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What It Means to be a Black Child in America

Commentary by Candice Elam

Video showing a 10-year-old boy stopping basketball to hide from police car.

Someone commented that the video above was staged in order to tug on the heartstrings of the public, and here are my thoughts.

I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not aware that the treatment I would receive, as a Black person, might not always be fair. When in kindergarten at a predominantly white private school, I distinctly remember my parents telling me that I can’t do everything that the white kids could do because I might get in trouble for it. I cannot recall a time when I, as a Black child, did not know about instances of violence against Black people in the US. Growing up in a Black household, you learn about these things, just like you learn shapes and alphabet.

Black parents can't protect their children from knowing about race and racism because it is dangerous for a Black child to go through the world completely unaware. I can’t remember when I learned about American enslavement of Black people, but for all of my life that I can remember, I knew about it. Same goes for Jim Crow, segregation, Dr. King, Freedom Summer, and so on. One instance of anti-black violence I do remember learning about during childhood was the lynching of Emmett Till. My parents were subscribers to Jet Magazine, a weekly magazine about news affecting the Black community. Sitting upon our kitchen table was the magazine issue that commemorated the 40 year anniversary of this child’s vicious lynching. It struck me because, at age 13, I was reading about the murder of a 13-year-old child by a white mob that went unpunished. Prior to reading about it in Jet Magazine, I did not know the word “lynching.” Despite all that I knew about race-based violence against Black people, I never knew that there were organized gatherings that were coordinated to torture, humiliate, murder, and terrorize Black people, which categorically went unpunished. But in addition to those things that happened in the past, I was coming of age in the 1990s. These fatal or near-fatal interactions between Black people and the police were what was in the news:

Rodney King, 1991
Abner Louima, 1997 (not killed; anally raped with a mop stick by NYPD officers)
Amadou Diallo, 1999
Shawn Bell, 2006

In the lifetime of the 10-year-old boy in the video, the following people had high-profile fatal encounters with the police or their surrogates:

Oscar Grant, 2009
Trayvon Martin, 2012
Rekia Boyd, 2012
Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 2010
Mohamed Bah, 2012
Ramarley Craham, 2012
Michael Brown, 2014
Eric Garner, 2014
Tamir Rice, 2014
Akai Gurley, 2014
Laquan McDonald, 2014
Freddie Gray, 2015
Samuel DuBose, 2015
Sandra Bland, 2015
Walter Scott, 2015
Terence Crutcher, 2016
Alton Sterling, 2016
Philando Castile, 2016
Korryn Gaines, 2016
Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford, Jr. 2018
Stephon Clark, 2018
Botham Jean, 2018
Atatiana Jefferson, 2019
George Floyd, 2020
Rayshard Brooks, 2020
David McAtee, 2020
Breonna Taylor, 2020

Fear of death at the hands of the police is not something that Black people need to perform in order to manipulate the rest of the country into paying attention. If this child had ever been in a room with the TV, radio, or computer on, within the past 10 years, he probably learned from the news reports that police are to be feared. Black children do not have the luxury of growing up completely oblivious to these events. What you see in this video is an attempt to protect himself from police violence. That doesn’t have to be staged.

Even with my own children, I’ve had to be extremely candid about racism and how it does and could affect them. When Muhammad was 8, a close family member gave him a toy gun without consulting me. It was a black, plastic revolver. He loved that toy, and my husband Musa and I were horrified. I called that family member and asked, “Do you want my son to be the next Tamir Rice?” Sitting Muhammad down and explaining to him why we had to take the toy gun away, using the example of another child who was killed by police for playing with a toy gun broke our hearts and his. He said that it was unfair to take away his toy and he explained that he’s a good boy and he shouldn’t be getting punished for having a toy he likes. Fair or not, we had no choice but to take it from him. We won’t even allow him to play with Nerf guns, unless he’s inside the house or in the backyard. This is what it means to be a black child in America. 

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Candice Elam | Modern Muslim Home BlogCandice Elam is a married mother of 2, a registered nurse with professional experience in the emergency department, infectious diseases, and clinical research. She is student working towards a doctorate in nursing practice, specializing in family health and HIV care.

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