Editors' Pick

Letter to My Black Daughter

Dear One,

In the first hours after you were born in a small hospital on the coast of Maine, I traced my fingers around the gray-blue birthmark that looked like a map of America bleeding into your back. I felt your cheek and puckered lips on my naked chest and all I once knew dissolved into a hazy land where I could no longer live. Your father was 300 miles away in Harlem. He was Black and I was white. We staked different claims in the ground of this country and our love and despair grew out of these stakes. Still, we both had faith in your ability to not only survive but thrive here. I still have it.

Even before you were born, your father tried to warn me, to tell me I would experience the world differently as a mother of a brown child. I did not want this to be true. Instead, I naively believed that because you were my daughter, I could protect you from any ignorance you might encounter. I believed in the power of mother love as only the uninitiated can, believed I could conjure a force field against the racism your father faced every day of his life. Your father knew better, but just told me, “You’ll find out.”

When I told your father that I was leaving Brooklyn for Maine to be near your grandparents, he cried. Although he understood I could not pay New York rent and needed more support than he could give me then, he wanted you to grow up with him in a city that, for all its harshness, would let you see so many faces like your own. He also understood he needed to stay in New York to counsel the young men he loved so much.  He didn’t say any of this, but I knew. Instead, he said only this: at least it’s not Boston. Your father had fine-tuned survival instincts and his fear of Boston came from that impulse. He was a Black man raised in Virginia in the fifties; he drank from segregated dirty water fountains and ordered food out the back door of restaurants he wasn’t allowed to enter. In the seventies, he watched on his television as snarling white swarms of Boston Irish—from the neighborhood where my grandfather lived—lined the streets to their neighborhood schools: white tee-shirted men, women in flowered house dresses and little kids with fists cocked shouted, “Go home n***r!” He remembered those ugly masses, rocking the school bus as it teetered ready to crash, as small brown children tried not to scream.  These children reminded him of his own boyhood where he had to push away the terror of white rage. Almost fifty years later, these children reminded him of you.

**

The day of my ultrasound, the technician walked me into a dim room, squeezed cool jelly onto my belly and began to move the wand around in slow circles, looking at the screen I could not see and asked if I wanted to know if you were a boy or a girl.  I said yes as fast as I could and she flipped around the screen I could not decipher. Through the fuzzy haze, I began to see your toes and eyelashes, to imagine the smell of your skin. I would have a daughter, my secret hope.

When I called your father’s office to tell him the news, he said, “That’s good. It will be easier for you if it’s not a boy.” I didn’t understand what he meant except in the broadest of terms. It was true that as my belly swelled with the soft curve of your back, brown boys were gunned down in the sweltering streets of the city. Sometimes your father knew these boys, his clients whom he tried to counsel and keep alive. I kept repeating your father’s words as my mantra—not a boy —as I saw the edges of this terror your father understood deeply.

I am ashamed to say that I kept thinking of all the ways you would not be at the mercy of that violence and most of those reasons were connected to leaving the place your father and I loved most in the world. So, at eight months gone, I stepped into the U-Haul, your kicks taking my breath away, and left your father. I drove north to Maine, leaving the Williamsburg loft and the clack of the bridge, headed into the unknown territory I believed would keep you safe.

**

Your father always said your fierceness would save you from the jaws of the world. That always worried me. Only now do I understand I was afraid of anger, yours, and mine. We began to see it clearly in the turbulence of your four-year old days. Your father had stayed in the city for his job, and I had stayed in Maine, and we made our unconventional family work across the distance. You were wary of your father then, a presence who came in and out of your life every few months, who lived on the top floor of an apartment building in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. When your father asked you to pick up your toys, you stared him down, hands on hips and said, “I am not a slave!”  Then, you stormed away, slammed your bedroom door behind you, tried to brace your tiny feet against the force of your father’s arm opening it. He would not let you get away with a statement you could not possibly understand yet. As I remained silent, your father picked you up—striped leggings flailing—and sat you down in front of the tornado of toys in the living room. He said simply, “Girl, a slave picked up other people’s shit. This is your shit. That is what freedom is all about: picking up your own shit.” You glared at him while you took each toy and flung it into the box, a capitulation filled with quiet rage.

In first grade, you stomped home along the icy sidewalks of our town because I wouldn’t let you adopt the shelter cat at the hardware store.

“Can you act nice?” I pleaded.

I didn’t want people I knew to see my child misbehaving. You turned around and gave me that same unwavering glare. Without missing a beat, you said, “Martin Luther King said this is what black people do. We protest what is wrong in the world. THIS is wrong.” Then, you walked home in front of me, refusing to say a word.

When I called your father, looking for sympathy, he simply replied, “That’s my girl.”

**

You have said reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn your sophomore year of high school with your entirely white class was the most traumatic experience you have had next to your father dying of cancer the year before. When you sat in a room and heard a boy—someone you called a friend—say, “Black people over-exaggerated slavery.” You felt the silence rise. Then, your teacher said, “There are a lot of opinions about this.” You were stunned. You said you wanted to disappear. When you walked into my classroom next door with tears in your eyes, I didn’t understand your desire of erasure: yours, that boy, that classroom, that town.

I didn’t handle it well. I wanted to protect you and the safest route seemed to be to follow the rules of girlhood: don’t make waves, keep your silence to preserve the comfort of others, do what was expected, be nice. So you did. You said nothing, returned to that classroom like something inside you hadn’t been broken, took notes late into the night for homework due the next day. You came home each afternoon with frozen hair smelling like chlorine and sunk into your sadness in your room where no one could see it. Outside in the world, you excelled: became captain of three sports teams, volunteered at our church, held your grandmother’s hand in the grocery store even when she could no longer write down the words for her favorite foods. You were a good girl, a good daughter and granddaughter. It was years before I realized this outer life was masking a depression we did not name. By then, the damage was done.

