The Talk: Preserving Joy for Black Children

By October 7, 2021 TEDx Talk

Below is the raw script to my recent TEDx Talk I recently gave for TEDx Collier Heights

It was in a small house on the southside of Atlanta where my grandad helped me have the first dose of the reality that I was a Black child.

I remember the day so vividly.  I can see the furniture, feel the air and still smell the breakfast my grandmother was cooking. I was ten years old and was sitting across from my grandfather.

His hands were worn from providing for his family for many years working, while the gray from his beard and hair spoke of the existential experiences he collected from living as a black man in this country.

He leaned towards me to offer what I now treasure as words of wisdom for my children, Zion Joy and Terence II.

He said, “this world will be hard, and you will be mistreated because of the color of your skin, but remember you always have your family… that’s your support system….”

At ten, I was unaware of the atrocities faced by my ancestors and what it meant to live in brown skin, but my grandfather made sure I knew that to exist in this skin came with a set of circumstances that would trail me for the rest of my life.

I remember my ten-year-old brain not fully comprehending what he was saying, but I knew it must have been necessary, because my palms started sweating, and I could feel the fear rising.

What did he mean? Why would he tell me something so serious?

The Talk is a sort of a rite of passage for black children. Essentially, we are taught how to behave in a society set up to see black skin as a threat and mitigate potential harm.

It’s a conversation that black parents and grandparents consider a necessary evil, dreading the day where their children go from being innocent to being considered threats (Solis, 2021).

According to The Washington Post (2020), Black children have an adult view of racial, social constructs as early as age ten.

“For generations, “The Talk” has been a mainstay in black families. At some point, Black children all get warnings from elders about how to avoid – and survive – police encounters.” (GBP News, 2020, first paragraph)

Talks from everyone

These talks continued to come from my uncles, coaches at the recreational center where I played sports, black teachers, and my mother.

I started to have the type of anxiety that made me wonder if I would be safe to exist while black.

The more I heard “The Talk,” the more I struggled with questions—and sometimes those questions that went unanswered.

I was being taught how to behave but didn’t know how to maintain the natural joy I had from being a child.

I’ll never forget my mother passionately giving me her version of “The Talk” as I became a teenager. A single mother, raising two children (one being a son) in a world that sees color,

“Always keep your hands out of your pocket when you walk into a store….”

“If you don’t have money, do not go into a store….”

“If people are watching you while you are shopping, pull your money out of your pocket and make it visible….”

Although this Talk came from a place of concern, it often produces a fear that many children have to live with throughout childhood. My mom told me,

“When you start to drive and get pulled over, keep your hands on the wheel. (10-2)”

“Do not wear baggy clothes… and keep your hair cut low….”

“Because you are a young black man… you already have two strikes against you….”

“Never pick up anything if you don’t intent to buy it….”

The Fear That Comes from The Talk

All these rules seemed overwhelming to me.

Now I am a thirteen-year-old, and those words have become a reality. I was at the park in a nearby neighborhood with a few friends, and police officers pulled up in two cars one day.

They seemed to be looking for someone, and they asked everyone to come to the street and stand on the curb.

One of my friends yelled, “we haven’t done anything…” to which the officers made us all sit on the curb as one of the officers unholstered his gun….

Could this be what my grandfather and mom were talking about? I asked myself. The fear began to settle in.

My friends and I made it home safely that night, but I left thinking that it could’ve been my last night alive. These thoughts began to fill my mind as I saw black men and women depicted negatively on television.

Who are we? Where did we come from? Why is there so much hatred towards us? Gaps were missing in the Talk. I did not understand the greatness and gifts I possessed and instead lived in perpetual fear of who people might perceive me to be.

There were times when I needed someone to say,

“It’s true you will be treated poorly in some settings because of white supremacy…but your blackness is not defined by whiteness….”

“You are the seed of ancestors who built pyramids, ruled land as kings and queens, and maintained joy, community, and faith, despite oppression….”

“You are from a people who are ideators, intellectuals, scholars, and inventors….”

“You have not been defined by history but have helped shape history….”

I learned Black history watching my grandparents. I saw images contrary to what the TV told me Black people were.  My grandparents were married 70 years before my grandfather’s death. Papa Herman modeled what it meant to have joy.

He once told me, “When you get your family, make sure you make your family a priority….” I knew that I would have to prepare to give “the talk” one day with that message, but I would do it differently.

