Ashley Hill Hamilton is a native of Uptown New Orleans and mother to three children. She works as the policy manager for The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights to change systems that impact children in the juvenile justice system. Ashley is also a doula, lactation consultant, and writer. She is a bold advocate for liberatory practices and meets her work in juvenile justice advocacy at the intersection of her work in Reproductive Justice—both aiming to protect and create environments for Black children and families to live, feel safe, and parent in communities where they are supported and have the necessary tools and resources to thrive and experience joy.
WHO GETS TO BE A CHILD?
My mama grew up across the street from the Calliope housing projects. She had to be inside before the streetlights came on, and when she got into trouble, her parents would already get word from a neighbor before she got home. The workers at the neighborhood sandwich shop, Caruso’s, a blue two-story building that survived multiple fires, knew her by name. The adults in her neighborhood were never afraid to let her know they were watching. They had forged a true community, where every child was everyone’s responsibility. Kids could play in the street, walk to school or the grocery store, and someone who knew their name, their parents, and where they lived would be outside. Still, there was poverty, and where there is poverty, violence usually isn’t far behind. She remembers lying on the floor of her two-bedroom shotgun house because there would be gunshots outside. In spite of this, she considered her childhood to be a good one. The gunshots became ambient noise, like construction in a big city or grasshoppers in the country.
Sometime between when my mom was a kid in the ‘70s and today, people stopped talking to their neighbors, sitting on their porches, and interjecting when they saw a child taking a wrong turn. When I was growing up in the ’90s, the culture of collective responsibility for all children began dismantling. Older Black folk would say, “You can’t tell people’s kids anything these days.” Perhaps this was because of a lack of trust. I wonder if parents had been hurt so badly by people they knew, by people who were supposed to protect them, that they couldn’t fathom the idea of a stranger getting too close. For a while, there continued to be trusted adults in our communities who would say, “Hey there!” when a child cursed in front of an adult, or who would encourage quarreling adolescents to squash a beef. But eventually, that culture fizzled, as did our villages.
I knew everyone in my neighborhood. There were 10 houses on our block, most of them doubles. Six people were homeowners, and the other four were a mix of long-term renters and people who circled in and out of low-income housing. One of my neighbors owned a beauty salon, another a home daycare center, and one was a panhandler who worked the corners a few blocks away. A younger me would avoid eye contact with him, not understanding how he could stand on the corner asking for money when he had a home. I get it now! I understand that many of our neighbors could barely keep their heads above water; and a job, home, car, or expensive tennis shoes no more denotes wealth than thrifted clothing denotes poverty.
I had fewer friends who lived in my neighborhood than my mom did growing up, as the kids I went to school with lived in different areas of the city. One of the few friends I did have would often go out of town for long periods. I thought he was in boarding school, but later found out he was in and out of juvenile detention centers for most of our childhood. His parents were one of the homeowners. We became friends because he had shown up uninvited to my birthday party not long after we moved into the neighborhood, bathed in expensive cologne, and with an extravagant gift. It was a white lace top with a built-in floral choker and matching bell-bottom pants, which became my favorite outfit. We were 10. It’s hard to forget a 10-year-old who wears cologne.
As we got older, if Mark saw me or my grandmother walking home with groceries in tow, he’d appear out of thin air and carry them to our front door. We had never entered each other’s homes but would sit on the porch occasionally, chatting about our lives. Still, I never really felt like I knew him. The older we got, the less I saw him. My family still lives on that street, as does his. I used to wonder where he was but later found out that he had taken someone’s life and would be incarcerated for most of his.
I miss him. He was a good dude.
The Adultification of Black Children
The term “adulting” started to surface on the internet in the 2010s and is mainly used by millennials as a way to poke fun at how hard having jobs, kids, and responsibilities is. A popular joke outlines, “The stupidest thing I ever did was grow up.” This made me start to think about how much I hated being a kid. What was it, though, that I and many of my peers hated so much then but long for in our adult years?
When I was a child, I wanted independence and the freedom to make my own decisions and mistakes. I wanted to wear the clothes of my choice and express myself as I figured out who I was and what I liked and didn’t like. As an adult, I miss the imagination I had as a child. I miss playing outside and taking a break when I was overwhelmed or sad. I miss wearing my feelings on my sleeve, whether it was joy, angst, or frustration. However, above all, I miss the naps. My parents would tell me not to rush growing up. I really wish I hadn’t. But what happens to the children who never got to be a child? Who lived in places where it wasn’t safe to play outside or cry or nap?
