99 Problems

Published on November 13th, 2017 | by Carla Rachel Sameth


Things That Happened as My Black Son Got Older

1. 1995: Do I really think about what it means: “One in three or one in four Black men will be incarcerated,” when I know I am pregnant with a Black son? I just think it’s more of “we are the world,” wonderful, Multicultural, Jewish, lesbian mom, etc. I dream of rainbows.

2. 2008: They are reading New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander at All-Saints Church and with more use of mobile phones, we are just starting to see publicly noted murders of young Black men by police. I teach some writing classes in the juvenile detention facilities in Northern California. Some of the young men are lifers and great writers. I walk in, see a young man, perhaps 12, beautiful, talkative, eager to write. About my son’s age. See another girl, 13-years-old, in for armed robbery (she accompanied her boyfriend). She’s pregnant.

3. End of 2008: We move to a condo. My son is almost 13, getting taller but he and most of his friends don’t even have hair under their arms. I become aware that people look at groups of young Black boys, and cross the street.

4. December 31st: We are close to the Rose Bowl parade route and my friend comes with her two daughters. They plan to go out and throw eggs at the cars as is the custom in Pasadena; Raphael goes with them. I stay in. They come back under an hour later. Look sheepish, subdued. “Tell them what happened,” my friend says. Apparently a lot of people were throwing eggs but two big policeman came by and grabbed the only Black kid, Raphael, whose hand was up, poised to throw his first egg. The policemen, huge, one on each side, ask for his mom. My friend says that she is with him but the damage is done.

Photo by Daniel Novta (Flickr / Creative Commons License)

5. 2009: 13th birthday party for my son. We go see a movie about Nazis and Jews hiding in the woods. Later at our place, the school counselor, Musiki, tells a scary story. About a lynching and castration—to mostly all Black boys. So Raphael gets to hear about two ways that his people (Jewish and African-American) are being annihilated, brutalized. Suddenly a loud bang on the door, the police are here to check out a noise complaint. Yes, the counselor gets noisy when she plays spoons. The cops are surprised to see that it’s only kids, they wish us well and tell us to keep it down.

I write the (white) neighbor a long letter, send flowers, and she reports that she feels threatened, that she saw (Black) boys looking in her window.

The neighbor gives the flowers back. Says she only wants things to go back to how they were before we moved in.

One Black friend, mom of one Raphael’s school friends, tells me, “I’d cross to the other side too if I saw a bunch of Black teenagers.”

6. May 2009: Raphael has his Bar Mitzvah largely attended by Black and Brown friends who say “I want a bro-mitzvah.” There is gospel music at the reception and a story runs in La Opiníon and HispanicLA “Gabriel, el de Los Angeles” about it being the “real LA.” Raphael’s eighth-grade school group are mostly mixed ethnicities, his Arab friend gives twoJewish kids an “I love Jew” card on Valentine’s Day. Raphael signsoff his texts as “Afro-Jew without a Fro.” They laugh. These kids consider themselves post-racial but I ask Raphael’s dad to give him “the talk” more than once.

7. End 2009: The “police misconduct” incident we fear someday could happen to Raphael happens to me when my nose is broken by an LA County Sheriff’s Deputy after, one day on the Golden Line, I can’t find my metro ticket right away. First trained in the jails in a culture of violence, the cops are then set loose on the Metro. My friend Lena’s church hosts a program together with the Seattle Police Department to teach African-American youth how to “behave” with police so there are no problems.

8. High School 2010: We move to an apartment in South Pasadena (a whiter, more affluent area) where Raphael notes that the number of textbooks each kid carries around corresponds to their ethnicity in his estimation. He says that most go to the Asian kids, perhaps eight books; the least to the Black kids, perhaps four.

9. January 2012: The few Black kids at South Pasadena High School find themselves together and coincidentally wearing the same color purple and they are called in to the office, kids are afraid “it’s a gang.” Were they chanting “Black Power” too? I write the story “Walking While Black in South Pas: Is that a Problem?” in South Pasadena Patch. Some people write back defensively, perhaps those kids were up to no good, some write back “welcome to my/our world.”

10. 2012: On the heels of Trayvon Martin comes the slaying of unarmed 19-year-old Kendric McDade in Pasadena. Raphael and I go to the protest in front of City Hall in Pasadena.

“Ceiling of Pasadena City Hall,” by Michael Chen (Flickr / Creative Commons License)

11. Raphael: starts smoking pot and one day he is with a bunch of white friends and they all run when the police come but my son stops, hands up. There is a police officer with a gun pulled out. He knows not to run.

12. Raphael is maybe in his senior or junior year: and we go to see Fruitvale Station—halfway through he takes my hand and holds it. “Mom that scared me, it reminded me of what the sheriffs did to you.” I tell him: “Raphael – it scared me, now do you know why I am so afraid for you with police?”

13. 2015: I read the book Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and realize no matter how much I think I get it, I don’t…empathy, concern, commitment, awareness are what I hold. Living in someone’s skin is irreplaceable. I don’t get that. But being the mom of someone at overwhelming percentage risk of being harmed, killed, assaulted, or otherwise impacted physically, spiritually, that is something I do get. I get that all day, every day.

14. 2016: Raphael gets his license and is driving but hasn’t changed the out-of-state registration and plates from the car given to him by his grandmother. I call him after the most recent shooting of a Black man, the one with the graphic video of his wife saying, “you shot him!” I tell him, “honey you know you are a new driver, you’re young, you’re Black. You don’t need to add to the list of reasons they’ll pull you over.” Then I tell him, I’m sorry, I know I’m repeating myself. I don’t meant to bring him down but I need to know if he knows what to do when he is stopped by the police. I don’t wait for an answer but go through it. And of course, he’s been given “The Talk” before but I’m not sure it’s sunk in. “It’s ok, mom, I get it.”

15. On NPR: I hear a segment talking about “the talk” African American families must give to their children. One parent says that their four-year-old overhears them discussing the shootings and asks if he should wear a bulletproof vest. My friend Karen once said, “From the moment we first consider having children, we are vulnerable to the worst kind of loss.” And I wonder for the first time, would I still do it if I knew it would be this hard? I know I would. I get that, too.

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About the Author

Carla Sameths memoir, One Day on the Gold Line, was published July 2019 and her chapbook, What Is Left is forthcoming (Oct./Nov. 2021) with dancing girl press. Her writing on blended/unblended, queer, biracial and single parent families appears in a variety of literary journals and anthologies including: The Rumpus, MUTHA Magazine, Brain/Child, Narratively, Longreads, Brevity Blog, Entropy, Angels Flight Literary West, Anti-Heroin Chic, Global Poemic, Full Grown People, and The Nervous Breakdown. Carla’s work has been twice named as Notable Essays of the Year in Best American Essays. A Pasadena Rose Poet, a West Hollywood Pride Poet, and a former PEN Teaching Artist, Carla teaches creative writing to high school and university students, and has taught incarcerated youth. She lives in Pasadena with her wife. https://carlasameth.com/

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