Did I teach you to temper that fire I feared and loved? Where was that girl who defied her parents in the name of righteousness, even if it was misplaced? Looking back, I wish I had helped you tap into your rage instead of praising your silence that muted your world, pressed into your skin. I believed that playing nice or retreating would protect you.  But it only cut you deeper.

***

You are 111 miles from me on most days, in college in Boston, the city your father feared and hated until he died. On my phone, I check on you some nights to make sure your orange dot is in the safe rectangle of your dormitory. When the dot has made it home, I sleep.

Remember sweetheart, three days after you left, I woke at 3 a.m. with an ache that felt like it might wreck me, trying to adjust to not having your body in our home every day? I checked on your dot to ease my panic. Your dot was in the middle of a pond in a park by your house. A cold shower of pins attacked my body. I called but you didn’t pick up. I thought about calling the Boston police, but I knew your father would say it only would bring white men with guns. Campus police? More of the same, but with less training. I wanted to drive the two hours to that pond and dive in, wanting to find your body myself, to cradle you under the murky water. I imagined that moment and knew I could not survive without you in this world. Instead, I just sat on my bed, staring out into the blue-black night, paralyzed by a fear that comes with mothering a Black child.

I don’t remember what I did for that hour or two, but as the sun started to rise and I looked again, you were safely back in your rectangular box. I promised myself I would not check on your virtual world after dark, believing it was better to assume you are safe than to sit with the possibility of your death. But I can’t help myself. I still look for your safety in that small pulsating dot.

I also put a lot of trust in the ghost of your father. Some would say I am delusional, but they did not know your father like we did. Even though I’m not 100% convinced ghosts are real, I do know if there is any speck of your father’s energy still left in this world, he is creating a force field around you, protecting you from all the ways in which the world could harm you. When Boston Police show up at a party in Mission Hill where you are, I know he’s fighting through a line of angels in the portal, saying hell fucking no, I got to get to my baby.

However, we also live in this real world where Black men and women have been murdered for no reason at all. A few lines from your father’s poem about Trayvon Martin—the boy with Skittles in his pocket and a hoodie like the one you wore during middle school—stay in my head like an alarm. “Can it be true America/that a black kid walking home on rainy nights/is automatically labeled a criminal/thus relinquishing his rights?” If you were walking home that night—not a boy—would you really have been safer?

Now, when you walk home alone because you are 18 and feel like you are at least a little invincible, I am terrified. You abide by the good girls’ rules: don’t walk along dim streets; dress modestly; don’t drink too much. I remember believing those rules too so I could embrace the independence I deserved. I want you to have that freedom. Of course I do.  But how do these rules matter if you encounter the wrong people? And when I say wrong, I mean white, possibly in uniform, armed. What then, sweetheart?

***

Your texts: Please call me. Please. Where are you?

You were sobbing when I called. You, my stoic girl, who holds your grief behind your eyeballs until you are in bed late at night where I am sometimes allowed to crawl in beside you if I promise not to talk. There you were, gulping in air between gasping sobs. “I was pulled over,” you managed to utter.

You kept repeating, “I knew I had to keep my hands up where he could see them. I kept my hands up. I knew I had to keep my hands up.”

I whispered, “Honey, what did you think would happen?” But as soon as I said it, I knew the answer.

“It happens all the time, Mom.”

Immediately, I drove to you. You were still shaking. I held you, stroked your hair. No words. I wanted the stories I had given you to be enough: Ward, Morrison, Rankine, Smith, Angelou, Adichie.  But those words didn’t absorb the terror you felt as a Black woman in America with a white cop standing over you while you wrapped your long slender fingers around the steering wheel. It did not matter that you had a white mother who would have thrown herself into any fire you faced. It did not matter that the officer was asking you questions about school, that he told you not to be upset when you started to cry, that he didn’t draw his gun.

I imagined you in your car, the one you drove your grandmother to the grocery store and doctor’s appointments, taking her bruised arm gently so she wouldn’t slip on the ice. I imagined—only for a second—your head slumped over the steering wheel.  My wild and unconditional love I have for you felt flimsy. As I held you, I realized in my heart what your father had told me all along—you’ll find out—and I have. At that moment, I realized there are chambers in your heart I will never be able to enter.

***

As we walk into the memorial service for your father, we see them: the boys your father feared I would birth into the world. These boys were also carried in their mothers’ bellies, some during that same summer I carried you. They are here greeting us, looking at you with such tenderness and love. They say we’re sorry for your loss and we both know it is their loss too. These are the sons your father tried to protect with his fierce doses of love and persuasion and a million serenity prayers. Here they are standing in line, waiting to tell their stories about your father. They are Emmett Till who loved to tell jokes. They are Eric Garner who was a brother, husband, and father of six children. They are Elijah McClain who loved animals and taught himself to play guitar and violin. They are, of course, Trayvon Martin, who had a beautiful smile and a sweet tooth. They are George Floyd who told his friend, “I want to touch the world.” Here they are full of your father’s love and compassion. Here they are so young and beautiful and heartbreakingly vulnerable. I can understand why he couldn’t bear it sometimes.

Years after that moment, after so many more Black people have been murdered in this country, I am finally accepting the words your father told me two decades ago when I could just see the edges of the undiscovered country of being a white mother to a Black daughter. Now, I understand your path will hold both terror and joy. I hope that joy will prevail, build itself into your bones and those moments—bare feet on grass, hula hooping in the sand, surfing the choppy waves with a shining grin, dancing across the Brooklyn Bridge—will fortify you against the bitter truths that are also self-evident. For now, I can only try to hold you safe with a force field of love and rage only a mother and a father’s ghost can muster.

All my love, to infinity,

Momma

 

 

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