At 13, you’re a boy of too few words, that is, unless we’re talking about the imaginative worlds of Terraria, Minecraft or Legend of Zelda. Like most home-loving boys, you prefer the comforts of the bed over the outdoors. But when you were younger, you were dangerously adventurous. On an early Sunday afternoon, after church service, I was fast asleep on the living room sofa when you escaped for a solo trip to the community pool.
You were four years old at the time. I awoke with this sense that something was wrong. When I couldn’t find you, my skin tightened. I was frantic and full of maddened fear. It was as if a million tiny red ants were feasting on my flesh. I ran down three flights of stairs, opened the sliding doors of the apartment unit, and began yelling your name out into the streets. A dark-haired, olive-skinned man with a tiny pointed nose stopped to ask if I was looking for a small boy. He must have seen the panic on my face. He said he had seen a boy walking along the sidewalk and took him to the leasing office.
As a single mother by 22, raising you alone weighed on me, but there was an absoluteness about us. Your very existence made life worth living. When we reunited, I hugged you and we walked home together. There are other, similar stories. Stories of you running off or me leaving you behind to work or complete school. Each time, retrieving you was my job and mine alone.
I was like most girls, obsessed with romantic love, and I suppose to a degree I still am. The story of me and your father isn’t a love story. But look deep enough and you’ll find a tangential happily ever after.
At 16, I lost my virginity to your father, a high school football player from Omaha, Nebraska, who arrived in Bridgeport, Michigan, after months of being on the outs with his mother. He had a long thick neck, short and kinky red hair the color of Mississippi soil, and skin like White people. I do not recall liking him when we first met at the Burger King where he worked part-time as a cashier and line-cook in the summer of 1999. The encounter seemed rather ordinary; meeting boys in your best put-together outfit was just what teenage girls did to pass time in Saginaw, Michigan. One night, after talking over the phone for weeks, your father asked me out. We went to see “The Sixth Sense,” a movie about a boy who sees dead people. We never finished that movie. After some heavy kissing and fondling, I found myself inside your grandfather’s rusty blue 1968 El Camino while Silk’s “If You (Lovin’ Me)” played on the radio. Weeks later, I fell into a deep depression. It all seemed earth shattering. I look back on my experience with your father, and it seems both young love and sexual intercourse were too incomprehensible and naïve to be anything but absentminded pastimes—a risky hurdle I underwent in an attempt to temporarily escape.
By definition we were poor, like most of the kids at Ricker Middle School and Buena Vista High School. I was such a peculiar-looking thing. Bow legs, bug-eyes, bottle-cap glasses, and hair my grandmother platted into braids that mapped my scalp like a spider web. In the game of annihilating ugly Black girls from the planet, this peculiarity marked me as the opposing force for some of my classmates. While I had many physical encounters with other young girls, most of the fights I scored involved boys. The final week of middle school, right before graduation ceremonies, a boy twice my size grabbed and pulled me behind the iron-double doors near the back of the playground and began forcefully dry humping me. In the face of adversaries, appearing strong, I laughed the encounter off, but in the privacy of my bedroom, I felt estranged from my own body. The unwillingness to share what had occurred left me internally paralyzed. By high school, the name-calling worsened and the physical attacks intensified. When my grandmother’s proverbial advice to “turn the other cheek” or “love thy neighbor as I would myself,” didn’t yield resolve, the art of fighting back seemed the only way to survive. I had learned how to ask questions later, how to hide weapons in obscure places, how to kick and punch or bite until my entire body went limp. I had learned, whether I won or lost, fighting back was a necessary act. Any sign of weakness led bystanders to use my body to project their own sense of superiority. Years of a half-life, where protecting myself and fighting back took precedence over learning, can trample on the innocence of any human being. At 16, isolated in my bedroom most evenings, I sought inner peace and a way out.
That way out was your father. We would hide away in cheap and musty motels sharing our insides with one another—lost in a euphoric amnesia, I drowned myself with him.
Me and your father attended our high school proms together, and after graduating from high school in 2000, I left for Michigan State University in early July to work in a dormitory cafeteria on work-study. Your father had been admitted to Michigan State also—but, by the start of the fall term, we rarely spoke. I suppose he had moved on. Had I stopped caring for him, and focused more on my studies, I am certain there would be no you. But in my fourth year of college, one night, I recall lying in bed and talking to a roommate about my frequent need to urinate and the irritability I’d been feeling. I still have the pregnancy test results from Olin Health Center. I was pledging a Greek organization at the time. One of the lead members of the organization tried talking some sense into me—upstanding ladies didn’t get knocked up, nor did they reach their fullest potential in college with a child to fend for. Those that knew better secretly had abortions. I wasn’t in a committed relationship with your father. Actually, I’d started dating someone else. One night, a friend called to share she’d spotted your father on campus, hand-in-hand with an ex-girlfriend.
