He’s not picking up. He always picks up. It’s 11 o’ clock on a sleepy Sunday night. Teresa Petty’s home is quiet, seemingly peaceful. But for her, the silence is maddening. Her son Jalil was supposed to be home by now. She’s moving through her home checking off tomorrow morning’s to-do items, after all she’ll have to be up in just a few hours. Usually, Petty’s cheery warmth is disarming. Her hourglass figure widens at her hips before following a smooth curve down her legs. Her laughter and toothy smile accentuate high cheekbones and a quick, biting sense of humor. But all of that’s gone in the moment. She pushes her curtains aside from obscuring her view of a sleepy suburban street. The silence outside makes the thoughts bouncing around in her head louder. Where is he? He should’ve been back by then. Her son’s a good kid, responsible she says. He’s a senior at Evanston Township High School. He gets himself up and to his classes at 9 and makes sure to let his mom know when he gets home at 1. If he doesn’t, he responds immediately to the flurry of “where are you? who are you with?” texts that light up his phone. Petty checks her phone again, re-reads the text she got at 10:41 p.m. from her son saying he’d be home by curfew at 11. It’s nearing 12. Her 11-year-old daughter Jasira is asleep in another room. Her husband’s busy prepping for the next day. He’s usually out of the house before Jasira really wakes up. It’s her 17-year-old son she doesn’t know about. Twenty minutes later, she’s texting again. By then, she’s called “about sixty or seventy times. I call and text, call and text, call and text,” she says pointing out how crazy she feels looking back at it. But it’s from the way her poised shoulders slump and her breathing evens that it’s clear she’s unapologetic and relieved. “In that little bit of time, I was thinking a million different things because I didn’t know.” It’s not until after 12 and after she’s already mentally charted the short route to Presence Saint Francis Hospital that she finally gets the answer to the what ifs that have plagued for for the last hour and a half. It’s what she was afraid of. Jalil and a group of his friends had been at their friend’s birthday party in Winnetka. On the way home, he’d had just enough battery power left to tell his mom he’d be back in 15 minutes before the screen flickered then went dark. Minutes later, their car died and they were left on the side of the road waiting for help from a friend’s dad. That’s when the police arrived. “He’s like ‘They stopped us, the car broke down, they searched us and we just let them search us because we didn’t have anything,’” she says, her breathing uneven. During the whole exchange, none of the boys are allowed to use phones. No contacts, no communication, no accountability. “You see someone and they’re stranded and instead of helping them, you search them? It’s ridiculous. And this is the Winnetka police, so it’s not like you can do anything.” By the time, he actually ends up getting home and talking his parents through what happened, there’s little time to really debrief. Petty can tell her son hasn’t processed it, and what it all means. She doesn’t push him, she’s just glad he’s safe. It’s late. They’re all exhausted, physically and emotionally. So, they go to bed with questions and partial answers and silence. It’s the silence, the not knowing that punctuates reality for many Black mothers. The reality of police brutality, gun violence and unequal justice for Black American communities. African Americans account for 31.8 percent of people shot by police, according to the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report. That’s a disproportionate amount, nearly two and half times as the 13.2 percent of African Americans in the general population. But this is merely symptomatic of a nation-wide issue with unequal policing. It’s contextualized by the 28.9 percent of African Americans the disproportionately comprise the nation’s arrestees. It’s a troubling reality, but it’s been the catalyst for what Petty says has been a blessing: getting involved with JoAnn Avery, the Community Programs Manager of the childcare center Petty’s relied on for years. The two met about 10 years ago when Petty was searching for childcare options for then seven-year-old Jalil she could trust and ended up at Family Focus. She and her husband worked jobs that required childcare before and after school. That would keep him safe. That’s when she met Avery, whom everyone lovingly refers to as “Ms. JoAnn.” Now, the two are pretty inseparable. If she’s not at home or at work, chances are you’ll find her in JoAnn’s cluttered mint green classroom. That’s where she is the next afternoon. JoAnn’s counting on her and a few others to watch her class and the kids today while she sits with her husband in a musty hospital room at Saint Francis. He’s having chest problems. JoAnn’s yet to hear what kind. Petty said yes immediately.
She’s trading quips with a group of four other Black women who either have or had kids or grandkids in JoAnn’s class. The topic of the conversation ranges from the usual gossip to breakdowns of one of the women’s intense love for professional wrestling. But it always flows naturally. They feel more like sisters reuniting during a holiday than disjointed women who aren’t related. Listening to them makes you feel like you’re in on a secret they wouldn’t share with anyone else. Their language switches from the prim and proper pleasantries they use while talking to strangers to the shorthanded slang they grew up with.
