By any account, I consider myself to have been blessed with a happy childhood. It was replete with challenges as it occurred during a period of social unrest and was tinged by personal tragedy, but all in all, my memories of growing up can put a smile on my face or draw tears of joy. Sadly, when I look in the faces of Black children today, including my own daughter, my soul is troubled by the degree to which their youthful innocence has been robbed and the happiness that should be part of their childhood experience has been suffocated.
Too many of our children are being forced to play defense. They can’t take an affirmative stand on their self-worth or focus on their development because they daily have to defend their very right to exist. The marginalization of Black children knows no geographic boundaries. It is evident in the child in the city who has to navigate a gauntlet of ills to arrive to school and back home without getting shot by gang violence or police oppression; and suburban kids whose self-worth is crushed by the isolation of living in communities that discount their very presence and remind them of their supposed worthlessness. There seems to be no ‘happy place’ for Black children. They are on the defensive and the few that manage to ‘make it’ are still scarred in ways that are often later revealed in their adult lives and relationships.
I am not suggesting that childhood should be a Disneyesque fantasy, an experience devoid of reality and framed by the absence of worry and strife. For that can also lead to some unrealistic expectations. We don’t have to construct an amusement park illusion for Black children, just a world where they sense their importance, learn to love themselves, know and embrace their culture, and see by our actions that adults are invested in their protection and growth. The truth is that too many Black children are winging it. They are doing the best they can to navigate a cruel world and trying to figure it out on their own. Even most who make bad choices are not bad people; they are just children confused about why they are here if no one truly cares.
I have witnessed in anguish the crushing weight of hate and disrespect carried by Black children, met bright lights dimmed by feelings of worthlessness after encountering police or a hostile teacher, comforted children who struggled with the violent death of a sibling or friend, intervened when I have observed children being harassed by adults for the offense of behaving like children, and taken the time to try to counsel youth whose anger at their condition is played out in violence against their peers. No, there is no ‘happy place’ for most of our children and it amazes me that they have the resiliency to wake up every day and walk out into a world that they know is against them.
We don’t give Black children enough credit for the most basic but fundamental human accomplishment – survival. Sometimes we focus too much on the superficial, their manner of dress, choice of music, and abuse of the English language without celebrating their determination to live. They live daily breathing in poison – hearing their worth dismissed, criticized for their appearance, viewing morally depleting images and listening to negative messages that are the handiwork of adults – but they inhale it all, develop a resistance and then become the very thing we criticize but as adults are responsible for manufacturing.
For the life of me I can’t understand why we don’t recognize that Black children are the victims of combat. They are fighting battles that adults incite and then place children in the line of fire. They are wounded warriors, physically and emotionally, who have battle scars for which we provide no help for healing and recovery. They are victims in the mess adults have created. We point fingers at children when we should be pointing our finger at a mirror to see who really is to blame. I don’t dismiss the recklessness and bad behavior of some Black children but I try to understand the larger forces at work that facilitates the destructiveness of some youth.
We are sealing the fate of our children if we continue to pretend that their future is assured simply because they are in school, not in jail or not under a cemetery tombstone. We have allowed the school to become their jail, and the jail their purgatory and the grave their relief. Black children, like all children, deserve a childhood. They deserve the right to be children, to make non-fatal mistakes and learn from them, to be loved, embraced and encouraged, and to be celebrated. Can we uplift Black children and stop tearing them down? It is our responsibility as adults to put on the armor and go into battle and fight the forces that are intent on laying waste to our children. Our failure, our negligence, our complacency not only dooms our children but seals the fate of our people.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.