Open LetterRace

how ‘american son’ made me rethink “the talk”

November 20, 2018

The play American Son, now on Broadway, starring Kerry Washington as an aggrieved mother awaiting news of her missing teenage son at a police station, is bound to trigger predictable thoughts and feelings in its audience. Steered along by Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon – known for revivals of August Wilson’s Fences and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun – the one-act play resurrects memories of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and other victims of American law enforcement. Washington’s ABC show Scandal once mentioned the African-American truism of “twice as good” (i.e. that Blacks have to be twice as good as whites to receive half as much), and American Son brings this to mind too. For me, the production raised the specter of The Talk.

American Son opens at four in the morning in a Miami police station, with the frenzied mom, Kendra (Washington), in justifiable contretemps with a rookie officer. Her son Jamal, due to leave soon for the military academy at West Point, is missing. The license plate to his Lexus comes up as having been in an “incident,” but details are under wraps until the lieutenant (Eugene Lee) arrives. Race is front and center. Kendra’s estranged husband, who makes his appearance about 20 minutes in, is Irish-American. The cop is a WASP. His lieutenant boss is black.

Steven Pasquale and Kerry Washington in ‘American Son’ (photo: Sophy Holland)

If the summary sounds like a set up for a polemic, agitprop piece of writing, that’s pretty much spot-on. As you might expect, the characters serve mostly as mouthpieces for opposing points of view about race in the United States, and how to survive while Black. Jamal (who never appears) is “the face of the race” at his white private school, and in an act of rebellion has bumper-stickered his car with something that, from a distance, reads “SHOOT COPS.” (As in, shoot them on your camera phone if they pull you over without justifiable cause.) The denouement of American Son’s 80 minutes won’t punch in the gut like it must have intended. No spoilers, but my reaction to the end was much more “that’s an interesting way to go” than a visceral “OMG!” The play’s pensive effect mostly had me sitting in the Booth Theatre thinking about The Talk.

As Scandal devoted an episode to “twice as good,” ABC’s Black-ish tackled The Talk in its first season. The Talk, as my dad might explain, is that moment in black childhood when parents reveal that white society, to put it mildly, doesn’t have your best interests at heart. I just tweeted last month that I don’t intend to give The Talk to my American sons (11 and 13). American Son gave me the opportunity to reassess, but it didn’t change my mind.

Parents, for the most part, know their children. The instructive aspect of The Talk involves guidelines on how to behave with police officers: hands on the dashboard, politeness, no sudden moves. If these directives seem like rules for dealing with some kind of oppressive police state, welcome to America. At the risk of sounding naive, I would never expect my sons to act flippant with the police to begin with. There are kids who’ll benefit from The Talk. Parenting is personal, and to each his/her own choice. But I’d rather my kids come to their own conclusions about African-Americans being treated as second-class citizens in this country, instead of spoon-feeding them subliminal “lesser-than” ideas about their Black bodies through The Talk.

My kids spent half their lives in Paris, where they were born. They don’t know of Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, or the other young Black casualties of growing up in white supremacist America. In September, my oldest became a teenager. I bought him author Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give this year; last month I treated him to the film adaptation and he loved both. He’s slowly woke-ing up, but truth be told, his head in mostly still in Fortnite half the time. I’ve been handcuffed and stuck in a holding cell once, speeding down to Spelman for my college sweetheart’s graduation with expired car insurance. My boys’ turn to interact with police will inevitably come one day and I pray they won’t have to have benefitted from The Talk they never received. For now, I’d rather they feel out for themselves how this country values them differently.