The Talk

How black parents prepare their young sons for life in America


By Bijan Stephen
Illustration by Skip Sterling


I remember the talk. (The Talk? It certainly carried the psychological weight of a proper noun.) I guess it was never actually one Talk — it was more that I heard a series of smaller talks from my parents, both of whom are Caribbean immigrants. They’d couch it in the language of difference, and it now occurs to me that they were trying to instill in me a sense — a niggling unease, maybe, or a vague nausea — of when situations might not be safe for me, as a young black male growing up in small town East Texas.

“Don’t stay out too late. Nothing good happens after midnight,” my mom would say. “You have to protect yourself! When the police show up, who do you think is going to get in trouble — you or those little white girls you’re hanging around with?”

I’d always argue with her when she said things like that. Not because she was wrong; because she was right, and her rightness hurt me somewhere deep and inarticulate. American society has indelibly marked my body as exotic, as dangerous, as uncontrollably lustful, as rage-filled, as a symbol of every single societal ill. Black. Nigger.

No one forgets the first time someone calls them that, incidentally. Your face gets hot, first, and it feels like the world is suddenly fast forwarding as your heart beats insistently in your wrists and throat; and then, you focus on their sneer, the one that’s secure in the knowledge that you can’t — you won’t — do anything. Powerlessness next, then the deep blue sadness tinged with black despair.

It’s odd to grow up not really believing that the various protections enshrined in law apply to you — or rather, that they only apply to you when it’s convenient. That’s really what the Talk is about: It’s pragmatism for a society that doesn’t consider you fully human. James Baldwin notes something along these lines in “Stranger in the Village” — my favorite essay from his 1955 collection Notes of a Native Son — when he discusses the reasons why American blacks, unlike the other black men who live around the world, don’t and can’t fit anywhere but America. It’s because these histories end, inevitably, in a bill of sale.

My family immigrated here, but it’s not as though we went untouched. My ancestors were slaves too, and after a certain number of generations my own history disappears into the ether. In any case, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, here. It’s the inescapable fact that, if you happen to have dark skin in America, you are immediately and irrevocably trapped in the narratives of race that swirl about this place. Death, destruction, despair. We are here and we are here to stay, was Baldwin’s sentiment. Yet I, along with every other black person in America, live with fear every day. We are human — why does that never come to light until we’re forced to show our animal pain grieving another dead child? I’m tired; I am so, so unendurably tired.

It’s tough to believe in anything other than the present when you’re forced to fight for every inch of ground you’ve got; it’s harder still when you’ve got to question most of your interpersonal interactions. Is this why I didn’t get the job? Is this why my lease application was denied? Is this why I got into college? Is this why this person keeps following me around the grocery store? And when you ask, you’re looked at like you’re crazy, met with denial — because it’s always plausible, deniable.

My story is not unique. I could have been Michael Brown, or any of the other murdered ones. I’ve grown up enough now that I know when things could devolve, when I might have to run, when to avert my eyes and cloak myself in blackness — that is, in the body language of utter submission, of chattel.

When you find yourself talking to a policeman — and this is inevitable, as a black man in America — it’s never about being right, or who’s right. It’s about staying alive, because due process doesn’t matter for shit when you’re dead. Things speed up again, and maybe your vision contracts so that it’s only you and him when he asks for your license and registration; or, it’s only the two of you as you see his head turn when you walk by — will he stop me? Will he kill me? Is today my day? — and it’s like slow dancing with someone you love, only your heart pounds for the wrong reason. It’s remarkably like being called that slur, the one that reverberates through history and lands like a whip on your back.

I plan to have children someday. They will be black, and there is nothing I can do to protect them from that. I know this, and yet I plan to have them anyway, even though it’s a nearly unutterable cruelty — for how else will things change? Who will fight for us if not them?

I’ve thought about it, you see. And I still don’t have an answer for the questions they’ll ask the first time someone calls them a nigger. My parents must have thought the same thing; but then, I don’t know what their answers might have been because I felt too ashamed and degraded to ask.

Here’s the really fucked up thing: I’ll give my kids the Talk when they’re young, but old enough to understand viscerally what it means to be different, what it means that their small bodies are indelibly marked. But there’s nothing — nothing at all — I can do to save them from dying unjustly at the hands of a racist. There aren’t any words I know that can stop bullets. And there aren’t many that can bring a murderer to justice.

Read Matter’s continuing coverage of the Michael Brown shooting:


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