I don’t remember how I told him, but I can’t forget how supportive your father was. He said whether I had the abortion or kept you he would be there. He has kept his word.
"For the first time in my life, I was proud of myself—proud I had become the vessel for something greater than myself."
When news of my pregnancy spread, I remember sitting across from your father’s grandmother, a petite and fair-skinned Black woman who could pass for Hispanic. Your father stood against the closed door of my dorm room at Shaw Hall. We did not make direct eye contact. “Well, at least we’ll get a baby with some color in this family,” she said. I did not respond.
Even your own father joked about your skin complexion, “how I’ll know he is mine is if he come out bright-skinned.” I hadn’t planned on being a single mother (I suspect very few women do), and after leaving your father, I had several regrets. Yet I ponder whether I would be who I am today, had I stayed with him. As I faced obstacles raising you alone, there were times where I harbored a deep bitterness. Years after our transitory relationship, I went searching for answers. I asked for his perspective on why he thought our relationship hadn’t worked. He replied, “I was just tired of dating darkies.”
Before you were born, family members on both sides told us to look at the top of your ear. This was called the “ear test:” if it was comparably darker than the rest of your body, your skin color would change. If it wasn’t, you were going to be a light-skinned Black child.
I had a cousin who my family prized for her light skin and enigmatic nature. My grandmother, uncles, and aunts adored and gushed over her. And she was the only cousin whose father, a light-skinned man, was a constant and nurturing fixture in her life. Some nights her mother would leave her at our grandmother’s house, and we’d play with our Barbie dolls late into the evening. As I packed away my dolls while in college, I noticed they were all mixed-looking, while my cousin’s dolls were all dark brown.
Growing up, I believed my life was insignificant compared to my two-parent household light-skinned cousins. Not just because me and my brothers didn’t always have the material things they had, but because we were their spectators. My aunt would pick my grandmother and us up to watch her children in games, pageants, cheerleading tournaments, and other formal events. It was always us watching them do something remarkable. It was then that I began to associate Whiteness and light skin with success.
While in college, I believed mixed-race marriages were the cure to ending racial hatred in America. Foolishly, I thought light-skin, interracial couples and biracial children would mend the centuries-old scars of racial terror and inequality. In that, your father and I were role-playing in our love for one another—written lines absorbed from the dysfunctions and misinformation of our youth rehearsed time and time again between cheap cotton sheets. Then you arrived. Like death, new life incites the kind of reflection where truths can be cataloged, revealing a genealogical mapping of some sort.
The act of mothering came easy. You belonged to me. And I gave my body to you.
Your father and I were living together at the time, in a one-bedroom apartment near Frandor Shopping Plaza, on the outside edges of downtown Lansing, Michigan. I remember the army green sofa futon I sometimes slept on, the way I’d sit and catch glimpse of your father’s back while he played video games at a nearby desk, the tiny closet-sized kitchen with yellow tile where I often cooked spaghetti—the only meal I’d perfected. In the bedroom, we’d taken two twin-sized mattresses and tied the frames together with rope your father’s stepmother picked up from a nearby fabric store. It was your father’s stepmother’s support and honesty that made it hard to withstand your grandfather’s visits to our tiny abode with his long-standing mistress. I tried to be the moral unmarried pregnant woman those days by discussing the karma that would fall upon your father and me had we continued allowing visits from your grandfather and his mistress. I suppose, even then, my loyalty to committed love was shaped by fairytale stories that never truly interrogated what human beings were actually capable of when it came to wielding pain.
For the first time in my life, I was proud of myself—proud I had become the vessel for something greater. You arrived on a laundry weekend. On the afternoon of October 15, 2004, I was doing laundry alone at Sunshine Cleaners when the contractions began. The act of mothering came easy. You belonged to me. And I gave my body to you. My breasts produced liquid-energy for your body. My fleshy thighs were pillows, heating pads. My stomach became the ambassador of your premature free will. My back was your first tricycle. Even then, I knew my body would never be enough to protect you from a society that values whiteness and money over all else.
Being the first in my family to go to college meant a different life for you. You’ve grown up with social and educational luxuries, including being safe and protected while gaining an education. These are things I often wept for. And, yet, despite all of this, I am concerned with what gets passed down to you concerning race and the ways of a man or a woman, especially while living in Mississippi.
When you were seven years old, when President Barack Obama was campaigning for his first term, a White teacher drew her arm against your own, and told you, you and her were the same. I’m certain she had good intentions, but race is not cotton-stuffed rainbow-colored puppets facing obscure obstacles. It’s knowing where we come from. Part of knowing where we come from is how we learn to love ourselves. That day, you came home and told me you were White, like your teacher. I ordered a copy of Sandra Pinkney’s book, Shades of Black, and on the following morning, feeling my nerves inside my chest, I pulled that teacher aside and told her she was doing more harm than good.
