Anyone who knows me knows I have a nephew whom I absolutely adore. I love Niles to pieces, and my life became much more fulfilled when he entered the world five years ago. I am grateful that my sister Wendy, Niles’s mom, has allowed me to play such an active role in his life.
As far back as I can remember, Wendy and I have encouraged Niles to be brave, because we knew bravery was a characteristic he’d have to use throughout his life. We would use the phrase during routine times, like when we’d take him to the doctor for shots, but it didn’t truly resonate with me until he started pre-K.
I remember the moment: “Be brave” truly dug deep into my heart as Wendy and I uttered the words to Niles at pre-K orientation. The students had to leave the gymnasium with their new classmates while the parents and loved ones stayed behind. The students lined up and headed to their classrooms. As Niles walked by us, unintentionally in unison we said it: “Be brave.” It was the first time I felt that Niles would have to deal independently with any adversity or uncomfortable feeling. Before that, he was always with one of us, his caregiver or a trusted family member.
That day in the gymnasium at The Oaks Academy was the first time I felt like a vulnerable aunt who was truly worried about my nephew. It was also the first time I realized that Niles would truly have to exercise being brave.
I recently learned of an ordeal involving a group of 11- and 12-year-old Black boys in Beaumont, Texas. The youth are all part of the Beaumont Bulls football team and, like many of us, they are aware of the harsh realities of America, including the blatant and disproportionate mistreatment of Black males by law enforcement — be it police brutality, wrongful arrests or racial tension that has led to violence. Members of the Beaumont Bulls are also aware of the activism happening throughout the country, such as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem in protest.
When Kaepernick’s activism initially occurred in August, the Beaumont Bulls — an all-Black football team with an all-Black coaching staff — discussed the possibility of the team taking a knee to silently protest the maltreatment Blacks experience. Realizing the magnitude of such a stance, the coaches were reluctant to discuss the team kneeling during the national anthem, as they didn’t want to expose the students to negative feedback that was likely to follow. But the youth, in their infinite wisdom and courage, wanted to silently and peacefully protest anyway. After getting permission from the athletes’ parents and league officials, the coaching staff and the youth athletes took a knee before their game.
The boys won the game 27–0, and their act of courage led to local and national attention. Unfortunately, not all the attention has been positive. As a matter of fact, the youth football team has received threats of lynching, burning them up and even harming their families. These 11- and 12-year-old boys are being subjected to levels of cruelty and intimidation they should never have to endure — especially not at such young ages. Adding to the drama, the league, which previously supported the team’s effort, did a complete 360 and suspended the head coach for the remainder of the season. In addition, team parents were banned and told their sons could continue to play, but the parents were not allowed to attend games, practices or team events. Eventually, the league’s executive board canceled the remainder of the season, prohibiting the team to play at all.
Again, these are things 11- and 12-year-old youth should not have to deal with. It is completely unfair to place such a heavy burden on children who were merely demonstrating their objection to discriminatory practices by silently and peacefully protesting.
As I researched the Beaumont Bulls, I thought of my nephew. I imagined him being one of those players and the heavy burden of worry he’d have to carry. I also thought of how my sister and I continually encourage Niles to be brave, yet when the youth in Beaumont tried to be brave, they were rejected and reprimanded more severely than even professional athletes who have acted out the same level of protest.
I also thought of the messages being sent to the youth that, while less overt, are most damaging: You shouldn’t protest. You shouldn’t stand up for what you feel is wrong. If you do, you will be dealt with — one way or another.
What league officials did to the Beaumont Bulls is not unlike things that have been done to any group of people who tried to protest or stand up against adverse treatment. The league and others have tried to invoke a spirit of fear and defeat in those young boys. They are trying to break their spirits and diminish their will to fight. We have seen examples of this time and time again.
Children shouldn’t have to endure such experiences. They should be allowed to be children. Thankfully, youth and many of us adults have a spirit of hope and optimism that can’t be broken. My prayer is that good prevails over evil and this country will stomp out discrimination against anyone, while treating everyone in a consistent and fair manner.