home; Bishop Eddie Long was outed for allegedly having multiple sexual relationships with young men; Minister Thomas Weeks stomped then-wife and popular evangelist Juanita Bynum in an Atlanta hotel parking lot.
Grammy Award Winner Israel Houghton performs for a sold out audience. Houghton is one of many gospel greats that has publicly admitted to infidelity in his marriage.
Because of sin, potential scandal resides within the bosom of every follower of Christ, so the question becomes, “What say we to these things?” because more definitely needs to be said and done.
First, acknowledge that sin is real, and the struggle to overcome it is real. It causes real damage and suffering. Here language makes a difference and often reveals hesitation to call a thing a thing. Too often the “all” in “all have sinned” only includes others, and the “sinned” gets labeled as episodes of misspeaking, misconduct, mistake, and other non-culpable acts.
If sin is named and claimed by the perpetrators, true healing and restoration can begin. Which leads to the second necessary adjustment: change the objective of accountability. The legitimate reasons to hold James Fortune and others in similar positions accountable are to restore them to right fellowship with God and with their fellow believers and to heal the heart of susceptibility toward that sin.
Humiliation, disgrace, and revenge or vindication are not acceptable motives for calling anyone to account for sin. If violence, non-marital sex, lying, manipulation, and such are treated as sin, the connection between the problem and the remedy becomes much more apparent.
Third, restore biblical church discipline. Talk to almost any Black churchgoer, and you’re liable to hear a story of someone in a leadership position being “sat down” for some wrongdoing. But just sitting a person down doesn’t necessarily produce restoration for the guilty party, nor healing for the victims.
Authentic church discipline scares people because it violates two long-held and sacrosanct views of addressing problems and trouble in the Black community—keep it quiet and don’t judge. Moreover, secular ideas of shame have crept into the thinking of many church leaders and congregants alike, resulting in a laissez-faire approach to dealing with sin and its consequences.
Finally, remember the victims. Seeing James Fortune’s plight play out in the media is an opportunity to re-examine compassion and grace but also to reconsider justice and healing. There are many James Fortunes, Cheryl Fortunes, sons, and daughters living through similar circumstances.
They need justice for the sin committed against them and healing for the devastation wrought within them. Their pain needs to be acknowledged and addressed within the context of meaningful accountability and action, and we must be able to depend on Christian leaders to shepherd people through these processes.
Have you witnessed instances of authentic, effective church discipline in your congregation?
Have you ever been part of an accountability group or reconciliation process?
If the church isn’t addressing these issues effectively, what legitimate role does the state play in getting justice for victims?
The premise is simple but powerful: our country’s criminal justice system, particularly as applied to our youngest citizens, is irreparably broken. Don’t try to reform it; dismantle it. This bold approach might seem extreme, but a serious consideration of the overwhelming evidence for such a proposition stops in its tracks our halting and limping toward some kind of middle ground for justice. Veteran journalist Nell Bernstein’s stunning book, “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison” lays bare the incomprehensible racism, brutality, and turbulence that undergird and motivate our juvenile justice system. The numbers tell the story[i]:
*As reported in February 2013, 66,332 American kids were housed in juvenile facilities.
* A 2010 federal survey indicated that more than a third of juveniles in secure facilities reported that staff used excessive force; about 50% had experienced some kind of ‘group punishment’.
* A 2011 Annie E. Casey Foundation report authored by Richard Mendel reports pervasive abuse of juveniles in the system, including “systemic violence, abuse, and/or excessive use of isolation or restraints” in 39 states.
* Youth of color make up 38% of the youth population but 72% of locked up juveniles.
* In Mississippi, guards stripped girls who demonstrated suicidal behavior, tied them up and threw them into solitary confinement; they also forced girls to run in hot weather carrying logs, and when they got sick from heat exhaustion, forced them to eat their own vomit.
* In Georgia, guards punched a young boy so hard in the ear that it punctured his eardrum.
* A teen girl in a juvenile facility recounts being sexually abused by the man who was assigned as her counselor.
Nell and I had a very personal, transparent conversation about her book wherein we each learned from the other as we considered the state of the juvenile justice system and what it means for us and our communities. Below is an excerpt from our talk, edited for clarity.
CWC: This book was hard for me to get through. There were times when I literally stopped and put it down anywhere from a couple minutes to a few days because there were some parts that were hitting home in a personal way or were just so devastating for me to read and be up close and personal with that I had to step away. So I’m thinking if I’m reacting that way reading it, what was it like for you writing it?
NB: That’s funny when you ask that question; I was thinking that I had the same kinds of feelings when I was reporting it. I’ve known kids and worked with kids who’ve been locked up for a couple decades and so in a way for me I think that was the harder part when they were kids I loved. I think there’s a little bit of numbing that you have to engage in as a reporter; but I remember Gladys Carrion who was the head of the juvenile system in New York, she talked about visiting her facilities when she first took that job and then sitting in the parking lot and crying and I do remember doing that sometimes.
CWC: The average reader, someone who [is not an advocate or familiar with the issues]—do you want them to have a certain kind of reaction, i.e. a ‘shock-the-conscious’ sort of thing?
