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Fenty: Teaching My Sons the Unspeakable — When White Lives Matter More

Photo Credit: Gary Jordan Photography

December 5, 2016

Michelle Fenty
Michelle Fenty

Michelle Cross Fenty is an international attorney and development banker who lives in Washington, D.C., with her three children. She was married to Adrian Fenty, the former D.C. mayor and school-reform advocate who appointed Michelle Rhee as D.C. schools chancellor while in office. This is an excerpt from a book she is working on chronicling the alternative education choices made for her 16-year-old twin sons.

Michelle Cross Fenty is an international attorney and development banker who lives in Washington, D.C., with her three children. She was married to Adrian Fenty, the former D.C. mayor and school-reform advocate who appointed Michelle Rhee as D.C. schools chancellor while in office. This is an excerpt from a book she is working on chronicling the alternative education choices made for her 16-year-old twin sons.
Talking Points

When it doesn’t matter that your dad was D.C. mayor: Michelle Fenty on how to protect her teenage sons

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Washington, D.C.

Mum, my friends and I are going to walk around the Georgetown Harbor. Matt is going to come too. Please, please can you cancel our last school session?

It’s an everyday, innocuous request from my son Andrew on a hot and endless July Sunday to go tool around with his buddies and his twin brother, Matthew, along the upscale Potomac River waterfront with its views of the Kennedy Center and the Watergate.

So why do those words, this request, leave me dumbfounded? I could immediately feel my heart pulsating as small beads of perspiration popped out on my forehead.

Hello mum, are you there? Is it OK?

All I could voice in response was, “It's not safe, Drew. Why on earth do you need to go to Georgetown?

“Umm, Mum, that is what kids my age do. We won’t be gone long.”

How often does a mother have to perform this same dreadful analysis? I wondered.

I looked into the irreproachable eyes of my 16-year-old twin son. Almost 6 feet 4 inches tall, caramel, rich sweet brown, youthful and handsome. Pleading eyes, guileless eyes that instantaneously boomerang me back to vivid early-childhood memories.

How many friends are going? Are they all black? Why should it matter? May I allow my mind to trespass into thinking the unspeakable? If Black Lives Matter, does the question become: Do white lives matter more, and how many of those are needed to keep the group safe?

“Mum...Will is coming, and Bless and his brother. That’s it.”

My brain is rapidly reckoning. One white, four black. Would one white teenager be enough?

“Do you have money, Drew? Remember what I have always taught you. Only go into stores where you intend to purchase goods. If they look at you accusingly upon entry, immediately retreat, Drew.”

I involuntarily stop again, paralyzed in the midst of my footstep. Who will protect and enshrine you, my sons? My baby sons whom I labored for days to deliver. My baby sons whom I carried amid the many complications of that pregnancy for as long as my weak and tired body would endure. My baby sons, the thought of whom mentally resuscitated me — along with a lifesaving blood transfusion — after their arrival, giving me the chance to be their mother.

My sons, it doesn’t matter that your father is a former mayor of this great city we call home, who handpicked D.C.’s highly regarded police chief, the first woman to permanently hold the job. (Chief Cathy Lanier stepped down in August to take over security for the National Football League.) It doesn’t matter that many of our neighborhood police officers have known you, or of you, since you were born. It doesn’t matter that many were once assigned to guard you, to escort you places and keep you safe from harm on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter that some of the officers grew so close that I could see and feel the authentic care and fondness that grew from those day-in and day-out experiences.

It doesn’t matter that both your parents are well versed and learned in the law and the Constitution and its bestowed privilege of life and liberty and equal protection. It doesn’t matter, my sons, that you play tennis with enough talent and heart to be nationally — and for Andrew, internationally — ranked. It does not feel safe.

“Mum, if anything happens I will do what you taught me. I will put my hands in the air and I will say, ‘Don’t shoot.’ ”

I swallow hard. The innocent unknowing words open fire on me.

My brain begins to ponder how helpful the surrender stance would in reality be. I repress my tears of wretchedness.

My sons, your nuances, your individuality, your personality, your talents, your accomplishments and your kindness are souped and diluted and then eventually evaporated away by the rich darkness of your hue. That defenseless gesture is no longer, if ever, a guarantee that your life will be spared. The only thing that matters, my loves, is that you are black, imposingly tall and male.

I must continue to teach you that, despite our monumental election of a two-term black president, we still have not yet reached the day when you can be judged by your character. Grievously, you could indeed be deathly judged by the lovely color of your skin, my sweet sons.

I stop living for the 157 minutes my sons are in Georgetown. My mind scampering through my own teenage years. I could not find a comparison. I was born and raised in Wimbledon, London. I recall roaming the streets in teenage packs of up to 20. Mixed-race groups, yes, but intimidating to onlookers nonetheless. Never ever crossed my mind that any one of us could be shot and killed. Police officers don’t carry firearms in my hometown of London.

The news on the television — eternal episodes of the number of unarmed black teenagers and young men and women shot by police officers in this country — echoes and then reverberates loudly through the empty downbeat of my home.

I cannot be reassured.

I begin to research the inner cities of my birth country, where the number of deaths at the hands of police officers in say, Manchester, a city with a population of 2.7 million, has been two in the past 40 years!

I analyze, and brazenly, if not naively, diagnose and propose ostensible solutions for this nation’s ongoing nightmare: Community policing; gun control; racially, culturally and religiously diverse police forces able to respect and appreciate our aesthetic urban nuances. Ought we not accept that racial diversity epitomizes the very soul of the United States of America?

I take my next living breath when I hear the key in the door and the familiar and comforting bickering of my twin sons. They made it home safely.

“It started raining, mum, so we came home,” they tell me with a look of reluctant compliance with their teenage curfew.

I tilt my head and half-smile. I cannot help but see the anguished faces of the many mothers whose children have not, and will not, ever come home.

Right then, tomorrow, we’ll have to catch up on geometry. Matt, you have French; Drew, you have Spanish. Home free time until 8 a.m. tomorrow.”