At the beginning of the year, the viral video of the moment that everyone was talking about showed an unsupervised boy wreaking all kinds of hell inside a Tallahassee, Fla., Dollar General store. For three recorded minutes and the untold number before he was on camera, he smacked plastic trash cans and laundry baskets from their shelves. He rocketed packages of Chips Ahoy cookies and other foodstuff down the aisle and scattered bunches of display items about like bits of nothing.
His rampage consumed every part of the sales floor, and his tyranny went unchecked by both customers and employees until finally an anonymous man did everyone a heroic favor by yanking the problem child up by his collar and depositing his bad-behaving tail outside.
When the video was uploaded to YouTube and shared across the Web, folks couldn’t put fingers to keyboards fast enough to play social media philosophers and lament about what’s wrong with this generation. They blamed bad parenting—or the absence thereof, since the boy was evidently by himself—and shamed hip-hop culture, which has been the bull’s-eye for theories about almost every sociocultural malaise since Krush Groove. In between all the finger-wagging, blame-assigning and they-need-Jesus-ing, I saw not one person call for more vigilant communal responsibility in this case or in others like it.
It’s not just what’s wrong with this generation. It’s also what’s wrong with the generations before it, the ones who should be guiding and shaping the kids growing up in it. If we see a young person acting the fool, isn’t it part of our duty to speak up, as conscious citizens and as members of the extended village it takes to raise a child? Do we even have the right to criticize that child if we don’t?
Parenting our own children, by default, should make us more sensitive and sympathetic to black boys and girls in need of direction. I correct other people’s kids. Judge me, vilify me, cuss me, whatever. I do it because I care. I’m part of your village, whether you want me to be or not, and I hope, if you ever see my daughter out on the streets acting simple, that you would do the same.
We are inundated by stats that reflect how imperatively our children need community support that transcends the convenience of hashtags and physically speaks wisdom to them. When they’re cutting up on the subway. When they’re posturing to fight outside school. When they’re being obnoxious and unruly in the store.
Black kids represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, and we know what awaits them on the other side of that. Just one cycle through the criminal-justice system can be life-changing, if not life-taking. The pace at which one choke hold, one beating, one abuse of power is killing one girl, one boy, one child at a time seems to be quickening. And there is zero indication that our flurries of outrage are being met with an urgency to reform law enforcement’s over-aggression or vigilant protection of their killers.
Knowing this, as mamas and daddies of our own kids, we can’t afford to be afraid of other black children. I’m convinced that that’s what it is. Fear and apathy are giving us permission to bow out of saying anything to another child about his or her behavior. I live in Washington, D.C., where trains shuttling riders to predominantly black sections of the city are flooded with loud, animated, sometimes ridiculously rude and home-training-less teenagers from 3 in the afternoon until the early-evening hours.
I’ve seen adults roll their eyes and suck their teeth but avoid the awkwardness of confrontation because they just don’t want to get involved. Something is off when grown men choke down their irritation and opt to murmur complaints to the passengers beside them rather than speak up as a group to tell these kids to get it the hell together. Some of these children crave the correction and advisement of a concerned adult, even if they aren’t aware of it. Ultimately, we need to get to them before the cops do.
NBC’s miniseries The Slap brought to the fore the conversation about checking and correcting other people’s kids. Its name implies the physical nature of the act, and I can’t condone mollywhopping someone else’s child, no matter how wretched his or her acting up may be. The verbal version of the premise is worthwhile, though.
The dynamic of community has changed, but we’ve survived because, aside from or in addition to our parents, we had adults who spoke to us. Neighbors. Godparents. Church members. Teachers. Coaches. Strangers. We’re put in certain scenarios on purpose, specifically for that place and time, so it may be that you have in you or I have in me the very words that need to be said to change the trajectory for someone else’s kid, who really is one of our kids. It’s a risk well worth taking.