By Depelsha McGruder – When a mom has a new baby, she is overcome with love, joy and hope for his future. She looks into his eyes and imagines all that he can be, while simultaneously absorbing that it is her unique responsibility to nurture and guide him to reach his full potential. But if you’re a mom of a Black boy, that hope for his future is tempered by fears of the harsh realities of life that he will face as he grows up. This is why I cry on every one of my two sons’ birthdays before celebrating.
My sons are 8 and 5 and with each year that passes, my anxiety grows because I can already see that the world doesn’t love them the way that I do. Even at these tender ages, I’ve begun to notice a shift in the way they are perceived and received in broader society. Whereas I view them as sweet, innocent children who engage in joyful play and occasional childish mischief, it sometimes feels that society has a ticker counting down, cautiously watching and waiting for them to fail, and potentially fall into a trap known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
If you think I’m paranoid or overreacting, consider this. Studies show that by the time a Black boy turns 10, society no longer views him as an innocent child but as a potential threat. An aggressor. Someone to be feared. A 10-year-old child. This negative perception is what led to 12-year-old Tamir Rice being gunned down within 2 seconds by a Cleveland Police Officer because he was playing with a toy gun on the playground. In those two seconds, there could be no assessment of whether the gun was real or fake or even a clear command for him to drop it. This 12-year-old child was deemed a vicious animal who needed to be tamed, and ultimately killed, immediately. It’s these misperceptions that have led to multiple police killings of unarmed Black males. Too many to list or name.
My sons are 8 and 5 and with each year that passes, my anxiety grows because I can already see that the world doesn’t love them the way that I do.
Last summer, I was an entertainment executive overseeing Programming Strategy for a cable TV network. I had just finished an executive development program for high performing, high potential women executives in cable called “The Betsy Magness Leadership Institute,” sponsored by WICT (Women in Cable Telecommunications) and designed to help women take their careers and lives to the next level. Like most executive programs, we learned about things like Strategic Planning, Conflict Resolution and Working with Different Personality Types. But one of the most interesting lessons we had was about the “Power of Vulnerability.” We were given a book by Brené Brown called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. It got my attention. I had always been a private person. Closed. Hard to get to know. The classic introvert. In 360 reviews, I was lauded for being strategic, analytical, collaborative and a problem solver. But some people noted that I was a bit distant and impersonal. I ignored it. Work was about work, right, not being all touchy feely?
However, on July 7, 2016, following the police killings of two Black men, back to back – Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in St. Anthony, Minnesota – I decided to give this vulnerability thing a try. It took a long time for me to get out of bed that morning. The images of the killings of Sterling and Castile were on a constant loop in the 24-hour news cycle. These graphic, bloody images seared into my brain, stealing my peace, eventually leaving me feeling hopeless, helpless and paralyzed. I couldn’t fathom living in a world where this could happen repeatedly, and based on previous incidents, resolve with no one being held accountable for their deaths.
I started a Facebook group for moms of Black sons (Moms of Black Boys United)… I felt an outpouring of understanding, connection, shared fears and anxiety and a determination to change the trajectory for our sons.
I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I needed to connect with people who could understand what I was feeling. I needed to bare my soul and be vulnerable. So I dragged myself out of bed, wiped my tears and while cooking breakfast for my sons (turkey sausage and scrambled eggs), I started a Facebook group for moms of Black sons (Moms of Black Boys United). I sent it to the first 30 friends who had Black sons who came to mind and walked away. The group started to grow virally – first to 150, then 500, 1000, 2000, 4000, 7000, 15,000, up to more than 21,000 moms from all around the country that very day! I felt an outpouring of understanding, connection, shared fears and anxiety and a determination to change the trajectory for our sons.
We held a national conference call two days later and have been together ever since. Today, many of the women I met that day on Facebook help me run two non-profit organizations I’ve started as a result. Moms of Black Boys United, Inc. provides vital information and support for moms of Black sons and promotes positive images of Black boys and men. It’s the organization that focuses on doing our part. M.O.B.B. United for Social Change, Inc. is the advocacy arm and aims to influence policy impacting how Black boys and men are treated and perceived by law enforcement and those in authority. It focuses on changing the educational and justice systems to ensure equal treatment and justice for our sons.
I could have never imagined that a single Facebook post would be the catalyst for me to move from fear to fortitude. The Facebook group is now an online community of more than 177,000 moms nationwide and globally. We are mobilizing moms locally by hosting “Woke Mom Meet-Ups” in multiple cities this summer. Over the past year, we have raised our voices to legislators and public officials on numerous bills and cases, such as Raise the Age in NY & NC and a Criminal Justice Reform Package in Louisiana; hosted webinars on various topics – Know Your Rights, How to Interact with Law Enforcement, Recognizing and Preventing Bullying and Dealing with Trauma – to equip moms to be better advocates for their sons; organized a nationwide mom/son Volunteer Day; provided direct support to moms who lost sons to police violence; launched campaigns to tell our stories (#ProtectThem) and more. We are just getting started and we are committed to ending this vicious cycle.
We don’t call ourselves activists. We are advocates for our sons who are simply doing what every parent is supposed to do – nurture and protect our children. But when you’re a mom of a Black boy, that requires you to know and do some extra stuff. The journey of a MOBB and son is a precarious one. When a Black boy is 1, you look into his bright, bold eyes and promise him the world. When he is 5, you tell him he can be whatever he wants to be, but that he should probably be careful about how he plays and interacts with other children for fear of being labeled too “aggressive” and reprimanded or suspended at school for the same behaviors that are routinely overlooked in other children. By age 10, you must have “The Talk” with him about what to do if a police officer approaches him. He must know that he’s now perceived to be a potential threat and that he should be prepared to follow strict commands, put his hands up and not ask too many questions. By 15, he needs to know that if he’s walking down the street, he must be careful not to do anything that looks slightly “suspicious,” such as wear an average teenage hoodie or hold any object in his hands or walk down an unfamiliar (or even familiar) street. By 20, you are a nervous wreck. He’s driving now and possibly out of your reach away for college, and you know he’s much more likely than other citizens to be pulled over by police for no reason other than driving Black and male. And three times more likely to be killed by police. He will be harassed, asked where he’s going and why, whose car this is and if it’s okay to search it. He needs to know his rights. But he also needs to know that he must do whatever he can to make it home ALIVE.
But whether they are 1 or 31, your son is still your BABY, who you love more than anything in life. So you join together with other MOBBs in solidarity and vow to protect them. You organize. You learn. You advocate. Because it’s not okay for your baby to be viewed as an animal. It’s not okay for him not to be able to walk the world freely and pursue his wildest hopes and dreams without fear of constant harassment and misperception. With an unyielding commitment and fierce determination, you set out to change the world. For your sons. And for everyone else’s sons too, especially those whose lives were cut short and deserved better.
About The Author
Depelsha McGruder is a former entertainment executive and married mother of two sons living in Brooklyn, NY. She is a graduate of Howard University and Harvard Business School. To learn more about MOBB United and support the mission, please go to mobbunited.org
Image of Depelsha McGruder by Margot Jordan Photo; all photos courtesy of Moms of Black Boys United, Inc.