Tears For My Black Boy: A Very Public Breakdown and a Message on Mothering While Black
Last week, while standing on a stage and giving a presentation at a national conference, I broke down crying.
I never saw it coming.
I was talking, as I often do, about the historical trauma of black women as mothers and breastfeeders–sharing how enslaved black women were forced to breastfeed the children of the white slave owners often to the detriment of their own children. I talked about the historical trauma of this experience–being forced to transfer sustenance and nurturing to another child while being denied providing it to your own. And how black women never fully “owned” their children who could be taken from them at any time. My point, was that this historical trauma is still being lived today by black mothers who still fear their children, particularly their boys, will be “taken” by police violence.
So I started telling my own story. The story of how my son recently turned 12 and wanted to walk to the local pizza shop and that although living in the suburbs of Long Island (or perhaps because of that) I had to give him the “police talk.” I told him of the seven words he must remember, Yes, sir, No, sir and Thank you sir. And that he must never try to “win” on the street with a police officer. He must comply, comply, comply and stay alive. The “win” may be later as a legal victory or just to be still breathing. But he should not try to be “right” with an officer. My story highlighted how many black mothers, even well-educated, resourced and economically successful mothers, often still feel powerless to protect our boys. Well, I tried to get the last part but that’s when this feeling started to rise up from my gut, and somewhere between the words feeling and powerless, I was unable to stop it. I had never shared that story publicly but when I planned to do so earlier that morning, it never dawned on me that it would cause such a reaction. What is it that has been simmering, obviously, very close to the surface for me for some time?
I am very grateful to the audience at the Human Milk Banking Association of North America conference for the warm support they gave me during that very emotional moment. Some in the audience cried with me. Others applauded me through. I eventually regained my composure and continued.
But I’ve been replaying and rehashing the experience ever since. What did it mean? Why did I get so emotional over something I know and live everyday? While I have a clear understanding of the experience of black mothers –this is the very reason I created Mocha Manual–perhaps I was unaware of my own unresolved demons. Perhaps my own realization that my degrees or success do not give me any advantage in protecting my son, particularly as he gets older and more independent, was too much to bear on that day. And that despite “making it”, I was still relatively powerless in protecting my son. This is a very painful reality for many black mothers.
Of course, we choose not to dwell on it. I choose not to dwell on it. I teach my son to be smart, kind and powerful. I also teach him that if police are rude or store owners follow him in a store it is not personal–it is part of a broken system that we are living under. I tell him how humans are merely “machines” responding to a story they’ve been told about black people in general and black boys in particular. And that he has to learn to recognize the system , feel sorry for the “machines” and not internalize the effects.
But had I? Standing on that stage, unable to find word or breath, something was occurring and it tumbled me end to end. Have I been operating, even as a so-called parenting expert–with a deep wound that had finally reached the surface? As my son gets older am I fearing the expiration date of my ability to protect him? Have I been acting strong and “talking” empowered parenting when I am actually scared beyond words? I’m wondering if I’m alone. Perhaps we are all suffering silently until our “stage” moment comes and we are forced to deal with painful realities of black motherhood.
What I’ve also realized is that I grew up watching my own mother and her fears for my brother. Talk about historical trauma. I remember her giving him the speech about hoodies and baggy pants and a special lecture from my father when he got his first car. I distinctly recall how my mother sat on the couch by the window, peeping through her curtains, waiting for my brother to come home at night. And when my brother broke curfew, the reprimanding he received from my parents mostly revolved around the fact that they could not sleep until they knew he was home. My father would tell him how our mom was “worried sick” and beg him, “not to do that to your mother.”
But what is society doing to black mothers?
I’m worried and looking for answers and concerned that there are many unhealed and wounded mothers out there and we are not giving voice to these concerns. Even worse, there may not be any end to this pain. In our solutions oriented world, maybe we’ve stopped talking about things we know can’t be fixed. Won’t be fixed.
I wanted to share this story and declare for myself and any others out there, that I am afraid for my son. I’m looking for answers. I’m not dwelling on it but I don’t want to continue to gloss over this very unique and dehumanizing experience.
Perhaps we all just need that “stage” moment to acknowledge it, move forward and heal.
Let me know your thoughts.