A recent study found that black children are seen as older and less innocent than their white peers. This causes them to lose the rights that come along with being a child: the right to make mistakes, the right to be given the benefit of the doubt, and the right to compassion and leniency.
Psychologist and photographer Elmeka Henderson is all too familiar with these facts. It’s why she helped create For Emmett et al, a photo project that garnered national attention from media outlets like CNN.
“It’s a project dedicated to rehumanizing the Black child,” Henderson explains. “With everything that’s been going on with Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, myself and my friend Nikki Porcher were just insanely moved by the [negative] portrayal of these kids in the media. I have never wept that way [from] reading something the way I did reading about those boys. Especially with Tamir Rice. He was 12. These were kids! They were somebody’s baby. So, we launched this project. We flood the site with photos of children just being children.”
Changing the narrative around Black children is especially important to Henderson, whose son Chris towers over the average 8 year old. “I have one of those children who looks older than they are,” Henderson says.
Chris’ interactions with law enforcement have already been influenced by the recent rash of police brutality. “We were traveling and we happened to be in Penn Station. My son had to use the bathroom, so I pointed him in the right direction,” Henderson recalls. “I watched him not see it and wander around for bit, before I finally walked up to him and asked him what he was doing. He said he couldn’t find it, and I asked him why he didn’t just ask the cop who was standing nearby. Then he just kinda looked at me. I knew exactly what he meant, and that just broke my heart.”
Henderson had already been thinking about a domestic move to San Francisco, but the Tamir Rice case, along with the changes Henderson noticed in her son, ended up being the “tipping point” that drove her to pursue living abroad.
“I always wanted to move abroad, I just had to figure out how,” Henderson says. (She and Chris were already avid travelers, having adventures in South Africa, China, and Botswana to name a few.)
“I took trips earlier this year to Dubai and India, and prior to those trips I always felt like living out of the country—especially living out of the country with my son—was unattainable. But, while I was traveling, I met a woman who works for General Mills and lives in Mumbai with her two children. Meeting [them] solidified for me that I could do this.
“When I got back,” she continues, “I just put it out into the universe, said this is what I want to do, and it all just took off.”
Henderson’s impressive resume led to a number of interviews, and eventually a job offer in Qatar. “I would have been the head of special ed policy in Doha, Qatar, developing The Center for Special Needs,” Henderson explains. “Everything was going smoothly until we started talking about my contract. They kept wanting to know about Chris’ father and I told them, ‘There is no father.’”
Chris’ birth story is a dramatic one. Henderson found out she had been accepted at a graduate school in Philadelphia as she was finishing up her undergraduate education in Arkansas. In the midst of gearing up for the huge move, she got more life-changing news: She was pregnant.
“The first person I called was my mother, [I was] just bawling.” Henderson says now. “She said it was ok, and told me I’d be fine. The first thing I was thinking was, I just applied to grad school. What am I going to do? But it all worked out; I had my son during the program, and had to take a year off because I had had a Cesarean. That recovery was not fun. I wish I could say we planned it and it was beautiful, but it was completely traumatic.”
Part of that trauma came when Henderson was about six months into her pregnancy and realized that she would be parenting alone, as her relationship with Chris’ father took a turn for the worse.
“I think the kicker was [when] one day he said, ‘I think you love the baby more than me,’ and I looked at him and said, ‘Duh.’ Then the relationship started to go down a violent path. I just thought, Nope, we’re not gonna do that, and we parted ways.”
Henderson encountered her fair share of rough patches as a single mom and graduate student.
“My parents live in Kansas, and I would have to send him to my mother sometimes during finals,” Henderson explains. “That was the hardest thing, to be away from him for like three weeks. He was 9 or 10 months the first time. I went through my master’s and then I had to go through my certification as an educational specialist, so that was three more years. It took me five years to graduate so that I could practice psychology. I think that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
When she made it to her graduation, she finally allowed herself to feel what had been building up over the last five years.
“I broke down,” she recalls now, “Sitting there, I just started reflecting on everything. There’s this crazy picture; the photographer got me bawling just as I was getting hooded. It was hilarious—I had the ugly cry [face] and everything. That is my most amazing accomplishment to date, to be raising a child—an infant actually—and graduate.”
Since then Henderson has raised her son on her own while working as an independently contracted psychologist for charter schools in Philadelphia. But the human resources department in Qatar didn’t fully appreciate her accomplishments.
“They just kept saying there has to be a father,” she says. “I didn’t hear anything from them for about a week. The director of the program went back and spoke to HR again, but they ended up telling me they had to rescind my offer because Qatari policy prevents them from hiring single parents.
“That knocked me back for a few weeks,” she admits. “I didn’t really want to put myself out there anymore, because I was afraid someone would ask about Chris’ father. But after a little while, and with some encouragement from friends, I got back into it.”
Henderson soon received a job offer to work as a special needs coordinator and special education teacher in Cambodia, but ultimately decided to take a position as a psychologist at a girls’ Catholic international school in Tokyo, Japan. (Chris will attend the institution’s brother school in the upcoming school year.) But even though they’re both excited for the move, Henderson’s already thinking about their next destination.
“I don’t think we’ll be here long-term. I’ve been traveling in Africa a lot lately and I think that’s where I want to settle. A lot of the schools I applied to in Africa told me they loved my resume, except for the fact that I didn’t have any international experience. So my goal is to work in Tokyo for maybe two years, and then transfer to some place in Africa—Zanzibar, Zimbabwe, or Botswana in particular.”
Wherever the Hendersons go, one thing is certain: They’ll have each other—and a few enviable stamps in their passports.
(If you’d like to keep up with Elmeka and Chris’ adventures abroad, you can follow their journey on Elmeka’s blog Adventures in Raising a Vagabond.)