I remember the night when George Zimmerman was exonerated after killing Travon Martin. I was lying in bed watching the reports on MSNBC. I felt a lump well up in my throat but I could not speak. My husband was very concerned. He has seen me upset but never silent. Tears streamed down my eyes and I recall thinking, “How in the hell can we ever bring a child into this world?” Boy or girl, male or female, my child would be Black and I couldn’t imagine the anxiety I would feel worried about their safety.
Then I got angry. I was angry because as upsetting as the verdict was, I knew that not every potential parent was having the same thoughts. They didn’t flash forward and think about the implications of parenting while Black.
I had to. It represented my existence. I eventually found the words to share my emotions and discuss my thoughts on that July night 5 years ago.
I have had many nights following the verdict thinking about the fragility of Black existence across the lifespan as coverage of Black and brown babies (and adults) killed replayed month after month. If I am honest with myself, my thoughts didn’t begin in July 2013. They began with stories of my ancestors’ upbringing in the deep south, generations before me. It began with my memory of visiting my grandparents in the south and my grandfather announcing that we should probably not stay in the hotel we had the prior night because a Klan rally was coming through. I was young. I can’t recall how young. I know I had a visual of the “Klan” and I knew that a rally coming through town was not something we wanted to witness.
I am now a parent to a beautiful brown soul. Of course, my anxiety as a parent is present. My typical parental anxieties, however, are peppered with thoughts and memories of my people. I especially feel this way when I am rocking my son to sleep or holding him in my arms. Some parenting magazine somewhere, relative, or person who deems themselves the parenting police might say that if I rock my son to sleep too much he will never sleep on his own. Or worse, he will come to depend on me for comfort.
If you lived in my brain, or understood the history from which I come…this notion is not exactly a bad thing. Soon enough my brown baby will enter a world that will routinely challenge and disregard him based solely on his brown skin, kinky curly hair, and if all goes as planned, Dominican accent. At the age of 2, I will rock him and marvel at the comfort he feels in my arms alongside the breasts that nursed him for 18 months. I will not take for granted when he exhales deeply after settling into my arms and nuzzling his head deeper into my chest. I will relish the fact that when he is uncomfortable at night and trying desperately to put himself back to sleep, one kiss from mommy on the cheek, quiets him. I can only hope that those moments of affection and comfort will be enough to serve as armor for all of the years to come when he will want or require comfort and mommy may not be present.
I also hold him for every ancestor who could not hold their child because they were sold before their eyes into slavery. In my world, responding to every request for my affection does not lead to “spoiling” him, but represents a privilege many Black mothers before me could not afford. They likely had to teach their children not to want or need them in order to survive.
One particular story I read years ago, still haunts me. As the story goes, young slave mothers were forced to place their babies in a long trough every morning before going out into the fields to work. One day, a sudden and treacherous rain came. When those mothers were allowed to return to the trough, each and every baby had drowned. Every ounce of my affection for my baby remembers the pain and traumatic stories of Black women before me. For them, I do not apologize for the affection I readily show my son.
The experiences of parenting while Black also fuels my empathy for all oppressed people. My son is Afro-Latinx. He is the grandchild of immigrants. The stories of immigrant families also live in our home.
We had a rough week. I mean a really rough week filled with doctor’s visits, sleepless nights, rounds of medication, irritability, and misery. It was the type of week that made me call on sweet baby Jesus. Despite my exhaustion, worry, and desire to see my sick little one get better, I was grateful. Every time he reached for me with outstretched arms when his beloved Granny and Pa Pa would not do, I held him tight. The feelings of little chocolate arms wrapped around my neck made me think of the children being held in facilities or shipped to states and homes far away without their parents. This time I felt a tightness in my belly. My child is able to call on mommy, to seek my comfort, and know that even if gone for a short while, I will return to hold him, kiss him, and rock him until he feels better. As I watch him sleep, I think of all of the babies for whom this will not be the case. The fear they must feel. The anxiety they must try to quell on their own. The desperation for something, anything familiar that may never come. It seems almost unconscionable, except I know better. The dissonance I feel is protective. The history of such trauma lives in my body, passed down by prior generations. These are the tales of many Black and brown people.
So yes, for as long as he will have me, I will rock him, allow him to nuzzle, and respond to those outstretched arms. I do so unapologetically.