Choosing Life over Death: Raising a Black Boy in Chicago

Hello friends.  It has been a while since my last entry.  If you are still out there reading my humble melting pot of thoughts, please forgive my absence.  I’ve been teaching my toddler to read.

Yes.  I’ve been teaching my 21 month old son to read.

If that sounds over the top and like it is the antithesis of exciting, you would be correct.  However, since my journey began as a freelance writer/ghostwriter/blogger/accidental stay-at-home mother, my number one priority is to make my little Black son a nerd.

Yes.  A nerd.

As a mother living in one of the most dangerous cities for Black males, my son is being groomed to be a devastatingly handsome nerd.  Why?  Because devastatingly handsome nerds get good grades, of course.

…And play classical instruments.

…And go to space camp because they want to learn about astrophysics.

Nerds have a lesser chance of getting shot because they were in the wrong place, with the wrong friend, at the wrong time.


Yes, I am grooming my son to be a nerd.

But not just any nerd – a devastatingly handsome nerd.

Sometimes, it is absolutely impossible to make sense of the things that take place around us.  For that reason, when I find myself feeling anxious about the world around me, I retreat into myself.  I retreat into my family.  This strategy always proves effective because though I don’t know how to mend the brokenness of the city in which I live, I do know a thing or two about teaching my child his ABCs, 123s, and where to find his esophagus.

Yet, my reclusion hasn't shielded me from the continuous bloodshed of hundreds of Black boys who could be my son…or my brother…or my husband.  I want to ignore the nightly news.   I want to empathetically disassociate myself from the senselessness that affects so many who look like me…but I can’t.

There are layers upon layers of factors that have contributed to violence in Chicago.  The issues are so immense that one can only pray to not feel hopeless.  As a mother, I can’t wait to leave this city.  As an educated Black who was raised here, I feel an obligation to stay.  However, with every passing year and with every additional homicide I feel less inclined to make myself or my family martyrs.

Theories on the cause and solutions to Chicago’s epidemic of violence abounds.  Most agree that socio-economic factors are to blame while others subtly assert an innate culture of violence within Black communities.  Some feel that quality education is the answer while others declare a living wage to be a key factor to reversing the escalating trend.  However, none of these address the following overarching questions:

How do you convince a child to value another person’s life when they don’t see any value in their own life?  How do you convince a child that their life has value when they can’t see a path outside of poverty, crime, struggle, violence and death?

Throughout my life I’ve looked at those in poverty, who are disproportionately African American, and have felt a sense of guilt because fate allowed me to be born into better circumstances than those they experienced.   Though my life has been far from perfect, sometimes it’s difficult to see myself as anything but lucky.  Likewise, I recognize that my son is equally fortunate because he was born into a family that will give all that we have to ensure that he does not fail.   It saddens me to acknowledge the multitude of Black youth who are not afforded such a safety net and who as a result deem any prospect for their futures as impractical or as folly.

I consider this when I ponder the cycles of crime, poverty, and violence that invades so many Black communities.  I consider this when in the crevices of my mind I am tempted to curse Black youth, specifically males, who are oftentimes perpetrators of crime.

And though I want to shield my son from these things, the time will come when my husband and I will have to help him navigate the fullness of what it means to be Black, American, and male.  It is my belief that only through the lens of our history – one marked with both pain and triumph - will he recognize the fallacy that has trained our society to unconsciously devalue the quality of a young Black male’s life.

I will tell him:

Your life has value.

You are here because someone did not die crossing the Atlantic Ocean.  Someone did not die under the hands of a master.  Someone did not die waiting for or while escaping to freedom.  Someone did not die in the Jim Crow South.  Someone did not die fighting for the right to vote.  Someone did not die though confronted with more dire circumstances than what you can comprehend.

Your life is more valuable than you could ever fathom and the price paid for your life is more than you can imagine.  Your life is evidence of the mental fortitude and physical strength of those who came before you, of the hand of God being with you, and the desire of the universe for you to choose life and not death.


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    Kay S

    Kay Smith is a Chicago-based freelance writer and blogger who focuses on race, politics and urban culture. Having worked on public policy at the state, regional, city and community level, her opinions have been featured in the Chicago SunTimes and a host of news websites (under very mysterious sounding pseudonyms). Follow her on Twitter @kaywillsmith or contact her at

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