‘American Son’ Dramatizes Every Black Mother’s Fear
When my son was 10 years old, his babysitter, whose sole task was to pick him up from school and get him safely home via the subway, called me at work to tell me that she had “lost” him. That is the word she used: “Hi Rebecca, um, I think I lost Kofi.” I wish I could say that I maintained my composure, but no, I did not. After unleashing a fury of expletives, I hung up on her and proceeded to very nearly collapse onto the floor in the middle of my office. Fortunately, I work in the biggest local newsroom in the city, and within minutes my colleagues had assembled and deployed a team set out to find my son. One went to scour the subways, one to look around the neighborhood near our home, another on the phone with the police. “No,” she said. “He’s not white. He’s black.” I stood beside her, shaking and trying not to openly sob.
For any mother or parent, to hear that your child is missing is an utterly incomprehensible thing, a full-on visceral attack, and an invasion of every worst fear teamed up with the unwavering intent to take you down. But for black mothers of black sons, this knowledge yields to something else entirely — a palpable dread that things will likely end in one of two ways, particularly if the police are involved. Will they take less care in finding him now that they know he is black? Will they find him and then assault him, blame him for some made-up crime? Plant something on his body? Shoot him for running?
Even thinking back on it now comes with giant waves of nausea. But I couldn’t help but to be reminded of this experience while watching American Son, the Netflix television film adaptation of the Broadway play by Christopher Demos-Brown, which I also saw, starring Kerry Washington, who gives, in both stage and screen versions, an almost unbearably vivid and searingly trenchant performance as a black mother whose black son is missing.
While the circumstances in American Son are quite different, the similarities are nonetheless still daunting and viciously realistic. The play is adapted word for word, scene for scene in the Netflix version, with the same cast and setting to tell the story of Kendra Ellis-Connor (Washington), a psychology professor, who spends a very long night in a South Florida police station, trying to reconcile how or why her 18-year-old son has gone missing. Although American Son has received criticism for both thin writing and a lack of character development, this to me is one of those instances where the art exists within the ferocity of its one note — a note that if you’ve ever had to sing, feels like an eternity of ripping out your vocal chords as an entire nation stands by and refuses to listen. Washington embodies that in her portrayal of Kendra, and so I forgive the writing, which is, I agree, thin in some places, and not often electrifying. But neither is spending even twenty minutes, much less several hours, wondering whether your child is dead or alive.
What was also remarkable to me about this film were the finer details that seem to get lost in the larger, more blanket recognition of its intersectional themes surrounding race, class and gender. Yes, Kendra’s husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale) is white, so they are in an interracial relationship with a mixed race son. Yes, Kendra is an academic and Scott is a cop from a proudly working-class background, who doesn’t understand how to embrace his son as he black-identifies, with his “stooping, surly walk.” And yes, the junior police officer handling the case, Paul Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), is a predictably racist, misogynistic dumbass. But the visible conflict Kendra works through as she describes her son’s appearance — “Corn rows. Light green eyes.” — and then a few paces later, as she argues with her husband about how she “killed” herself to make sure he spoke “proper English,” is sublime.
The way she insists on maintaining Jamal’s blackness throughout, and in so doing, also honoring his choice to black identify, is a testament to black motherhood. Even as Kendra is lighter-skinned and Scott is white, and so Jamal, who we never see in the film, may well not physically present as black. I am also lighter-skinned, and my husband is white, and so my son, Kofi, the Ghanaian name for a son born on a Friday, which he was (and which I gave to him, in part, to honor the ancestors), can appear to some as racially ambiguous. But he is not racially ambiguous to himself or to me, or to his father. He black identifies and, as one (black) friend said to me once when I was grappling with how to talk with Kofi about how he might present differently from his darker-skinned black friends, “He’s dark enough.” Meaning, in America, if you don’t immediately present as white, you’re under suspicion and always in potential danger.
Kendra has to shoulder all this on her own, because her husband can’t get beyond his own delusion and white male ego to allow for his only son to be authentically who he is. I’m fortunate that my husband has never felt threatened by our son’s choice to black-identify. When Officer Larkin tells Kendra that he too has children, she says: “How old are they? Any of them black?” The audience may assume that Jamal is dark-skinned, and in truth, one never knows even with two black parents how a child’s skin tone will turn out, but I understood as a black mother, a viewer and a cultural critic, that it was likely far more complicated than that. Some people might expect a reflection of that complexity to appear in a certain way, but nobody holds the premium on what complexity looks like. And Washington’s Kendra gives us a variation on multilayered emotions and devastating circumstances that you might just have to look closer than usual to see.
Twenty minutes after the initial call from my son’s babysitter, I got a call from the NYC Transit Police. My son was safe and I could pick him up at the precinct in the station near his school. Kofi’s babysitter thought he hadn’t gotten on the subway when he had, and he thought she had gotten on the subway when she hadn’t. When he realized the mix-up, he got off at the next stop and walked back to school, where someone in the office went with him to the train station, and gave the police my number.
In the end, I fired the babysitter, and I decided to meet Kofi at his level of concern, which was zero.
“Mom,” he said over the phone. “Why were you so worried? I know my way around.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him just then the more specific reason for my outsized worry and audible relief, though I think he knew—the year before, after Michael Brown was shot in the back and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, my son had responded by asking: “Are you going to get shot, Mom? Am I going to get shot?”
My son is now 14. He gets to school by himself, every day, wearing earbuds and a hoodie. It’s bittersweet, stunningly so, that all my life I had only wanted to raise my children (I’d hoped for more) in and around black folks, in Brooklyn—so they could feel surrounded, held up and safe. That’s all I longed for growing up in all-white, rural New Hampshire.
But the truth is my son will never be safe. Not because he’s in Brooklyn or around black folks, but because he is one of those black folks.
Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic and Editor of Special Projects at WNYC, where she develops, produces and hosts a broad array of multi-platform content, including podcasts, live events and on-air broadcasts. Rebecca is also the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw, and her personal essays, cultural commentary and opinion pieces have been published widely. Her memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, is due out from Simon & Schuster in 2020.