Event looks at ‘the talk’ black parents in America must have with their children

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh speaks to the audience of about 100 people Monday night at Temple Emanuel for ‘Mother 2 Mother.’ Photo: Philip Deitch 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Amy Hunter admits that she sometimes weeps when telling the story of the time her adolescent son was stopped and questioned by police while walking home from the Delmar Loop. She said that later he asked her whether he was stopped because he was black.

“But that wasn’t the question that got me and it is not the question that gets me today,” recalled Hunter, director of racial justice for the YWCA. “At 12 years old, my son looked at me and he said, ‘Mommy, I just want to know, how long will this last?’ I looked at him and started to cry and said ‘For the rest of your life.’ No mother should have to say that to her son ever.”

Hunter’s story set the tone for Monday night’s “Mother 2 Mother” event at Temple Emanuel. The West County synagogue hosted seven women who spoke about their own experiences with “the talk,” a term used to describe a black parent speaking with her children regarding how to behave around law enforcement officers.

The event was the sixth installment of a series sponsored by the Ethics Project and YWCA of Metro St. Louis. The National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis Section sponsored the Monday event along with the Jewish Community Relations Council and Nishmah as well as Bais Abraham, Central Reform, Kol Rinah, Temple Emanuel and United Hebrew congregations.

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“As long as we see the divine in every human soul, we will slowly, step-by-step, word-by-word, action-by-action begin to hear and listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers,” Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh told the nearly 200 attendees. “I have hope in humanity and I have faith in you and the sacred work that started when you entered this sanctuary.”

Hunter, a University City mother of four, said she felt that Ferguson could be a turning point for the community.

“There have been some historic moments where we’ve missed an opportunity to partner across racial lines,” she said. “I’m really hopeful that we’re not going to miss this opportunity.”

Another mother Riisa Renee, noted that she, too, had had the talk with her older son.

“This conversation is particularly important to me because of the experience of my eldest,” she said. “I don’t want it to be the experience of my youngest.”

Renee said she initially told her son that police were helpful protectors just as most parents do but that message changed as he aged.

“I have a knot in the pit of my stomach because I know that far sooner than it should ever be, he’s not going to be considered a cute little boy but he’s going to be perceived as a threat,” she said. “He leaves the house and no one sees him as my baby, like I see him. They see him as one of those others that somehow always seems to fit the description.”

She said her son was later stopped by police while walking in his mostly white neighborhood and questioned about why he was there. Angry over the incident, he told his mother it wasn’t fair.

“In that moment, I have never felt so disempowered in my life,” Renee said. “I knew as his mother that there was nothing that I could do about it.”

She said that media often portrayed black men as enraged mobs during the unrest in Ferguson.

“I see the faces of hurt, angry, broken young people who have been traumatized and re-traumatized and it has not been addressed,” she said.

Leah Gunning Francis, an assistant professor of Eden Theological Seminary, also blamed media and societal images for negative views of black men.

“A narrative that suggests they are all criminal, lazy, ignorant, et cetera is decimating the minds, bodies and spirits of our sons,” she said. “It is past time to change the narrative so that our sons can be seen in the fullness of their humanity.”

Christi Griffin, founder and president of the Ethics Project, said that the community’s wounds run deep.

“Somehow, we have been divided by race,” she said. “From the time our ancestors were brought here from Africa, we have been at risk and our sons have been at-risk.”

Griffin had “the talk” with her son, telling him to always keep his driver’s license in the cup holder of the car so he did not have to reach for his wallet. She said he was once pulled over with her in the car.

“He was still being respectful but he was angry,” she said noting that he was upset because he knew he’d done nothing wrong. 

She worried that if she had not been there the situation could have escalated or even turned violent.

Marlowe Thomas-Tulloch, a grandmother on the panel, said she was deeply concerned over the shooting death of Michael Brown because of her own teenage grandson, now a senior at Clayton High School.

“In this country and in our city, when people see him, they don’t see my grand boy,” she said. “They don’t see my baby. They see him as a suspect, as the assailant, as the perpetrator.”

She said she told the teenager to be completely compliant with police including keeping his hands outside his pockets and his palms open.

“I want you to not just humble yourself but be willing to be humiliated because I need for you to come home,” she said. “I don’t need to view you in the morgue, son. I don’t need to have to identify your body. I’d rather pick you up at the police station and try to resolve problems with the legal system than sit on the front pew in anybody’s church with you in a box.”

Nadida Matin said her stepson had received the talk a number of times. But at age 30, he ended up in a confrontation with police in which he was shot 10 times. According to media accounts, Abdul Kamal was unarmed while he was allegedly found breaking into his estranged wife’s residence in New Jersey. Police said he refused to remove his hands from his pockets and was pepper sprayed before being fired upon.

Matin said she was not bitter at police but rather angry at the system, which results in too many unnecessary deaths.

“We can talk all day long to our children until we’re blue in the face and still that might not get them home at the end of the day,” she said noting that in her Muslim faith, mothers are considered to be parents of all children in a community. “The way of people’s thinking needs to change.

“We need your help,” she added, repeating a theme struck by a number of the speakers. “We cannot sit idly by. This is do or die – literally.”

Interviewed afterwards, Matin, who has lived in St. Louis for the past six years, said a grand jury was still deliberating over the shooting.

“We very much know what Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s families went through because this waiting is horrible,” she said. “Every phone call – is that the decision?”

Panelists asked attendees to take action in their own families and among friends by not laughing at racist jokes and by talking in a way that dispels stereotypes. 

The raw emotions from the panelists’ presentations continued into the question-and-answer session afterward, which became tense at one point during an exchange between two white audience members, one of whom felt the other’s question regarding black-on-black crime was racially charged. The questioner responded that she had an adopted black son and was worried for his safety.

Matin answered that she struggles with the issue of black-on-black crime; however, she noted, most whites are victimized by white criminals as well.

“Not every Muslim is a terrorist,” she said. “Not every black child is a criminal just like not every white person is a racist.”

NCJW’s Darien Arnstein said that she felt the event had achieved its goals.

“I was extremely pleased both in terms of the turnout as well as the content, the energy and the engagement of the community struggling with the issues that were brought up,” she said noting it was a good programmatic first step. “We need to continually be working on outreach and engagement with the Jewish community and the African-American community to build greater understanding.”