I don’t know what happens to my brain as I scroll through the news early in the morning.
The bright glow of my phone illuminates my face as I see people peacefully protesting in the streets with their masks on, cars on fire, fists in the air, broken windows and boarded up stores, the comments sections that degrade influencers, brands, and business owners for speaking out, and military tanks rolling out to shoot rubber bullets and tear gas from our supposed leader who is hiding in a bunker.
It’s 5:30am, and I can hear my baby start to stir in his crib.
I get up and join the millions of mothers across the world who are doing the same thing at this hour. I bend over his crib, unwrap his swaddle, and sing his name as those adorable bright, brown eyes look back at me like I, in my plain T-shirt and sweatpants, just happen to be the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.
In an instant, I’ve gone from looking at the anger and frustration of people who have, for far too long, fallen victim to systemic racism in this country to looking at the eyes of my beautiful, Black son while holding, in my heart, the hope for a better future.
I know the anger behind the screams and chants of those people in the streets. I’ve experienced racism and prejudice my entire life—from microaggressions in the workplace to being screamed at by a white man who thought I was stealing.
But for now, at 5:30am, I put aside my own anger so that I can do what needs to be done: diaper change, breakfast, find the teether, and text my friends later today to figure out how they transitioned out of the swaddle.
I add one thing to my to-do list: make a better world for Lennon James Gist.
His name is a cocktail of hope and history.
Lennon, for the rock star who asked us to imagine a better world. A song that I listened to on my Chicago balcony with a swollen, pregnant belly and a carton full of cookie dough ice cream.
I know the anger behind the screams and chants of those people in the streets. I’ve experienced racism and prejudice my entire life.
James, for my grandfather who grew up in a small town in South Carolina, the son of sharecroppers who fought in the Korean War and worked for 30+ years in a factory making the cars of the American Dream—a dream he was denied because of the color of his skin. A man of exceptional character that has two nephews and now, one great-grandson named after him.
Gist, a last name that I traced back to a South Carolina governor who owned my ancestors at a plantation that you can get married on today—ignoring true history in the name of true love.
Like every mother, I want the very best for my child, and I will do everything to protect him, but only mothers of a certain hue understand the anxiety that looms over me. My baby is 6 months old, and I have yet to meet a single person who doesn’t oogle over his chubby thighs, sweet smile, and nappy little head of hair. But at what age will he be seen as a threat?
When will I break his innocence?
At what age will I have to sit him down and say, “Some kids may not want to play with you because of the color of your skin.” At what age will I have to make him put his hands back in the air and repeat back to me, “I’m Lennon James Gist, my ID is in my left pocket, and my cell phone is in my right. I don’t have anything on me that will harm you, and I wish you no harm.”
At what age will I have to say, “Take off your hoodie before you walk to the store for candy, and if anyone stops you, call me immediately.”
My friends tell me it’s around 7 or 8 years old.
Like every mother, I want the very best for my child, and I will do everything to protect him, but only mothers of a certain hue understand the anxiety that looms over me … At what age will he be seen as a threat? When will I break his innocence?
And when he’s 5, a teacher could misdiagnose him with a behavior disorder for being too outspoken in class.
When he’s 6, he could be arrested for disrupting class.
When he’s 11, he could be murdered for playing with a toy gun.
When he’s 16, he could be murdered for walking down the street wearing a hoodie and eating Skittles.
When he is 25, he could be murdered in police custody.
Along with his ABCs, I will teach him the delicate dance of self-preservation that has been passed down from generation to generation: Keep your hands in sight and out of your pockets in the store. Don’t use anything until we’ve paid for it. Be quiet and respectful. Call me when you get there and when you’re on your way home, and let me know that you’re safe.
At what age will I have to make him put his hands back in the air and repeat back to me, ‘I’m Lennon James Gist, my ID is in my left pocket, and my cell phone is in my right. I don’t have anything on me that will harm you, and I wish you no harm.’ My friends tell me it’s around 7 or 8 years old.
These are the things that most of us will tell our children, but if my son doesn’t follow these rules, someone may call the police, and then it may be too late.
When they call will they know that he was 4 lbs 8 oz at birth? Will they know that the best feeling in the world was when they put him on my chest for the first time? Will they know that we spent the first six weeks of his life in the same position because we couldn’t bear to be apart?
As a Black mother, I am exhausted, but I do not believe that this world is beyond change because I don’t believe that people are beyond change. We can change the world when we change our minds. Changing our world is like learning to walk. We will stumble. We will fall. We will bruise our knees, but we can never move forward if we don’t try.
I ask you to ask questions and question everything.
I ask that you include diverse voices in every room you’re in and at every table you sit at.
I ask that you educate and expose your children to people of all races, all religions, all socioeconomic backgrounds and give them the opportunity to do better.
For now, the world is on fire … but my world, Lennon, is teething.