Black children are robbed of their childhoods alarmingly early in life. They don’t get to make mistakes or test limits, experiment, explore, or play. They are held to dangerously high standards of perfection very early, and coloring outside of the lines can cost them their lives. Limit testing is an integral part of a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. Children explore what is safe and acceptable and exercise their autonomy—philosophies in Montessori-based curriculums and nature-based learning programs use the idea of supporting children in pushing boundaries safely as a means to build confident learners and adults.
Pushing boundaries is a normal part of adolescent behavior, as is experimenting with fashion trends. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, sagging pants and colorful jackets like Eight Balls or Starters were popular in Black communities, and became a way for law enforcement to target Black youth, making these fashions synonymous with criminal behavior. Schools banned children from wearing these trends. Stores put up signs in their windows banning entry to anyone with sagging pants, and adults across the country shouted from their porches at teenagers to pull them up to their waist. Meanwhile, white children wore North Face and Members Only jackets without any amendments being made to school dress codes. White teens dressed in all black with spiked, gelled hair were understood as expressing themselves, while teens with a similar hairstyle, naturally occurring with dreadlocks, were disrespectfully referred to as cheewees by law enforcement and used as a marker for criminal behavior. Were these children not also expressing their emotions? Or are children only afforded that luxury when they can afford that luxury?
While Black boys are criminalized on the heels of fleeting fashion trends, Black girls are hypersexualized. After attending mostly Black schools all my life, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I learned that White schools allowed their female students to wear shorts above the knee and shirts without sleeves. Girls my age were ridiculed for wearing lip gloss with too much tint, two-piece bathing suits, or dancing. Cultural moves like popping or twerking, indigenous to African and Caribbean ancestry, are deemed as vile or sexually suggestive, and girls are told they are being fast or grown. Even adults like Roxsana Diaz, an art teacher in New Jersey, went viral on social media and almost lost her job. She was accused of seeking attention for being inappropriately dressed as she wore jeans to work while bearing a curvy physique.
The first time this happened to me, I was about 12 years old, walking home from summer camp in my favorite hot pink shorts. I had slightly outgrown them, as my legs were longer and my hips were wider than the summer before. While I wasn’t prepared to retire my shorts, I also wasn’t aware that wearing them would make me a woman. On my walk, a car of two grown men followed me for blocks, making hissing noises at me and asking if I needed a ride. They followed me until my neighborhood friend appeared, boldly telling the men to leave me alone and walking me to my doorstep. Needless to say, I threw the shorts away when I got inside.
A few weeks ago, after picking my kids up from school, I drove down Louisiana Avenue and stopped at a red light. As I glanced out of the passenger window, I noticed a little boy about the same age as my 3-year-old sitting at the bus stop next to his mother. She was pointing her finger in his face and screaming at him with frustration. The child just sat there with a somber look on his face as if he knew and had experienced this before. I’m not sure what he did, but I imagine it was some variation of the behaviors displayed by my three-year-old daily. Not listening, pushing boundaries, throwing things, or maybe having a meltdown. I stared at this child and his mother way past the time the light turned green. I wondered if I was witnessing the very moment when Black boys were no longer allowed to be children. Sit up straight, fix your face, hold your head up high, behave, and dry your eyes before I give you something to cry for. These all are commonly used phrases that Black children are told to make sure they aren’t coloring too far outside of the lines.
My gaze drifted to his mother, dressed in battered shoes, an oversized t-shirt, and baggy jeans. I imagine she had many days like this. Raising kids is hard and tests the limits of those with even the most resources. I can’t imagine what this mama must feel like not to have transportation in 100-degree weather while bearing the responsibility of getting a toddler to and from school, doctor appointments, and other errands.
Again, I stared across the passenger seat and out of the window at this sweet baby one more time and then back behind the passenger seat at my son, who would never have to know what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of the weight of the world. This child’s mother did nothing wrong except being born with Black skin and little opportunity. I wonder how many days of school he might miss because of the heat and what impact that would have on their family, if teachers would understand, or if she had other children to care for. I thought about my own parenting journey and how much effort I put into not taking away the privilege of my children being kids. How many books, how many counseling sessions, how much family support, how many breaks I get, and still—I count parenting as the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I wonder if I’m more patient with my children because I’m not worrying about where our next meal will come from, where we will sleep, or if we’ll be safe there. I wonder if the child at the bus stop would get to be a child a little bit longer if his mother had been afforded more resources and support.
