The dance of Black motherhood or the journey to humanity

To choose to bring a child into the world is not for the faint of heart; to make the decision to raise a child is to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and, in essence, to gamble with your heart and soul. That child you nurture and raise can grow up to be the next CEO, ax murderer or decide that your parenting choices were so horrendous that they turn their back on you when they come of age. To parent or, specifically, mother while Black is to take all the pressure that mothers everywhere face and to have them amplified and projected for all to see and to be judged in a way that other mothers can only imagine.

This past week, Toya Graham, a Baltimore mother, saw her acts of parenting go viral in a moment that has been dissected and judged by many including yours truly. To recap, Toya’s 16-year-old son was attempting to join the protesters in Baltimore when his mother caught sight of him and physically hauled his ass off but not before laying hands on him which, in 2015, meant the moment was recorded and sent off into the world for all to see. The family is currently having their “15 minutes of fame” and hopefully something positive will come of their viral moment.

Personally, I am not a fan of laying hands on kids. The last time that I laid hands on one of my children was when my now 23-year-old son was 4 and I was a frustrated and young divorcee. I have apologized many times over for that moment, it wasn’t my finest and I swore to never repeat it again. Now with two kids and 23 years of parenting experience, I have kept that promise. However, I have learned in all my years of parenting that to raise Black kids is to exist in that same state of duality that scholar W.E.B. DuBois wrote of on the Black experience in the early 1900s.

I love, nurture and care for my babies but at the same time, they must understand that the weight of their skin color carries an extra burden. It is viewed differently than their white peers. That meant for my son unlearning any notion that the police were his friends. He learned that lesson at 16 when he was accused of looking like a suspect who turned out to be a short white man but not before he was brought home in the back of the squad car for the infraction of buying a sandwich at a local snack shop and walking home to eat it. It’s the lesson he now understands everytime he is stopped for the simple act of driving while Black and has his car illegally searched. It’s why he is stopped more often than any of his white peers when he hasn’t even violated any traffic laws. It is the price of Blackness, and as a parent it has meant instilling in him the tips for how to survive in this world that is unforgiving for Black skin especially Black, male skin.

The Baltimore mom said her actions were the actions of a mom just wanting to keep her son safe and I believe it. When my son at 16 first encountered the unjust realities of this world, I too got scared but I made different choices. I now fight the system that created this unjust burden that weighs heavily on Black and Brown skin and criminalizes our young. We all do the best that we can with the tools that we have at hand.

As Black mothers, we carry an unfair burden that our white counterparts rarely face. We are asked to carry the weight of the Black community on our backs. Part of why Toya Graham’s story has gone viral is the misplaced notion that all that ails the Black community is a simple need for more Black parents better parent their children. As a Black woman and mother that offends me because the majority of Black parents I know and have met along my life journey are parenting their kids. They are parenting often against the odds in a world hostile to our existence and the existence of our kids. They are often parenting in conditions that are unknown to far too many white people. It is the unfortunate side effect of the racial silos that exist in this country that so many people assume that all things are equal based off our their own often limited views.

This morning I came across this piece in today’s New York Times written by a fellow Black mom and frankly it annoyed me even more than the think pieces that have been written about Toya Graham. In part because, in an attempt to talk about the state of Black motherhood in the United States, it dehumanizes all Black mothers by stripping away the individuality of Black mothers. Yes, we face challenges that our white peers may not face but that doesn’t mean that as women and mothers, we don’t have our own tender and even confused moments as mothers. To be a Black woman does not mean we possess some supernatural abilities that are only given to Black women. While we often are not as active in the current day game of mommy wars, I have shared many spaces with Black women as we grapple with the same pieces of humanity that are white counterparts do. It’s just that rarely are our tender and vulnerable moments aired and celebrated as our white counterparts are.

The dance of Black motherhood is a delicate dance that does exact a toll but at the same time we are all humans journeying on a path doing the best that we can, some of us with heavier loads but in the end all deserve to have their humanity recognized and acknowledged in this world.

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The culture of good and why good is often toxic

My daughter wraps up the third grade this week and with it, what I hope is her incessant need to be “good” and “nice.” For many parents, a child intent on always being good and never hurting anyone’s feelings may be seen as a plus, an outward sign to the world that you are excelling at parenthood. Heaven knows that the Judgy McJudgerson’s of proper parenting are all around us, waiting to issue a disapproving eye and worse, words we didn’t ask for. If it’s real bad, our uncomfortable moments of parenting are captured by a fellow parent and shared across the land of social media where untold numbers weigh in and pat themselves on the back for being “good” parents.

Well, I don’t care about being that kind of “good” parent and I don’t want that kind of “good” child because our culture’s need to turn kids into good kids often strips them of their ability to be themselves and stand in their truth. I was a good kid, who grew up to become an anxious adult breathing into paper bags when the weight of good became too much. Good is a great way to lose your voice or worse yet, never find it.

A year end visit to my daughter’s classroom today revealed that her experience this school year was heavy on learning manners; manners that include not ever saying anything negative because you might hurt someone’s feelings. Admittedly I am blowing off some steam here but my annoyance is far greater than just my daughter’s classroom experience.

Good is often the prison that keeps people locked in a cell where change is hard to come by because to step outside the line of what is deemed acceptable is seen as bad or at the very least problematic. Living in New England for the past dozen years, I have struggled to understand the people and the culture, many times feeling like a visitor from the planet troublemaker.

