This post is part of our Social Impact Summer Series. Initiated by The Institute for Social Justice Inquiry and Praxis and the Faculty Blog editorial team, the Series is meant to facilitate timely reflections and commentaries on unfolding events and to provide space for our faculty colleagues to strategize and coordinate efforts as we work toward freedom for ourselves, our students, and our communities.
On Monday night, my son, who is 9 ½ years old, came into my room and said, “Mommy, can I sleep next to you tonight? For just one night?” Normally, the answer would be, ‘No.’ My husband has been adamant about my son establishing his independence and learning to do things on his own. He must learn to pick out his own hair. He must cut his own pancakes in the morning and fix his own oatmeal in the evening. He must take out the trash. He must be responsible for knowing when to get online to attend his courses and for submitting his homework on time. And he must sleep in his own room, in the dark, alone. I admire how my husband insists on making him self-sufficient. It helps me resist the urge to ‘baby’ him. I understand that he must fall on his face from time to time in order to learn from his mistakes. And it has not been much of a struggle. He does all the things that we expect. He seems to be a normal, rambunctious, curious 9-year-old boy. My son knows he is loved. He knows God loves him. He knows I love him. And so, we let him stumble, and we are there when he needs us.
But this was not just any Monday night. This was the Monday night after Rayshard Brooks had been shot in the back and killed by police officers only a few miles away. This was the Monday night after he watched a Wendy’s burn down (He loves Frosty’s). This was the Monday a couple of weeks after George Floyd had been killed with that police officer’s knee on his neck. This was the Monday before Father’s Day. And I hesitated before deciding not to ask him why he wanted to sleep next to me. I already knew. I knew he was consumed with thoughts about what he had been seeing on television. I knew he was trying to understand what it means to protest. He had seen people marching in the streets for weeks. I knew he was confused because he thought that we couldn’t be out in big crowds because of ‘that Corona’ he wishes would just go away. I knew he was now in search of something new to say when people ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For the past three years, whenever he received that question, his answer had been, “A police officer.” But now, in his mind, people don’t like police officers. Now, police officers kill people. More specifically, they kill Black people. And they hurt people who march in the streets. I knew he was scared.
And so am I. I am scared that the innocence in my son is fading faster than I expected. I am scared that he will witness more harm than good in the years he has on this earth. I am scared that he will never fully be comfortable in his own skin. And I am scared that I have come to a moment where I am just as confused as he is. Now, I was not raised to live in fear, and I don’t teach my son to live that way. We teach him that we are empowered and that we live by faith. Still, from time to time, as a human being, I am scared. This was one of those times.
We are not okay. What is happening in our society is not okay. In times like these, we must lean into our purpose. We must find avenues to cope and we must contribute to change. My contribution and my coping come through caring for and teaching Black men at an HBCU, and through writing. I wrote about the grieving mothers of slain Black men in the Journal of Black Studies three years ago. It breaks my heart that I am still writing about it today, but I must contribute and hope for change.
This climate has led me to hold on to moments because they become more and more precious each day. So, in that moment, on that Monday night, when my 9-year-old son asked to sleep next to me, I said, “Yes, baby. Come on in.” I lay awake most of the night with my hand on his back. And just when I thought my weariness was morphing into numbness, God allowed me to feel. I could feel my son’s heartbeat, and I could feel him breathe.
Felicia R. Stewart, J.D., Ph.D., is Chair of the Division of Social & Cultural Studies and a Professor of Communication