Early Lockdown, our routine one of long-shadows and two wheels, watching the streetlights switch on and riding figure of eight on empty streets, no hands, free-wheeling. Those beginning days we listened to music and danced, we baked cakes that didn’t rise, trying recipes and turning pages, long since curled, as we unfurled before each other, no longer just Son and Mama, school child and woman, but our own selves, rediscovered, surprisingly older, suddenly wiser.
The death of George Floyd burst our bubble with the violent force of a no-knock warrant.
I don’t know whether it was because that preceding time we had been so cocooned or because now, being nine, on the cusp of walking to school alone, I could feel the buffer I was constantly inflating between him and the rest of outside society losing air. There was a puncture, a slow seeping of protection that came with every new tooth and vertical inch. Zoom conversations would soon be street corner hangs, escaping rain in bus shelters, drinking cans of fizzy drink and snapping bubble gum. Laughing loudly and dancing off kerbs in groups of four or nine. Teams of five-a-side on the neighbourhood green suddenly a gang.
The world has told me that too often, to be black and male, is to be caught in the cross hairs of an itchy trigger finger. Playing in the park, walking down the street, waiting for a bus, riding belted up — back seat passenger in a car. Aged twelve, or fourteen, eighteen or two.
Despite this — this constant under-current of resentment that wraps round ankles threatening to pull under tow; it wasn’t until this Summer I had to confront, wide eyed, jaw clenched, my own child. The innocent babe I birthed and loved; I fed and raised, I clothed and schooled, had me on the ropes under his gaze. Sucker punch.
Head tucked into my neck, he cried, we cried. Terror and dismay, wet and salty, incendiary and blazing. From toe to tongue, he bristled with an energy that comes from being nine, caught in the in-between — that swinging and rickety bridge from knowing nothing to understanding everything. It is a violence that is part and parcel of growing up and in the flick of a switch he is no longer swaddled to my chest, his home my whole heart, my whole life. Now, he comes and finds me standing in the kitchen or at a window and he winds his arm around my waist, his head against my body. He stands on one foot, tree pose, all oak limbed and sweet smelling and I never feel as grounded than when he is near me. When he is happy. Knowing he is safe.
2020 has taught me that even in your home, streets silenced, and schools shuttered, avoiding all other human contact, we are not safe from despair, not free from trauma. The oceans are never deep enough to keep its ghosts.
As the fires of the US burnt, I had to explain to my child that often, more often than I wished to recall or reveal, innocent people are murdered by the people paid to protect them. To advocate for them. The Bad Guys have badges; they have uniforms and weapons. They may not listen when you ask them for help. And if you do, they may not care.
To be nine is to have an acute understanding of what fairness is; of what is right or wrong. At nine he understands that actions have consequences and those consequences depend on the intention of your actions.
I watched as the left side of his mouth knotted, he chewed on his cheek and cocked his head, the cogs of his beautiful mind clicking, my stomach churning. I watched as the whole world, his world in which he’s planted trees and counted butterflies and written music and read poetry of, green and technicolour, gleaming and endless, dulled.
And the world keeps turning.
Racism is not a new conversation. We are not a colour-blind family. Black is not a dirty word, Africa is a continent, slavery still exists, and he knows that his is a life layered with privilege. Still. The visceral response to the murder of George Floyd shook us from our metropolitan citadel.
My son has grown up with Black television presenters and newsreaders. When I explained the significance of Black Panther he shrugged at the hype, “what’s the big deal?” Of course superheroes are Black, he’s been wearing their costumes since he decided to answer as Peter Parker aged 3. He saw a Black president before he saw a bigot of one. His lens is one of Black people because he sees himself reflected back in the streets he kicks, skates, sulks scuff-footed down.
When people ask if I will ever leave London, I shake my head. I parley the lines — culture, opportunity, transport links, friends. If I were to leave London, I would be leaving the country. And it’s true. We do love museums and the everyday adventures. I do get antsy waiting more than three minutes for the tube and we do have friends. A wonderful chosen family.
In truth, it is more, it is deeper than that. When White friends leave the Big Smoke they are chasing picket fenced dreams of garden sheds and guest bedrooms. Black friends leaving cite safety and schooling, gang violence and after school chicken shop recruitment for county lines.
The reality is that I am afraid. I am afraid that my son would lose a piece of himself in not seeing himself, every day, in the mundane. At the corner shop, on the bus, at his music recital rehearsal. I am afraid that he wouldn’t feel safe. Safe at all times, not just when he’s standing head to heart within his own four walls. It is easy to tell your child the world is for them when you are in a restaurant, laughing with friends who think like you. It is less easy when the murder of men and boys, boys his age, wearing shorts and team jerseys, summer sandal-ed with toys aloft, are slain, their death painted on the faces of all Black Boy mothers, a discarded news cycle at the tick of a click.
In London I confront the woman who feels the need to reprimand my son for scooting on the pavement and not the White kids who nearly knock her down. I have challenged the man who offers his seat on the tube to the White woman who has just gotten on and ignored the Black mother with a child in her arms and another clinging to a pole.
I have confronted people when they’ve characterised my Kid as “cool” or “street-wise”. Questioned their assumptions on his appreciation of hip-hop and presumption that his athleticism is his defining feature.
It is not difficult. Perhaps the anonymity of a big city allows me to do these things without having to sit in the awkwardness if I’m ever to see them again. Londoners are not known for their niceties, and I’m fine with that.
What scares me most is not knowing, of not seeing, that my Whiteness, already a cloak of Teflon on so many fronts, would not only shield me from these experiences, but blind me to them. He would be splayed open, to a death of a thousand cuts. At this time, when the outside world is insidiously osmosing who he is with what it expects him to be, wants from him, quantifying and evaluating — what happens if I miss it? How can I keep him safe? All this under a government that stands for everything we oppose, from housing to health, education to employment.
I vowed to make this world a safer place for him, but as he grows older, it seems we are moving in reverse. The term radical idea has been distorted with radicalisation, a brainwashing. People unable to see that in their denouncement of progress and equality and justice, they are the radicalised. Progressive thought seen as hindrance. When people are holding on white knuckled, whether it be new car payments or the lights on, progress means change and change means risk. With society existing along a knife edge, change is a risk too big for many.
When people ask how racism can still possibly exist, I ask them, who did you vote for? I don’t want to believe that those who vote against us, against Black and Muslim, Immigrant and Queer, the poor and ill are racist, but everything is political. Anti-racism is ally-ship. Neutrality, though never enough, now puts you firmly on the other side. Apathy, niceness, the “lovely, but” people we all know is the new line in the sand.
The London protests, though affirming and exhilarating, were painful. I’ve spent so long pulling my child behind me, shielding him, everything finely filtered and safe in the bubble of people like us. This new world he demanded to see, to be a part of, blew out our windows. No longer am I keeping him behind me, sweaty palms clamped over eyes as I lull and soothe, it’s okay, everything is okay; now I am also launching him over walls on Whitehall as institutions railed down, horseback, electricity and thunder.
I’ve had people tell me he knows too much, is too aware at such a young age of injustice and inequality. I wish he didn’t need to. I wish toy guns didn’t make for a playground shooting range, I wish his skin wasn’t used as a criminal signifier, I wish he wasn’t codified at birth — careers he could aspire to, places he could explore, relationships he could nurture.
Beyond the squares and the hashtags, at the close of books and the end of marches, times are changing.
No-one dreams of guiding their child through the ugliness of humanity — don’t read that page, don’t know that name; but until we all take responsibility to change the world at large; too many of us don’t have a choice.