NB: Absolutely, yes. I think there’s a lot of work out there that’s really good work that offers a more distanced analysis of why this is a failed system. But I did feel like there was a need for something that included that analysis but also went for the gut. It’s almost become in my mind not ok not to be upset about what we’re doing to kids. It’s funny in terms of the pushback that I expected versus the response I’ve gotten. First of all, I’ve gotten very little pushback from conservative radio and more mainstream venues for a position that I would’ve thought would be seen as pretty extreme. The only pushback I’m getting is, ‘This can’t be true. This is not a credible writer. She has to be making this up.’ When I reported the book [and] heard a story like [the one about a young man incarcerated who was made to kneel for two weeks], I always did my best to check it out. What I found when I looked at court papers and investigations in that particular facility was not only official reports that kids were being forced to kneel for long periods of time but that in some cases they were forced to kneel upon sharp objects. So it was even worse than this kid had told me. I think the way that we protect ourselves seems to have gone from, ‘These are bad kids. If they didn’t want to have this happen they shouldn’t have done these things’, to a certain level of disbelief.
As I read the book, I waited to see whether Nell would explicitly name racism as a factor in the functional collapse of the juvenile justice system. She did not disappoint.
CWC: One of my favorite chapters in the book was Chapter 3: Other People’s Children. In that chapter, you say, “Racism does not merely inform or infuse our juvenile justice system; it drives that system at every level, from legislation to policing to sentencing to conditions of confinement and enforcement of parole.” I get weary of people talking around it, trying to come up with different ways to say it. Or they try to attribute racism to other things and it gets under my skin. Given the truth of a statement like that, can changing how we confine and treat juveniles really change why we do it? Does it matter why we do it, or just how?
NB: That’s a really profound question. I guess the first thing I’d say is that changing how we confine [kids] to me is a different question from changing whether we confine them. I’ve visited therapeutic prisons and what I call ‘better mousetraps’ but they’re still based on this premise that the best way to deal with either certain actions or certain groups of kids is to isolate them. I have a personal problem with that premise, [and] all the research indicates that confinement doesn’t rehabilitate, [but] in fact exacerbates whatever problems led to the original act. But are you saying that even if we changed our response so that it was something other than confinement, if we didn’t change how we thought about the kids, would that really make a difference? Is that your question?
CWC: Yes because to your point, racism is at the very bottom of it.
NB: I think unless we can change the way that we look at kids and get rid of this notion that there is such a thing as ‘someone else’s kid’, or ‘a different kind of kid’, we’re not going to make lasting progress. And I say that for two reasons.
One is my fear that the main driver has been financial. Until state budgets really began to crumble, [reform] just didn’t happen. I used to call incarceration the last standing entitlement because I think we reached a point where states couldn’t balance their budget unless they did something about [mass incarceration of juveniles]. My fear is that if the economy shifts, if our thinking doesn’t shift along with it then we’ll just fill those beds right back up again. You can tinker with the facility but when you don’t change the fundamental relationship between the ‘keeper’ and the ‘kept’ there’s resentment that the kids have built up and it’s built up over years and years. It’s not going to just go away because you unlock a door but don’t change the fundamental premise that [kids] need to be confined and isolated.
Whose responsibility is it to address these issues? Is it up to the families only?
CWC: With the kind of bias that we’ve just been talking about being so entrenched, people have started having town halls where they’re talking about this is what you do if you get stopped; these are your rights; this is what you need to know if you’re out with friends, etc. And I’m beginning to wonder are those kinds of [conversations] ultimately helpful? In other words, trying to build a structure around our children that is supposed to keep them [safe]—does that matter?
NB: You’ve gone right to the heart of where I’m most uncomfortable. I feel like it is made the responsibility of black people to address this, but I think if we don’t talk about [it as] a white issue and then an everybody issue too, then it’s the thing that [black people] know, but nobody [else] speaks.
CWC: As the mother of two African-American young men, I’m concerned that in our effort to try to stem the tide or wrap another layer of protection around our kids, we’re buying into the erroneous thought that says, ‘There’s something else out there [something that parents aren’t doing] that will help this situation‘ [of young black people being targeted by law enforcement and the justice system]. It seems we’re saying that the racial disparities or racism is really about [parents] telling kids to be respectful; telling them not to wear their hoodies after six; tell[ing] them don’t put their hands in their pockets; make your hands visible at all times; and make sure if you get stopped you put your hands on the steering wheel. I’m afraid [this approach] gives our kids a false sense of security. As if there really is something they can do if they run up against Jim Bob in North Carolina or Albany or Orlando that is going to stop him from proceeding in the way [he determined] to proceed from the moment he saw that child.
NB: I honestly don’t know what to say to that. I’m a hyper-vigilant mother anyway so because of the work I do, I have had that conversation with my kids and understand that they are much safer. I remember my son asking me when he was about 10: ‘When’s it going to hit? When are they going to start looking at me with suspicion?’ I think [the issue is] racialized, but there’s also a hatred of youth generally, and youth in groups, and youth in mixed groups; it’s really complicated. I don’t know the answer on an individual level. Definitely it shouldn’t be an individual parent’s responsibility.
These are our children—all of ours. They know the system is broken, and they want out.
“The many thousands of young people locked away today cannot afford to wait for incremental reform. … As the decades-long debate over juvenile justice drags on, these are the young people whose lives hang in the balance. They are living in a state of emergency, and they want someone—everyone—to take notice.” Burning Down the House, p. 318
It can’t be fixed, so it’s time to burn the whole thing down.
[i] As reported in Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison