STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
Denise Allen taught her son to be respectful. She didn’t think she would have to teach him how to survive in a world where he’ll be treated differently because of the color of his skin.
In response to recent events involving young men of color, Allen created her “My Son Matters” project. The exhibit features photos of single mothers and their sons, as well as thoughts gleaned from interviews with the women.
Andrea Lawful-Trainer, of Abington, had her picture taken with her sons, Charles, 22, and Andre, 19.
“It’s just amazing how Denise captured the love between mother and son,” she said.
Lawful-Trainer wanted to share her story and that of her son, Charles, who was stopped by a police officer when he was 15.
“I felt like his rights were violated,” she said. “I wanted to share my story with other people. Even if children face challenges, if you do what you need to as a parent, they’ll be OK.”
Lawful-Trainer told her sons that things like being stopped are going to happen.
“But they’re not to be bitter,” she said. “They’re to be better.”
Being a part of this exhibit was important to her.
“Most of what we see in the news is negative. This exhibit shows African-American families with young men of color in a different light,” she said. “Our children are successful. The only difference is the color of their skin. See the accomplishments and what they’ve done before you judge.”
Lawful-Trainer thinks it would be helpful if people saw young men of color for who they really are.
“See them as you would see your own children. See them as children who are being loved by someone,” she said. “See that they are viable human beings that deserve to be loved like anyone else.”
Allen, of Jenkintown, hopes that people will see them that way in her exhibit. She was inspired to use her camera to start a dialogue after Trayvon Martin was killed (in Florida, after a confrontation with George Zimmerman). So she interviewed 20 young men and took photos of them in hoodies (Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was shot and killed).
“I wanted the world to see you can’t judge a book by its cover,” she said. “They’re in the choir, having after school jobs, tutoring.”
The events surrounding Martin’s death “really opened my eyes in a lot of ways,” she said.
Allen, a single mother with an adopted child (Jordan, 15) took becoming a parent very seriously. She decided to adopt a child on her own, and made decisions she thought best to raise him like moving to a family-oriented neighborhood, where kids play outside.
Eventually, she realized that something was missing. “Am I teaching him what he needs to know to make it as a black man in the world?” she wondered.
More killings occurred and, each time, the media puts a microphone “in the face of the mother after they were killed and say ‘tell me about them.’ Why do they have to wait until their child is killed to talk about them, to elevate them?”
Allen decided the kids and the community need to see these children now. She focused on mothers because, even though fathers are important, “mothers hold it together. We take care of our kids.”
Speaking with mothers, interviewing them about their experiences, and then photographing them has been a great experience, Allen said.
“Our kids don’t come with instructions and I don’t know it all,” she said. “It’s good to hear other people’s perspectives.”
Having a conversation with your child about how to handle a situation, like if they get stopped, is tricky, she said.
“How do you have these conversations, but don’t stifle your son’s growth, his spirit?” Allen said.
But the conversations need to take place, among mothers and sons and within the community.
“I like to think that I’m laying part of the foundation to solve something. No one person does anything,” she said. “I realized I have a different voice and way to get my view across – through pictures. I’m doing my part, just trying to give back in what I believe in.”
IF YOU GO
What: “My Son Matters”
When: Opening reception Friday, April 17 at 6 p.m.; exhibit continues through May 31
Where: Mt. Airy Art Garage, 11 W. Mt. Airy Ave, Philadelphia, PA
Info.: Call (215) 242-5074 or visit www.mtairyartgarage.org