Ten black mothers sat on the stage in an auditorium and looked into a diverse crowd of women in the audience. They were about to share something personal and hurtful with this room full of mostly strangers.
They were going to talk about something they didn’t normally share with their white friends or colleagues.
It was about to get real in that room.
In the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager fatally shot by a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer, conversations about race in the St. Louis area have been loaded.
Christi Griffin, president of The Ethics Project, wanted this to be different. She wanted to invite mothers of other races to hear directly from black mothers the reality of raising a black son in America. She wanted them to hear the words they each had said to their own sons, in different variations over the years, but all with the same message: Stay alive. Come home alive.
She wanted mothers who had never felt the fear, every single time their son walked outside or drove a car, that he could possibly be killed to hear what that felt like.
Griffin’s son, now grown, had never gotten in trouble nor given her any trouble growing up. But when her son was 14 years old, the family moved into an all-white neighborhood. She took him to the police department to introduce him to the staff. She wanted the officers to know that he belonged there, that he lived there.
When he turned 16, it was time for another talk. Every single time he got into his car to drive, she made him take his license out of his wallet and his insurance card out of the glove compartment.
“I did not want him reaching for anything in the car.”
He graduated from college with a degree in physics.
Marlowe Thomas-Tulloch said that when she noticed her grandson was getting bigger and taller, she laid bare a truth to him: Son, if the police stop you, I need for you to be humble. But I need more than that. I need for you to be prepared to be humiliated.
If they tell you take your hands out of your pockets, take your hands out. Be ready to turn your pockets out. If they tell you to sit down, be prepared to lie down.
You only walk in the street with one boy at a time, she told him.
“What?” her grandson said. In his 17-year-old mind, he hadn’t done anything wrong and nothing was going to happen to him.
“If it’s three or more, you’re a mob,” she said. “That’s how they will see you.”
She started to cry.
“Listen to me,” she begged. “Hear me.”
Finally, she felt him feel her fear.
If they ask you who you are, name your family.
Yes, sir and no, sir. If they are in your face, even if they are wrong, humble yourself and submit yourself to the moment.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Because I love you.”
She told him she would rather pick him up from the police station than identify his body at a morgue.
When her grandson left to go home, she called her daughter to tell her about the conversation. Her daughter asked her what she had said, because her son came home upset, with tears in his eyes.
“I hope I said enough to save his life,” Thomas-Tulloch said. “I’d rather go down giving him everything I got.”
The mothers talked about the times their sons had been stopped in their own neighborhoods because “they fit the description.” They shared the times their sons had come home full of rage and hurt for being stopped and questioned for no reason. And they told the other mothers how often they told their sons to simply swallow the injustice of the moment. Because they wanted them alive, above all.
Amy Hunter, director of racial justice at the YWCA in metro St. Louis, said it’s taken her 10 years to be able to share this story about her son without crying. She didn’t want her white friends to see her cry when she told it. She didn’t want to look weak.
Her four children are now older, but when one of her sons was 12, he decided to walk home from the Delmar Loop in University City where he had met some friends.
He saw a police officer circling him, and he knew. He was wearing Sperrys, a tucked-in polo shirt, a belt. He was 12, and he knew, but he was scared.
He lived five houses away, and he hadn’t done anything wrong.
“I knew you were home,” he said to his mom when he finally made it home after being frisked. “I knew I was about to get stopped, and I thought about running home to you.”
His mother froze.
“I forgot to tell him,” she said. “I forgot to tell him: Don’t run. Don’t run or they’ll shoot you.”
Her 12-year-old cried when he told her what had happened and asked if he was stopped because he was black.
“Probably, yeah,” she said.
“I just want to know, how long will this last?” he asked her.
That’s when she started to cry.
“For the rest of your life,” she said.
It doesn’t matter about your college degree, the car you drive, the street you live on, she told the moms in the audience. It’s not going to shield your child like a Superman cape. She admitted that it was difficult to share these painful moments.
Just one of the mothers on the stage asked a single question of the audience. Assata Henderson, who has raised three children, all college graduates, said she called her sons to ask them what they remembered about “the talk” she had given them about how to survive as a black man.
“Mama, you talked all the time,” they said to her.
It made her wonder, she said. She said she wasn’t pointing any fingers, but it made her wonder about the conversations the other mothers were having with their sons, who grow up to be police officers, judges and CEOs.
“You’re the mothers,” she said to the crowd. “What are the conversations you are having with the police officers who harass our children?”
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.