“Ms. JoAnn is the sweetest, kindest person you’ll ever meet,” she says punctuating each comment with a chuckle and swooping hand movements. “One of a kind. She’ll do anything for you, without hesitation.” This garners laughter and a slew verbal affirmations from four other mothers in the long rectangular classroom. They’re JoAnn devotees just like Petty.
These five and JoAnn form the core of a network of women that work in the Evanston community to create and preserve spaces for children of color. They support each other and the community when governmental policies, education systems and even other members in the community fail to do so.
JoAnn acknowledges this. She knows that’s part of the reason she works so hard for the kids. It’s why she makes such an effort to affirm, and occasionally reprimand , them. “Love anyways,” she says. She talks of how she doesn’t always know the situations the kids are in. She and the other mothers make it a point not to judge or criticize the other parents. But the work has a price. During almost all of her time off, JoAnn’s either taking girls on trips to local amusement parks or organizing potlucks for parents.
“She’s so good and a lot of parents know it’s safe so they don’t even come in,” Petty says while fixing one of her intricate braids. “They come and they blow the horn and the kids come outside or they call in and she sends the kids outside. They take advantage of her kindness. She has 36 kids, but you only see the same ones every day. Like Ms. Marshall had her grandson in the class last year but she came back when she heard Ms. JoAnn needed help.”
The importance of networks of these has long been understated. Oftentimes, policies, discussions on race relations, police brutality and community activism focuses on male bodies at the expense of Black women. The 1965 Moynihan Report serves as a prime example of this.
Overall, the report worked to directly point out the toxic and systematic nature of racism. “In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children may have to run the gauntlet all over again. That is not the least vicious aspect of the world that white America has made for the Negro.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote the report formally titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” It countered the civil rights movement’s optimism with what was meant to be a sobering look at the damages the government had done to the Black community. But in the course of making that argument, he ended up blaming Black women with the issues the Black community faced.
“In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well,” the report reads.
In the age of mass incarceration and unequal policing, these matriarchal family structures have only become more common. And the report has had an important influence on governmental and social policies would be crafted to address social issues. Over the next decades, many of the new social welfare programs or political projects came with little real investment, erased the needs of many single, Black women or placed heavy stigmas on the Black women who got involved with these programs.
These were exactly the motivating factors that drove many Black women to continue the traditions of activism within their communities. It’s why JoAnn, Petty and Marshall work as hard as they do. They’re quick to correct you if you mistake their motivations for aimless decency or a need to fulfill a stereotype of being a strong, Black woman.
It was never just about death. It’s a matter of life. It’s about preserving childhood, about connection. JoAnn and the rest of the mothers who laugh too hard and sometimes gossip too much get this.
It’s reminiscent of a belief JoAnn holds. Oftentimes, when people talk about these things, they focus the conversation on death, theories or the tangible things. People either talk about racism, sexism and socio-economic status issues as topics, but forget the people it affects. Or, they scatter facts and statistics and numbers and theories as a series of endpoints. They say a Black person was brutalized, endpoint. The jury will not indict, endpoint. No conversation, no hope.
But it’s really the opposite. And these six women keeping Family Focus alive have always known it. It’s more about the joy they hold and the wonder they cultivate. They understand the pressures of work and scheduling and making ends meet. But it was never really about those things. It’s about establishing what community looks like, what it feels like.
Sometimes, as JoAnn knows from experience, it’s spending hours trying to find a child’s parent when the little girl has moved so many times she forgets where her mom is staying. Sometimes, it’s buy full Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas hams and presents for the families she knows won’t have much or anything. Sometimes it’s taking the center’s girl scout troop on Saturday picnics and volunteering at the junior high and high schools.
Sometimes , it’s letting her community love on her too. It’s in the monthly dinners they go out to, the ridiculous stories they spend hours telling. It’s in the way they laugh together and talk for hours about everything and nothing.
This loving community is everything they’ve worked for.
Back in JoAnn’s classroom, the women are down to their usual bantering. But the vibe is different. Before the shock values of the quick, little punchlines left little time for much humor. But now, they’re laughing so hard the beaded sweat makes Marshall’s slicked back hair come loose. One woman is clutching a yard stick and smacking it on the table, reminiscing about how school teachers used to discipline them back in the day. They laugh at the horrified expressions of seven-year-olds too young to pick up on the exaggeration and console them with plastic jug of candy JoAnn keeps stored under a pile of construction paper under her desk. They laugh because their kids are safe.
Marshall plunges immediately into a story about how ravenous her candy cravings get when “Aunt Annabelle” comes for her monthly visit. Petty beams and agrees. “We don’t have an Aunt named Annabelle, do we mom?” Jasira looks to her mom. This rids the women of any traces of composure they were holding onto.
Their joy fills the silence. It feels like they’re in on some secret.
And they are.