Three years ago, I graduated from college with a Bachelor’s degree in Africana Studies and Psychology. I’d written critical analyses of COINTELPRO and J. Edgar Hoover, had several debates with friends about the role of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in the “war on drugs,” and focused one of my senior theses on the effects of racial micro-aggressions on Black students’ sense of belonging in school. Black feminist writers—Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, and the list goes on—were my deliverance, and I’d vowed to never let my future children wear clothing with monkeys or feel ashamed of their beautiful, curly hair (naturally, I’d stopped getting perms halfway through college). I was ready to move on to graduate school and challenge racism and patriarchy on a daily basis. And then I became a mother.
Let me back up a bit. When I first arrived in Michigan in the summer of 2013, I attended a protest rally for Trayvon Martin after Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict. I marched and shouted and sang and cried—venturing home with a heavy heart and a deep anger at his death. One year later, when my daughter was born, I cried again for Trayvon. And this time, I cried for his mom. Her baby had been taken suddenly and violently, because he was a Black boy, and was therefore dangerous and deviant and scary. How could I possibly expect to protect my children—my babies—the little loves that I carried within me for 9 months—while living in the same country that allowed a man to kill Sybrina Fulton’s little boy…and get away with it? And suddenly, I was too tired to fight racism and patriarchy.
Fast forward a few years. Hundreds of unarmed Black civilians have been murdered by police, even as activists and protesters (#BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, #ICan’tBreathe, etc.) spotlight the ongoing brutality and demand justice. Perhaps a handful of officers have been indicted—very few on actual homicide charges. Men and women with families. Sons and daughters. Sandra Bland’s mom will never hug her daughter again. Tanisha Anderson, slammed on the curb by police and dead before she reached a hospital, will never see her daughter go to prom or pursue her dreams. Samaria Rice will never see her son, Tamir, walk across a stage for high school graduation. Miriam Carey, a Black woman with diagnosed mental illnesses, will never throw her daughter’s 2nd birthday party. Tarika Wilson was shot and killed with her toddler son in her arms—he was 14 months old and received multiple gun wounds. Aiyana Stanley, 7 years old, was shot and killed while she was sleeping. How can I protect my babies when little Black girls and little Black boys and Black mothers and Black fathers are being gunned down and executed on a daily basis? After so many deaths, and so many acquittals, and so many tragedies…I’ve reached the conclusion that I simply can’t. My children are not safe in this country, and all of my papers and debates and protests and degrees didn’t prepare me for this truth.
So where does this leave me? A first-generation Black mother with a Bachelor’s degree in Africana Studies & Psychology, on her way to earning a doctoral degree in Education & Psychology with a focus on racial identity and racial discrimination experiences among Black youth. It leaves me loving my babies twice as hard, mothering by that old saying passed down by Black parents and grandparents for generations, “If you want to be appreciated as half as good, you have to work twice as hard.” I’m not worried about appreciation, per se, but about my children’s emotional and physical welfare…their sense of self-worth…and the cultivation of a nuanced understanding of the world they live in. Right now, with a toddler and an infant, that means hugs and kisses every day every chance I get, smiles and laughs when they wake up in the morning and lengthy goodnights before laying them down each evening. It means cheering for my daughter in her every pursuit—from petting the goat at the zoo, to learning a new word, or putting pieces in the correct (or incorrect) spot on her puzzles. It means responding to their tears and their anger with as much love and gentleness as I can muster because I know there is no guarantee that the world will respond as kindly. It means laughing with them and taking them on as many new adventures as I can.
And when they get older, they will learn about Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Aiyana Stanley. They will learn more than the Black History facts taught in school, and I’m sure that I will learn infinitely more myself as I try to guide and prepare them to live in this world without me at their side every moment. And despite all of this, despite the unequivocal joy that I have experienced in carrying them, bringing them into this world, and loving them deeply and passionately, there are still many nights of anxiety and crying. Because I know that it may not be enough one day, and I could lose them at the hands of someone who never saw them squeal with delight at Mickey Mouse or cuddle into my chest for a hug or sit on the floor next to me and eat off my plate (without asking, mind you). No mother should have these worries. And yet, right alongside trying to figure out if they’ve pooped enough in the last 24 hours, and if it’s normal (or pathological) that my daughter laughs when her brother cries, I sit with the truth that my babies’ beautiful brown skin…their very lives…are not valued in this country. Audre Lorde’s words come back to me with a twist as I live with the understanding that, “Caring for myself (and my children) is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Seanna Leath wrote this article for Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. She’s a millennial mother who is beyond thankful that her Ph.D. program has amazing insurance coverage for dependents. When she isn’t changing diapers, reading lift-the-flap books, or having stare-down contests with her daughter, she likes to read books, eat chocolate, and keep up with important world news through friends’ Facebook posts.