My Turn to Give The Talk

And then my turn to give “the talk” came. My son walked into the room right after George Floyd was murdered.

The news stations showing the knee pressed in Mr. Floyd’s neck and then flashing to the tanks and police officers in the streets standing on guard while peaceful protestors gathered to mourn and advocate for Mr. Floyd and against police brutality.

My nine-year-old son walks in and notices the tanks on the screen look different from his toys, and the questions come—

Dad, why are their tanks on the television? And, why did that man have his knee on the neck of that man?

What is a protest?

After all these years of processing “the talk”, it is game time and I find myself a little unprepared to have “the talk.”

Now, I was in the driver’s seat.

The Talk Happened Everyday

While I say I was unprepared, I was. It was kind of how Olympic sprinters still get nervous at the start of a race, despite the fact they have been training their whole lives. This is how I was.  I was nervous but ready because I had a head start.

I have been having “the talk” with my children before they could talk.

Every day we discuss their worth, value, their potential, and the long legacy of our Black heritage.

Every morning, they hear they are leaders who the world needs them to take up space.

Every day they are affirmed and validated.

This mattered because I did not want “the talk” meant to ensure their physical safety to compromise the preservation of their joy.

Because having to tell your children to reduce themselves to the least objectionable agent, is a humiliating feeling—and one that places the fear of Blackness in children.

The real “talk” is about Black existence and not white superiority.

Why? Because the fear that the Talk perpetuates gets dragged into adulthood and leads to imposter syndrome and limiting beliefs.

It is time to tell our children,

“You are not how people treat you because you wear a hoodie.”

“You are not who they say you are because you sell items outside of a store.”

“You do deserve to breathe, and sleep in your apartment, and go for a jog down the street….and not be chased down and hunted”

And, “the talk” has to exist across races. White parents are charged with teaching their children to be anti-racist as we teach our children to embrace their full selves without any fear of their existence.

After explaining to my son what a protest was, he decided to have a peaceful protest at home. I learned that his confidence in wanting to do that directly resulted from all the conversations we’d had with my daughter and him about their worth.

He saw worth in Mr. Floyd even when most people didn’t….

A New Talk

My son’s question prompted me to remember not to give the routine “Talk” I received, but it was a moment to change the narrative.

Many parents, guardians, and mentors tend to “teach as they were taught,” but I intentionally wanted to teach a “new” talk.

So I propose a new talk. I offer a talk that will UPLIFT our children each day:

We must,

Understand that children need a daily talk about their greatness in this world, despite white supremacy. If we aren’t talking to them daily, negative images about Blackness tell them who we are.

We must,

Proximate positive images of Black joy and success to reinforce the idea that they are free to take up space in a world of whiteness. And intentionally place pictures of joy around our homes to ensure our children see themselves as part of a joyful culture.

We must,

Learn empowering ways to talk about history to encourage them to dream of a world where their Blackness matters. Every single second we don’t teach history, they are losing the information of our heritage.

We must,

Invite them to ask unlimited questions about black adulthood and answer any questions about navigating Black existence. Questions allow us to correct misinformation.

We must,

Focus on intentionally sharing our experiences and learning new historical information with them. We must be truthful about what we do not know and share our experiences with each chance we get.

Lastly, we must,

Take them to do fun things where no fear is present to reinforce their joy. Because the more we normalize joy, the more joy becomes normal.

Exposing Black children to positive imagery is more valuable than our community’s struggle because of white supremacy.

It’s critical to teach children that their Blackness is not a life sentence, not a mistake, and not a punishment to be feared.

Indeed, our Blackness is a gift, a beautiful artistry, an expression of God’s creation. Let’s UPLIFT our children and preserve their innocence and joy.

Thank you

References

Mahadevan, P. (n.d.). ‘The talk’ is a rite of passage in black families. even when the parent is a police officer. Georgia Public Broadcasting. https://www.gpb.org/news/2020/06/26/the-talk-rite-of-passage-in-black-families-even-when-the-parent-police-officer.

Russell, T. (2020, July 23). Perspective | how black and white families are talking about racism in a time of reckoning. The Washington Post.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/06/03/how-do-families-talk-about-racism-with-their-kids/.

Solis, G. (2021, March 10). For black parents, ‘the Talk’ binds GENERATIONS, reflects changes in America. USC News. https://news.usc.edu/183102/the-talk-usc-black-parents-children-racism-america/.