Tabatha was my client. While working as a community doula in North Louisiana, I’d visit people who had just given birth. She never let me come into her home but would meet me on the steps of her third-floor apartment. I’d try to ask about her baby, but she was always brief with me and often switched the subject. Postpartum visits are about whatever the mother needs, and Tabatha needed a friend. I got to know her well during the months we worked together. She’d come outside before I’d even knock on her door, excited for my arrival. As we spent more time together, she started to share more information about her baby, Monday. Mostly, just that she cried a lot. I asked Tabatha what she does when Monday cries, and she responded, “Nothing.” I encouraged her to hold her baby and even walked her through the benefits of skin-to-skin contact. She responded that Monday was manipulative and “knew what she was doing.” She said that the world is a cold place and no one is going to coddle you in real life. She said that Monday would have to learn that lesson early. Monday was only three months old.
Tabatha eventually shared with me that food had been withheld from her as a child because of her weight and her mother’s alcoholism. She said she grew up in and out of the foster system and hadn’t talked to her mother in years. This made me wonder if our mothers can only love us as much as they have been loved.
Tabatha wasn’t the first person I heard say they had to prepare their kids for a cold world. Black parents for generations have often been pressured to nurture their children for shorter periods to prepare them for “the real world.” During a class called Grandma’s Hands with Divine Nicholas, I learned why. Divine, a birth worker and historian, walked about ten other women and me through a chilling conversation about the narrative of spoiling a child. Spoiling a baby means holding them every time they cry or holding them so much you either can’t put them down or no one else can pick them up.
Sometimes, families joke about a child being spoiled to illustrate how well-loved or cared for they are. While I had heard this language for most of my life and even been urged against spoiling my oldest child, my work as a doula pushed back against this philosophy and so many other truths a younger me had learned about birthing and parenting from Southern traditions. Divine told us stories of how Black parents didn’t stop holding their babies because they didn’t love them but because it was a means to protect them during enslavement. As babies and young children could be torn away from their parents at a moment’s notice, having a baby who wouldn’t easily cry could potentially save their lives. In her 2017 book, Dr. Joy DeGruy describes the experience of Black families as “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” where enslaved parents were forced to use harsh parenting styles to keep their children safe from white oppressors. She challenges that “we rarely look to our history to understand how African Americans adapted their behavior over centuries in order to survive the stifling effects of chattel slavery,” noting those effects continue to permeate our communities.
While Black families continue the fight to undo generational harms that have been embedded into our culture in the aftermath of enslavement, so many new traditions reclaiming joy in parenting and families continue to surface. Black families are breaking chains through homeschooling and home birthing, therapy, and gentle parenting, which focuses on listening and making space for feelings rather than silence, guilt, and shame. They are connecting with ancestral traditions and teaching our children through building altars and growing our own foods. We are buying land and traveling the world either physically or traveling through time and space through books and poetry, music and art. Black families are actively seeking to end generational traumas by disrupting systems that have oppressed us and reclaiming traditions rooted in rest, joy, and resistance.
From Poverty to Prison
In late August, a federal court convened to decide if 15 children being housed at Angola’s former death row would be released. These children, who are mostly Black boys and all of whom are teenagers, had been placed here because the state of Louisiana deemed them the worst of the worst. While both the plaintiff and the defense made their cases, witnesses took the stand, either stating why this facility should close immediately or how it’s trying to help the children. Aside from the evidence that highlighted the lack of educational fidelity, the poor quality of mental health services to children riddled by extreme traumas, and the harrowing number of hours they spend alone in their cells, the lexicon to describe these children used words like “big,” “strong,” “bad,” and “aggressive” repeatedly.
As I listened to the stories of these children fighting for their freedom, I noticed a few themes. They hardly ever received visits from family, and they were left without physical human contact for months on end. I couldn’t help but think of Monday and wonder if, like her, their moms had been afraid to spoil them, preparing them for a cold world. Or were any of them the little boy at the bus stop, leaving their innocence behind as the stoplight turned from green to red? Perhaps they were like Mark, good kids with families who did their best but failed against the pressures of a neighborhood where gunshots sound like grasshoppers.
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illustrations by Victoria Allen