I have two new nephews. Not "new" in that they're newborns, but new to me because they're my nephews through marriage. One is introverted, observant, snarky, cynical, and obsessed with basketball. Basically, he's a 14-year-old me. Naturally, upon first meeting him three years ago, we immediately clicked. The other nephew is a couple years younger, and is basically your stereotypical high energy, buoyant, and emotive pre-teen. If you were to walk past a middle school's recess today, he'd be the kid sprinting and bouncing from fence to fence for no apparent reason, seemingly playing every game at once; simultaneously annoying and entertaining the hell out of everyone. He literally gives no fucks. But in a sweet, innocent way. There's no pretentiousness there. No cynicism. No self-consciousness. He's just a kid having a ball.
I've never been that way. I've always had friends, and I've always had fun, but I've always been a bit too stuck in my own head to possess that type of unbridledness. That type of freedom. And I've always envied people who didn't just have to step outside themselves to be free. But permanently lived outside themselves. My nephew is one of these people. He is a free boy. A free Black boy. And I want him to stay that way.
But I worry about him. Because that lack of cynicism currently extends to race. His friends are a demographic potpourri; a transubstantiated Benetton catalog that includes several White kids. Which — let me be very clear — is not a problem. At all. I am not concerned or worried in the least about him having White friends. I have White friends. White friends are great. I am concerned that he might not be fully aware of what it means to be a Black kid with White friends. Specifically, a Black male with White female friends.
And this is where it gets tricky. Because my macro sense of racial consciousness — of what it means to be Black in America — informs much of my work, my writing, and my thinking. But on a micro, strictly personal level, I have to admit that I don't have as much reason to be as racially cynical as my work often suggests I am. I've been lucky enough to not have had the type of antagonistic interactions with White people many other American Blacks have. But perhaps this experience is due to that macro racial consciousness. Maybe I've been able to avoid that antagonism specifically because I've never been as free as my nephew. And while that cynicism might have constricted me in some way, maybe it also shielded me.
But then I think about my nephew again. And how desperately I want him to continue to be a free Black boy. And how great and how rare those qualities are. But then my wife tells me she just got off the phone with her sister (my nephew's mother). Who told her he got in trouble at his summer camp because a girl — one of his White girl friends — lied about him pushing her and breaking her cell phone. He eventually got out of trouble because, unbeknownst to her, this incident occurred in a place where there were hidden cameras. Which revealed she actually pushed and threw her phone at him. But the camp director didn't see the tape until a day later; after my nephew had already been sent home for the day.
Which really isn't that big of a deal. Kids (boys and girls) fight. And kids (boys and girls) lie. Especially when the lie will get them out of trouble. But what concerned — but didn't surprise — me was how easily the girl's word was believed. And how easily my nephew's — a kid who has no history of fighting — wasn't. And how upset he was about that. And I don't know what to say to him.
Of course, I wouldn't tell him that girls — White girls, specifically — are liars. Because that's a lie. But telling him to be careful around his White friends — especially his White female friends — because if some type of trouble happens, they're more likely to get the benefit of the doubt than you are, is not a lie. It's one of the truest American truths I can teach him; a more I feel duty-bound to share.
But I hesitate. Because I don't want him to be encumbered by racial cynicism. I want him to keep being the buoyant Black boy; bouncing through his crew of similarly energetic and kaleidoscopic kids. If, by chance, he happens to experience some race-based conflict that forces him to be more cynical, to adopt that shield, fine. But I don't want to put it on him. I want him to take full advantage of his rare gifts, to continue to be something my personality and sense of personhood has never truly allowed me to be: Free.
But I also want him to be alive.
So I hesitate. Because I'm still unsure of what to say. Or if I should even say anything.
Because, well, maybe he can be both.