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After Trayvon Martin, it’s time for ‘the talk’

For young black men, ageless parental counsel to beware and be careful

By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / April 7, 2012
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When his 17-year-old son got home from school one afternoon last week, Richard Claytor met him at the door with the soberest of looks on his face.

“He thought he was in some kind of trouble,’’ Claytor said with a wry chuckle. “And I thought about calling his bluff and waiting to see if he admitted to anything, but I thought better of it. My kid’s not a trouble maker or a troubled kid. We just needed to get ‘the talk’ out of the way.’’

Claytor, a nationally renowned parenting consultant and director of the state’s Fatherhood Initiative, a program aimed at helping single and divorced fathers stay involved in their children’s lives, said the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin is prompting some black parents, especially fathers, to revive a talk they had hoped they would not have to have with their sons, not the talk about sex or curfew or texting-while-driving, but the one about “proper’’ carriage in the presence of police officers and other authority figures. It is a talk that historians say has very long roots, dating to the Civil War era.

Martin, a 17-year-old from the Miami area, was killed Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Walking home from a convenience store, the teenager was unarmed when George Zimmerman spotted him, called police and described Martin as suspicious and began to follow him. Zimmerman, who has not been arrested or charged with a crime, told authorities he had to shoot because Martin had attacked him, unprovoked.

“It’s an old story, an old fear,’’ said Claytor, who also volunteers as a moderator for support groups for married fathers.

“And the feeling I got, and anecdotally I can say many black fathers got, was a cold chill, because if an unarmed kid, dressed as most athletic teenage boys dress, looks suspicious, then what about my boy?’’

Historians and African-American culture experts say “the talk’’ dates back to 1863, following the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves living in still-rebellious states.

Encounters between freed slaves and whites were fraught, and Charles Stith, director of Boston University’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center, said black parents made it a point to caution their sons who had been slaves that if they celebrated their freedom too publicly, they could trigger an angry and potentially lethal reaction.

From emancipation, to the US Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 that upheld the legality of the “separate but equal’’ segregation doctrine, to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to the war on drugs of the 1980s that included police profiling that snagged noncriminals who happened to share skin color with criminal suspects, the essence of the talk has remained.

“The talk,’’ Stith said, has always ranged from the simple - maintain eye contact, no back talk, and the like - to more complex concerns, such as how to maintain a sense of identity when authority figures are perceived to be intimidating.

“The shame of this is that no proud father wants to have to tell his son to humble himself in a way that is demeaning,’’ said Stith, who got his version of the talk from his mother.

“But there has been such justifiable fear over the years that a cross look, an outfit, even a shade of skin could be enough to get one’s child hurt or killed, that that pride has been swallowed in a way that . . . white fathers, collectively, have never felt, because it has not occurred to them collectively that their sons could land in serious trouble for a look or a tone.’’

Claytor said the talk he gave his son Richard went like this: “Watch yourself. Know your surroundings. Mind your manners. Be respectful of official authority figures like police. Don’t let yourself be drawn into arguments or fights. That’s something every concerned parent tells his children. But I need you to do it with this thought in mind: ‘At any time, I could encounter a stranger who believes he knows me, knows my character, and my motives, based on my appearance alone.’ ’’

Dr. Ray Hammond, a physician and senior pastor of Bethel AME Church in Boston, said he has always urged parishioners and acquaintances to have this discussion with their sons.

But in light of the Trayvon Martin shooting, he reminds men who ask him about it that the case is evidence that “the talk,’’ no matter how humbling, remains as necessary today as it was 150 years ago.

“The caveat to these talks was always this reminder: Don’t think because a young white man doesn’t get reprimanded for saying this in public or acting this way in public, you will have the same result,’’ said Hammond.

Hammond said that while many people assumed the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency would catapult race relations to an unprecedented positive level, he has been cautioning parishioners of all races to celebrate the improvements but remain vigilant.

“I’m not suggesting relations are terrible; we’ve come a long way in this country,’’ he said. “But I’m afraid the talk is definitely still a crucial part of black boys and men coming of age.’’

Jamarhl Crawford, publisher of cultural website Blackstonian (www.Blackstonian.com), which explores minority lifestyles in Boston, says he thought it irresponsible, even before the Trayvon Martin tragedy, if black parents did not have such a discussion.

“It is not an exaggeration to say it can be life and death,’’ said Crawford, who received the talk when he was 12. “My dad scared the hell out of me. And that’s a good thing.

“It’s not about unnecessarily scaring your boys, though. It’s about using that fear to let them know that no matter how normal they are or how normal they think they are, there are people out there who won’t get far enough to consider their normalcy because they’ll be stuck at the front door, hung up on their appearance.’’

Cornell Mills, a former Boston City Council candidate who lives in Roxbury, has two sons, 5 and 12, and while he says he has tried to make “the talk’’ a tradition, Martin’s death compelled him to have a serious talk with his older son, also named Cornell.

“You have to reiterate it,’’ said Mills, who faced arrest several times in the 1990s (all charges were dropped) and is the son of former state legislator Diane Wilkerson, who was sentenced to prison for accepting bribes.

For his part, 12-year-old Cornell Mills said he accepts his Dad’s version of “the talk’’ as practical.

“He wants me to be safe,’’ Cornell said. “He wants me to make sure I understand what I might have to face out there and who I might have to face . . . and why. I’m glad he’s telling me this stuff.’’

John O’Neil, a Dorchester-based family counselor who was raised in part by his grandfather and helped raise his own grandson, Michael, says “the talk’’ has been an O’Neil family tradition. Martin’s shooting compelled him to give it again.

“My father was a proud man and came to Massachusetts from Florida to get away from the sort of blatant bias that is based just on your appearance,’’ O’Neil says.

“And as my siblings and I grew, especially us boys and men, everywhere new we went in this country, he would sit us down first and give ‘the talk’ and remind us that it wasn’t to stifle us; it was to make us think about personal security while outside of our homes . . . I have reminded Michael of this.’’

Michael is now 24, he said, and the father of a 4-year-old. “I’m confident that when the time comes, if it’s still necessary, he’ll give the talk to his son’’ O’Neil said.

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamesburnett.

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