The Challenges of Raising Free Black Children in a World Set on Penalizing Them

by Stacia L. Brown for The Washington Post My almost-5-year-old daughter and I do a lot of twirli...


by Stacia L. Brown for The Washington Post

My almost-5-year-old daughter and I do a lot of twirling at home. We pose with our arms raised in third, four and fifth ballet positions and wait for the timer countdown on our camera to tell us our picture’s been taken. We sing Janelle Monae and Emily King at the top of our lungs in the car. When she’s high-strung and on the verb of sobbing over something she “can’t” do, I assume the same superhero voice her father uses when he makes her puff out her chest and proclaim, “I can do … ANYTHING!” Then we twirl more, in imaginary capes.

I don’t always feel like doing these things. In fact, lately, I rarely feel like it. I’m terrified. In the car, I’m constantly checking the mirrors for swiftly approaching police cruisers. In the house, I’m always asking my little girl if she’s okay; I ask it whenever I think of a news story where a black child around her age is not. Sometimes, on a sunny day, I might decide not to leave the house with her at all, my anxieties about what could confront us outside shouting down my desire to let her run free at the local playground. But I manufacture the joy, anyway. The quality of her life depends on it.

I am trying to raise a free-spirited black daughter, one who will fully inhabit every room she enters without shrinking, recoiling or trying to will herself invisible at the approach of a bully, a charming boy or an abrasive authority figure. I am trying to raise her to believe she belongs anywhere she dares to venture, can pursue any safe activity she chooses, can twirl or belt out a song in public. I want her to believe she can take risks. But I am acutely aware that “free-spirited” means something quite different for a low-income black family than it does for a middle- or upper-class white one. For us, it isn’t merely representative of whimsy. It’s a last resort. Freedom of spirit is the only liberty we can guarantee our children.

Last week, I read about Laura Browder, a black single mother in Houston who sat her 6- and 2-year-old kids at a mall food court table where she could see them as she interviewed for a job nearby. At Beyond Baby Mamas, my blog for unmarried mothers of color, I wrote about her case and similar ones that have made national headlines in recent years, namely Shanesha Taylor’s and Debra Harrell’s. I tried to remind readers how often poor black mothers are criminalized for being caught between rocks and hard places.



But I didn’t say enough about the Free Range Kids movement and how it started in 2008, when writer Lenore Skenazy left her 9-year-old son at Bloomingdale’s on New York’s Upper East Side with a map and $20 and urged him to find his own way to Midtown West, where they lived. On the blog she started she started shortly thereafter, she wrote, “Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.” I didn’t talk about how inundated black children are with messaging that being “ecstatic with independence” just isn’t an option to them.

Skenazy’s site is filled with stories of parents whose families have run afoul of Child Protective Services by allowing their children to walk or play unaccompanied. Race and class aren’t often mentioned in the posts, but they should be. Those factors often make the difference between a successfully closed CPS investigation and a case left open pending a felony charge, which results in a loss of employment, which results in further inability to afford safe, reliable childcare. Skenazy’s blog recently covered Laura Browder’s case without referencing that the family was black (though it’s discussed with some nuance in the comments section). That detail matters. Black mothers — especially those who are poor or single — are disproportionately criminalized for their parenting choices.

There is no such thing as a free-range kid in low-income black families. They are more likely to be labeled as “abandoned” and “neglected” than as free. When they play with toy guns in the park at the age of 12, like Tamir Rice did, they run the risk of being reported to an unstable police officer who’ll open fire without asking questions. When they are left alone at home after school, they’re instructed never to open the door for anyone, not even an unexpected relative, a well-meaning neighbor or the police, lest it result in the long-term damage of family separation and criminal charges being filed against their parents.

Continue reading at The Washington Post.

Photo: Shutterstock

Stacia L. Brown was born in Lansing, MI. She grew up in Baltimore, MD–the county, not the city. She graduated from Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University) with a BA in English that didn’t really help her land any jobs. She worked a few office gigs, while trying to jump-start her writing career. At 27, she finished an MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. She spent the next six and a half years working as an adjunct writing professor first in Michigan, then in Maryland. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Atlantic, Slate, and many other publications.

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