Last August, as I picked up a strawberry birthday cake and Batman-themed decorations for my son’s seventh birthday party, I began to cry. It was a familiar scenario. I cry on all of my two sons’ birthdays. They are 7 and 4. Mine are not tears of joy but, rather, tears of fear. Fear for them growing up. Fear of them no longer being viewed as the adorable, innocent, silly children I know them to be, particularly by those in positions of authority.
Studies show that black boys lose the perception of innocence in broader society around age 10. After that, people view them as overly aggressive and even dangerous. While other children have the privilege to be carefree, our children, particularly our boys, have the additional burden of not appearing too threatening—all of this long before they can even drive. That’s exactly what happened to 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was gunned down within two seconds by a Cleveland police officer for having a toy gun on the playground. For this reason, I will not allow my boys to play with guns of any kind, even brightly colored water guns. And on their birthdays—before celebrating—I cry. Why?
Because I, and I suspect many other moms all across America, suffer from a self-diagnosis that I call MOBB disorder. If you are a MOBB (mom of a black boy), the level of fear and anxiety that you feel regarding your children’s basic safety, in the most mundane of situations, can be overwhelming. Selling CDs? You may be gunned down. Riding a commuter train? Shot in the back. Selling cigarettes? Choked to death. Celebrating your upcoming wedding? Shot at 50 times.
And all at the hands of those who have sworn to protect and serve. That protection is not always extended to our sons. Often, they are immediately viewed as wild, irrational animals whose natural inclination is to harm and kill others. By what logic does a police officer pull over a car containing a man, his girlfriend and her 4-year-old child, and then, after the man, the driver, discloses that he’s carrying a legal weapon, the officer assumes that the man expected to encounter and shoot a police officer that day?
The morning I learned that Philando Castile, a beloved Montessori school employee, was killed while his girlfriend and her child were seated in the car, something shifted inside me. I had gone to bed seeing the graphic video of Alton Sterling being murdered by a police officer in Baton Rouge, La., and woke up to Castile’s murder in Minnesota.
Initially, I could not get out of bed. I felt paralyzed. Heartbroken. Helpless and hopeless. How many times do we have to endure seeing images of someone’s son being killed by police? These images, which followed a barrage of hashtags and uprisings, weighed me down. I could not bear it another day. And I certainly could not bear it alone.
Eventually I dragged myself out of bed and went downstairs to cook breakfast for my sons. As I was scrambling eggs and sizzling turkey sausage, I decided to activate an idea I’d had for quite some time. With food still cooking on the stove, I walked over to my laptop and quickly created a Facebook group page called MOBB—Mothers of Black Boys. I invited the first 30 friends who came to mind and started my first post by saying, “I am starting this group today because I don’t know what else to do.” I simply wanted the comfort and connection of other moms who would understand my particular plight. And, boy, did I get it!
Within five minutes, 30 moms turned into 150. Within one hour, it was 500. Then 1,000; 2,000; 4,000; 7,000; 11,000; 15,000. By the time I went to bed that night, more than 21,000 moms from all over the country had joined the group. They spontaneously started sharing images of their beautiful black boys, noting their many wonderful accomplishments, while also expressing genuine fear for their precious lives.
We shared articles, videos, resource lists and even prayed together, all online. It was one of the most beautiful displays of sisterhood that I had ever experienced at this mass level. But then people started reaching out to me to ask how they could get involved, start a MOBB chapter in their state, buy the T-shirt, plan our conference and more. What had I done?
Since then, we have grown to more than 70,000 moms of black boys and are now in full strategy mode on how to best organize to solve this problem. We learned that an organization in Columbia, S.C., that is doing great work on closing the educational-achievement gap and improving life overall for black boys is already using the name Mothers of Black Boys. So we are moving forward as Moms of Black Boys United.
I know that I am in partnership with the people who are most motivated to solve this problem because we live with the fear every day. We plan to use a multifaceted approach to address the issues and contributing factors at the local, state and federal levels, with the ultimate goal of influencing policy that prevents police from harassing, brutalizing and killing our boys and men without accountability.
We also mourn the recent loss of multiple police officers to unnecessary violence. Violence is never the answer, and the slain officers are someone's sons, too. Therefore, we want to work toward rooting out police officers who abuse their position of authority. They give fine men and women in law enforcement who do their jobs well and risk their lives every day to protect us a bad name.
Watching black men killed by police on TV (and practically live on Facebook!) has become America’s favorite new reality show. We watch. Some of us are outraged. Others demonize the victim. We create hashtags, change our profile pictures. Then it all goes away, until it happens again.
But for mothers of black boys, that pain and fear never goes away. With each new case, our anxiety increases, our MOBB-disorder symptoms intensify and our boys’ futures look a little less bright.
Today we join together to say that using the murder of black men and boys to feed the 24-hour news cycle must stop. Unjustified killing of black men and boys by police officers without accountability must stop. Our sons will not be your reality show. They will not be a hashtag.
As I celebrate my son’s birthday next month, I will move past the tears by uniting with Moms of Black Boys all across the country to work together to ensure our sons’ survival. Because we love them more than anyone else, and we have no other choice.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Depelsha McGruder is a happily married mom of two boys and entertainment executive living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is a graduate of Howard University and Harvard Business School.