Every Black Child Need a Black Watcher
Black Watchers are special part of the Black village needed to raise a Black child.
An older Black woman sits in the window, watching the world of the street below. She’s known by everyone who passes by, many of whom greet her affectionately. The kids on the block don’t have as high of an opinion of her as do the adults; for while this woman knows everyone’s business, she’s especially watchful of the children. She has no problem letting a mama know real quick if a kid steps out of line. The parents of the block have a certain comfort about that, knowing that the woman in the window is watching over their children. She’s a Black Watcher.
One day, my second-grade son’s teacher put him outside her classroom to sit on a bench. The campus, at that time, was a typical northern California elementary school, open and easily accessible to anyone who walked off the street. A Black mama-friend was walking through campus, and came over to my son to see if something was wrong. She said he was just sitting quietly watching the birds go by (which sounded very much like my son) and he said everything was fine. But she texted me immediately, and hung around the school until I responded to her. She was a Black Watcher.
Years ago, when my children were very young, I attended Back-To-School night. The routine is that you find your child’s desk and sit there. As I walked into the room, the teacher greeted me cheerfully, ushering me toward a desk. All smiles, I went to sit down, but noticed that the name on the desk was a little Black girl’s name, but not my child’s name. I rose, looking around, and the teacher looked at me expectantly and quizzically. “This isn’t Ahmir’s desk,” I said, and the White teacher’s face turned red and flushed. “I’m so sorry, she looks just like you,” which the little girl did not, except that she was my color and had braids (I have locs, but White people sometimes do not understand the difference.) “It’s okay. Where’s Ahmir’s desk?” is what I said aloud. The teacher’s inability to see our differences made me say inside, “I can’t wait to tell her mama what just happened here. We need to keep our eye on this.” I was a Black watcher.
Last summer, I sent my 12- and 13-year olds to “Teen Camp.” They thought it was lame, but I didn’t want them spending their whole summer glued to phones and video games, and I was not planning to entertain them. On the first day, as we walked in (well, I walked, they sulked) a young white man greeted us. As I began to ask him, skeptically, if he was the director, a not-as-young Black woman walked over, hand extended, and introduced herself as the director. I could not help but smile.
The camp allowed a little phone and gaming time, but only for an hour at the end of the day. But, of course, kids still had them and used them throughout the day. One day, my kids get into the car, and my daughter tells me a story about “her friend” who lost her phone. As a parent, especially to stay close to my teenager, I was fully engrossed in the story — what kind of phone she had, what kind of stuff she does on it, the fact that the 12-year-old friend’s “whole life” was on her phone. “Well, I’m sorry that happened to her,” I said. “I hope she finds it.”
The next day, when I came to pick up my kids at the end of the day, there was a note for me to see the camp director. “I’m not sure if Amina told you about Jessica’s* phone,” she said. “Yes, she told me about it — did Jessica find it?” Yes, she did, the director told me, in the trash. But after Amina left the day before, the other campers started speculating that it was Amina who put it there.
I felt myself get defensive. My daughter is not a thief, nor is she the kind of practical joker that might think it was funny to put a phone in the trash. Her genuine concern for the fact that her friend lost her “whole life” made me immediately want to say, “There is no way Amina did that.” But the director said it for me. She told me, “This morning, I pulled Amina aside and let her know what the kids were saying. But I knew it wasn’t possible, because at the time when it went missing, Amina was outside playing a game. I told her that even though she’s with her “friends,” these White kids would blame her the minute something went wrong. She has to be careful. And I wanted you, mom, to be aware in case one of Jessica’s parents comes in here and acts crazy.” I’ve been saying this stuff to Amina for years, about how people will see her as a Black girl compared to her White friends. Unsurprisingly, she listened when it came from someone who was not me.
The director was a Black Watcher.
I wish this term was mine, but it’s not. I came across this term by way of best-selling author Kiese Laymon’s facebook page. He recounted a story about his mother in a hospital, afraid for surgery, and how she was at peace knowing that a Black doctor would be in the room, watching, making sure she wasn’t being “treated like a n-gger.” She felt comfort that, in the room, during her surgery, was Black Watcher.
In schools, Black parents need Black Watchers for our children, especially in White schools. We need Black teachers, Black administrators, Black librarians, Black lunch staff, Black everywhere: because we need to make sure that they, our children, are not being treated like they don’t belong, like they are criminals, like they deserve anything less than the full care and respect afforded to their peers. Especially now, Black school staff are needed to understand the unique pressures facing Black children, including the devastation of COVID in their lives and the trauma of racist killings. I am not a teacher, but as a parent, my equity work in all the districts in which my children have attended school is to be a Black Watcher: I watch the teachers, the principals, the PTAs, the school board. I point out disparities where I see them, and like the Teen Camp director, I don’t soften my words while I’m at it. I am impatient about racism in schools because my children’s — all of our children’s — time in K-12 is short and finite and every year counts.
I do not only watch for my Black children. I scour test score and discipline data and numbers to see where Black children are being left behind. I look at the racial diversity of how schools allocate children to classrooms and how the district allocates teachers to schools. I go to PTA and school board meetings — soooooo many PTA meetings, sooooo many school board meetings, often lasting deep into the night — to make sure Black kids do not get lost, that they are completely at the top of mind for those who say they care about all students.
They say it takes a Black village to raise a Black child. It surely took a Black Watcher woman to raise my Black girl.
*Not her real name.