Parenting young people who need you and think they’re smarter than you and love you and are embarrassed by you and who are filled with energy and whose lives are ruined on a biweekly basis is challenging in the best of times. None of us currently live in the best of times; Black Americans never have. In an essay in the New York Times Magazine — ultimately hopeful but profoundly heartbreaking — the always-excellent Carvell Wallace lets us deep inside his experience of being a Black man parenting Black teenagers in the United States.
I can think of nothing else to do but tell them the truth. “I’ve been seeing these videos my whole life,” I say. “You want to know what my trauma is? It’s this.” It is a sentence that feels reckless, sharp in my mouth. I don’t know why I say it. Maybe just because it’s true. I don’t know if they understand. I don’t know if I do. I only know that it is incredibly sad to admit to your children that you’ve been seeing videos of black men being killed since you were their age and that you haven’t been able to stop it. I only know that I have spent a long time avoiding loving myself so that if I am killed it won’t be that great a loss. I only know that it is hard to show them how to love everyone if you’re not even sure how to love yourself. I know that it is time to tell them the truths that I have been afraid to tell them until now.
They say nothing. The conversation doesn’t end until we’ve handled some logistics. I’m taking them to do laundry tomorrow. What’s our plan for Mother’s Day? Can I help my daughter with her math homework? Of course I can. They tell me they love me.
To be asked for life advice in one moment, and to be told you are a bad parent and have ruined your child’s life the next — this is what parenting is. It is a thing that you do alone, because your kids cannot and must not understand all of what you are living. It is terribly painful that my son thinks I have ruined his life. He’s not entirely wrong. I am a wildly imperfect parent. I have lost my temper, neglected his emotional needs, taken his normal childish behavior as a personal attack. I have made tremendous mistakes. Perhaps the biggest mistake was bringing him into a world where we all have to wear masks, where riot squads assemble in front of our minivan, where the climate is on a collision course with the destruction of the human race, where the encampments of houseless people grow larger and wilder every day, where he can watch himself be murdered over and over again just by clicking a link.