As a black woman who mothers black children in the United States, I am constantly battling with the limits of citizenship, the exhaustion of explaining anti-black violence to innocents and juggling the teachable moments of racial exclusion.
On the Fourth of July, my partner and I sat in newly cut grass, surrounded by hundreds of strangers watching Independence Day fireworks. I had sat there for hours saving our spot and working on my dissertation to pass the time. It was a great day of rest. The Chicago winds gave us the afternoon off, and the sun was hidden comfortably behind the clouds for most of the day.
When the fireworks show finally started, I was both excited and uncomfortable because most of the people around me didn’t look like my family. And, while they were friendly, I had a feeling that was conditioned upon how we presented ourselves in that space. Frederick Douglass noted the contradictory nature of enslaved black people celebrating Independence Day in 1852. And while I was not enslaved, the Fourth of July still stirs up the emotional dissonance I have with a country that has never kept its promises to people who look like me.
As I watched the colorful lights erupt in the night sky, I saw the pure wonderment in my three children’s eyes. In that moment, I felt tears come to my own. It wasn’t me being patriotic. It was something very familiar yet unique to my position in the United States: It was me experiencing the twoness of blackness in the United States and being reminded that my children, too, will face this daily struggle.
That night, as we left the fireworks display, we drove past an open garage where two flags were hanging: the American flag and the Confederate flag. My partner and I shuddered, anxious to get home. This, a reminder that we were still trespassers in the eyes of many.
This phenomenon is what writer and scholar W.E.B Du Bois once called “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
On most days, I feel the pressure of being both a citizen and unfree simultaneously. While this burden was once my own to bear, it takes on a new phase when it involves children.
And, in the days following our Independence Day, news reports emerged that at least three black men, Delrawn Small, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police, each of the murders videotaped by loved ones and onlookers. Each of the men were complying with police. Each of them were abiding by the law.
I drifted into a depression that week and the one following. In the days following each news story, I looked at my children and, at least in some ways, felt a sort of guilt for having brought them into a world that most certainly will rebuke them just because of the color of their skin.
The guilt I have results from how, because the United States has never kept its promises to people of color (including indigenous, Asian and Latin Americans), it seems nearly impossible for me to keep my own promises of protection and assurance to my children. There isn’t a parent of black children in this country who can honestly say they have never felt this discord.
It is the jolt of disappointment when a child comes home in tears because their classmates patted their hair and said it feels “like a sheep” or rubbed their arms to see if their color comes off. It is telling my 8-year-old son that his behavior will always be seen as more disruptive and problematic at school because he is a black boy. It is looking into the mirror at my beautiful 4-year-old daughter as I part and braid her hair only for her to ask me if I can make her hair “soft like the white girls’.” It is the uncertainty that they will be seen as children rather than adults if they are playing with a toy gun in a park or a department store. It is the bitter feeling of fear when they are out of my grasp.
When news stories light up our television with yet another story of a slain black person, I have to answer questions like, “Mommy, aren’t the police supposed to protect us?” and “How do I know which ones are the bad ones?” To these questions I give the best answers I know how. But, I know it isn’t enough to protect them.
This is what it means to parent black children at this moment in history. It is the constant reminder that the American Dream can never be mine because of the color of my skin. It is knowing that our “independence” never really included me. It is that my children will inherit these broken promises. It is heartbreaking.
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