A few days ago the thought popped into my mind that if Lake Wobegon met up and had an affair with Pleasantville, the offspring would be Maine. A place so pleasant, so nice with many good people yet so filled with expectations that rarely allows for deeper truths and exploration. A place where good is put on the pedestal and harsh words or unpleasant truths are rarely openly discussed. Yet my reality of Maine is not limited to Maine, it exists all over and is an interesting byproduct of white American values. Where according to my friend and author Debby Irving “A “good” attitude was highly valued and rewarded.”

In my years of writing about my journey as a Black woman in Maine, people often are surprised at the depth of my honesty and at times it is problematic for me. I was raised to be nice and good but as woman of color, I learned long ago that the privileges of niceness  and goodness are not automatically awarded to people like me. Instead it was only when I found my voice and decided that “good” was detrimental to me personally that my life unfolded in ways that I valued.

How many people have lost their lives at the hands of goodness? Many of the very people we now revere were not initially seen as good, last I checked many of those involved in the civil rights movement were initially seen as rabble rousers and troublemakers. Imagine if they had not stopped outside their socially prescribed box of goodness? Good is not always bad but a culture that starts our young focused on being good is a culture that often is not willing to rip the bandaid of injustice and intolerance off, instead using good as a convenient cover. Teachers and parents plant seeds that often grow deep within our youth and the seed of good while worthy is never enough if we are not planting truth, honest and justice as well.

Good is not inherently bad but good should never be the end goal.

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Black bodies, black names in a white world

I was born in the early 1970s at a time when many Black Americans were experimenting with connecting to their diasporic roots and when unable to find true connections, they created their own. The result is a generation that was given dubious-sounding African names that were really just creative concoctions that reflected the angst of the time and the need to claim a heritage that had been denied. I know this because my legal moniker is one of these concoctions. My legal name is very much reflective of my working-class Black roots and for many years it brought me much pain and agony.

In the mid 1990’s, during a particularly long and grueling job search that was going nowhere, I decided on a whim to change my name on my resumes to the more race-neutral Shay, and to simply use my middle initial of L instead of its full form in all its “Blackness.” This was well before the now well-known Harvard study on names and let me say, the difference in using a shortened and less racially connected form of a family nickname was like night and day. Suddenly I was getting more calls than I could handle. On the phone, since my voice held not a hint of stereotypical Blackness, potential employers had no idea that I was Black until I showed up for the interview. Start the laugh track now.

A race-neutral name will get you in the door, but few people excel at hiding their obvious shock of a Black person walking in the door when they were expecting a white person. The sad reality is that a name is just a name and people who are hell-bent on denying another’s humanity based on race care not if you are Laquita Shante Jones or Sally Anne Ross.

This week, this piece ran in the New York Times.  A Black mother agonizes over what to name her unborn child, because the name that her partner wants for their unborn child when searched on Google comes up with images that include mug shots of Black men. This mother only wants to best for her child and she does not want him burdened with the baggage that comes with a Black name.  But after 40 years on this dusty rock in the land of the free and the home of the brave which was built on dubious roots that included enslaving people and denying them their humanity, I am sad to say that you have to face facts: We, as the descents of those people, still carry those burdens as a collective society and there is no white name that can take that away.

Living in Maine, I have met more than a few young Black men raised here who are have very white names, very white mannerisms and overall are safe and respectable young men of color and all have had moments where the cloak of respectability that is all the rage in the Black middle class and above circles did not protect them from the harsh reality of bigotry.

A writer who I adore who just so happens to be Black Ivy League graduate and attorney wrote a response to the NY Times piece ; it was Carolyn’s piece which inspired me to write today. Respectability politics is a dangerous game for people of color to play because no matter what we do the goal keeps getting moved. We are arguing over suitable names for Black folks but whites are quite comfortable with unusual names. Tagg Romney? Hell, in Maine I have met more than a few white folks with Black sounding names including an Ebony White who worked at a sneaker shop. Yet we are over here trying to get the most race-neutral name possible.

Names are deeply personal, I spent weeks poring over names when I was pregnant with my son and I didn’t name my daughter until she was three days old. In the end my children have names that fit who they are as people. The older I get, the baggage of changing my name even informally has become a weight, as I realize that my given name is very much a part of who I am. My given name symbolizes the working class Black kid from Chicago and while that may not be who I am at this moment, it is my history.

Over the years I have made peace with my very Black first and middle name, though I rarely use them, but I was reminded of how far I have come in getting over my own quest to be “respectable” when I was asked a few days ago to submit copies of my college and graduate school diplomas for a position that I am up for. My official documents, of course, still bear my legal name (by the way a very Black name is very handy when using a credit card while Black; people are less prone to think that I stole the card). In the past, being asked for official documents was unnerving…oh, no! They will learn that I am Black. Duh! I am Black. In less than an hour I emailed the required documents, and thought nothing more of it. Hell, I am a Black girl.  

Parents of color carry burdens that our white counterparts will never know nor will they ever carry. Yet we cannot live our lives or plan the lives of our future kids with the hopes of being deemed safe and acceptable in the eyes of whites. If we do, we are only living life at half capacity, if we start denying our own humanity to even ourselves.  As the young folks say, “haters gonna hate.” If you want to give your kid race-neutral name, do it because you want to and not because of the fears this society instills in us.


Shamika LaShawn aka Shay aka Black Girl in Maine

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