My almost-5-year-old daughter and I do a lot of twirling at home. We pose with our arms raised in third, four and fifth ballet positions and wait for the timer countdown on our camera to tell us our picture’s been taken. We sing Janelle Monae and Emily King at the top of our lungs in the car. When she’s high-strung and on the verb of sobbing over something she “can’t” do, I assume the same superhero voice her father uses when he makes her puff out her chest and proclaim, “I can do … ANYTHING!” Then we twirl more, in imaginary capes.
I don’t always feel like doing these things. In fact, lately, I rarely feel like it. I’m terrified. In the car, I’m constantly checking the mirrors for swiftly approaching police cruisers. In the house, I’m always asking my little girl if she’s okay; I ask it whenever I think of a news story where a black child around her age is not. Sometimes, on a sunny day, I might decide not to leave the house with her at all, my anxieties about what could confront us outside shouting down my desire to let her run free at the local playground. But I manufacture the joy, anyway. The quality of her life depends on it.
I am trying to raise a free-spirited black daughter, one who will fully inhabit every room she enters without shrinking, recoiling or trying to will herself invisible at the approach of a bully, a charming boy or an abrasive authority figure. I am trying to raise her to believe she belongs anywhere she dares to venture, can pursue any safe activity she chooses, can twirl or belt out a song in public. I want her to believe she can take risks. But I am acutely aware that “free-spirited” means something quite different for a low-income black family than it does for a middle- or upper-class white one. For us, it isn’t merely representative of whimsy. It’s a last resort. Freedom of spirit is the only liberty we can guarantee our children.
Last week, I read about Laura Browder, a black single mother in Houston who sat her 6- and 2-year-old kids at a mall food court table where she could see them as she interviewed for a job nearby. At Beyond Baby Mamas, my blog for unmarried mothers of color, I wrote about her case and similar ones that have made national headlines in recent years, namely Shanesha Taylor’s and Debra Harrell’s. I tried to remind readers how often poor black mothers are criminalized for being caught between rocks and hard places.
But I didn’t say enough about the Free Range Kids movement and how it started in 2008, when writer Lenore Skenazy left her 9-year-old son at Bloomingdale’s on New York’s Upper East Side with a map and $20 and urged him to find his own way to Midtown West, where they lived. On the blog she started she started shortly thereafter, she wrote, “Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.” I didn’t talk about how inundated black children are with messaging that being “ecstatic with independence” just isn’t an option to them.
Skenazy’s site is filled with stories of parents whose families have run afoul of Child Protective Services by allowing their children to walk or play unaccompanied. Race and class aren’t often mentioned in the posts, but they should be. Those factors often make the difference between a successfully closed CPS investigation and a case left open pending a felony charge, which results in a loss of employment, which results in further inability to afford safe, reliable childcare. Skenazy’s blog recently covered Laura Browder’s case without referencing that the family was black (though it’s discussed with some nuance in the comments section). That detail matters. Black mothers — especially those who are poor or single — are disproportionately criminalized for their parenting choices.
There is no such thing as a free-range kid in low-income black families. They are more likely to be labeled as “abandoned” and “neglected” than as free. When they play with toy guns in the park at the age of 12, like Tamir Rice did, they run the risk of being reported to an unstable police officer who’ll open fire without asking questions. When they are left alone at home after school, they’re instructed never to open the door for anyone, not even an unexpected relative, a well-meaning neighbor or the police, lest it result in the long-term damage of family separation and criminal charges being filed against their parents.
Where and how to walk, sit and play are life-altering concerns for black families. But so is figuring out how to style our daughters’ hair before sending them off to school, where teachers may mock them on Facebook about it or, worse, send them home or threaten them with expulsion for wearing it natural. So is trying to afford to move out of unsafe or violent neighborhoods where playing outside — even on the front steps — could result in a shooting death or, in the long-term, children who carry symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I am parenting with all this in mind. Raising a confident child with a sense of her own personal space and autonomy is harder for me because of it.
It’s hard, this week, especially, as I read what Geneva Reed-Veal said about her daughter Sandra Bland at a memorial service on Tuesday. On Fourth of July weekend, they’d taken a road trip together that resulted in a mother-daughter celebration of liberty. “We talked all the way down. We had a strained relationship. We had issues but we loved each other. On this trip, we were able to clear up every issue.” Reed-Veal said her daughter later told her, “Now I know what my purpose is … to stop all social injustice in the South.” Reporting on Bland’s encounter with a police officer who assaulted and arrested her indicates that Bland believed herself free — free to question, to challenge and to assert her rights. It’s chilling to know that she was punished for exercising those freedoms.
My own daughter’s fifth birthday is just over a week away. I’ll spend it, as always, telling her she can do anything. It can only help us both to believe that. Right now, I am the only one who has any doubt. I’ll let her run as far she wants along an amusement park’s asphalt. I’ll hope security doesn’t stop her, assuming I’m not nearby. I’ll pray for one more year where these are my anxieties alone to bear, one more year where she isn’t saddled with some sense of herself as trapped between prejudgment and unjust punishment. And I’ll twirl as I wish for it, just for good measure.