Remember when I worked in Detroit and we lived in the suburbs of Harrison Township, Michigan? You and the neighborhood boys would spend the summers out in the fields shooting air rifles. I always kept a watchful eye on you. One windy summer day, I saw one of the boys take his coat off and shove it into your arms. I walked out toward the grassy orange fields and snatched that boy’s coat from under your arm and threw it back at him. When you came home that evening we talked about being Black in White suburbia. I don’t recall you saying a word. I just remember your expression. You had a wide-open mouth, and outstretched hands. I told you that you weren’t nobody’s coat rack, and you’d better stop acting like it. In that moment, I was reminded of the times I’d been too nice and serviced others at my own expense. I knew I didn’t want the same for you.
"Race is not cotton-stuffed rainbow-colored puppets facing obscure obstacles. It’s knowing where we come from. Part of knowing where we come from is how we learn to love ourselves."
One morning, several weeks ago, an African American student I’d been tutoring who’d been born in Mississippi asked, “What will you tell your son to do the first time he is called a nigger by a White person?” It was the absoluteness in his voice that troubled me. The assumption that this would indeed happen, and I should be prepared. But I wasn’t. I told him I didn’t know. I did recollect the very day I had been called that word. It had happened my first year of college at Michigan State University. I was on Grand River Avenue, near Snyder/Phillips Hall, headed to 7-Eleven for a slushy, when a red truck with two young White boys drove past me. A boy ducked his head out of the passenger window and yelled that acrid word.
“Tell him, if one of these here White boys calls you a nigger, you beat they ass.
Ask questions later. You are defending your ancestors. You are defending
yourself,” my student said.
“I don’t know about the beating ass part,” I told him.
The conversation reminded me of a piece I’d read on motherhood recently by Lisa Ze Winters. She writes, “…and I am struck dumb by the impossibility of it all: of seeing and loving in Black children their innocence and beauty, of feeding their dreams, of delighting in their exuberance, while in the same breath, of having to decide whether to tell them to run or to be still, to talk back or to keep quiet, to risk freedom or to stay in place.” I would rather you not match derogatory and demeaning words with punches and blows, for fear you’d end up behind steel bars. We have enough men in our family behind bars, and not just the physical ones.
"I told you that you weren’t nobodies coat rack, and you’d better stop acting like it."
Lately, we talk about girls, having protected sex (or having no sex at all), and your professional and personal goals. You want children and a family. I tell you to spend more time getting to know yourself before investing in others. “Do you like Black girls?” I ask. “Mom!” you reply, in that stuffy and pronounced voice you use when you are annoyed with me. “I like all types of girls.” Black women who raise Black boys want them to find secure relationships with other Black females. I’m not sure how rational this request is, but it’s always there. I suspect, though I’m okay with being wrong; it has something to do with how often our own stories of love are incomplete and filled with despair. Our Black boys are the hope and optimism we could no longer unearth for our fathers, uncles, brothers, husbands, or boyfriends.
Your arrival lessened the superficial and dull-witted love affair I had with your father. I was no longer enchanted by his slothfulness, the frequent jokes he would make about my big nose, or the nights he would settle his shoulders between my gaping thighs while I rubbed, popped, and creamed the adult acne on his back. Insecurities led me to your father, and the belief that I should be nice even to those who caused me pain allowed me to constantly overlook the mistreatment. I was raised a Christian and taught two things: serve and forgive. When it comes to love, I have not always understood the lines between unwavering forgiveness and intolerable abuse. Your father will tell you I left him for Jesus, but in actuality I left and went looking for myself. The church was merely the apparatus. I was searching for a part of me I could cherish just as much as I cherish you. Years would pass and I began to learn to love the melanin in my skin, the broken and dysfunctional family from which I came, and all the imperfect pieces of me.
When I look at you, I think, here is where the past meets possibility and I am hopeful.
When we raced to the fitness center of my apartment, I watched you run ahead. Your horse-knees buckled, and those gangly size 13 feet of yours dragged along like painted cans on a newlywed getaway car. I turned the key into the leasing hub where the fitness gym is located and watched you glide past me toward the weight stacks. The truth I must face is knowing I’ve often overcompensated for my upbringing by shielding you from the realities of urban Black life hoping that attending good schools, living in wealthy neighborhoods, going to university-sponsored summer camps, and reading profusely will protect you from stereotype threats, systematic and structural racism, or attitudes about Blackness that are self-destructive and unloving. Yet, as you get older, I look at you and see the 13-year-old apparition of myself. You must not make my same mistakes. Learn from them.
You’ve got my laden eyes and a large nose that flattens when your wide-thin lips open to give a broad smile. You inherited a mouth full of my bad teeth. Eventually, we’ll take a trip to the orthodontist to have those teeth of yours domesticated. When I was growing up, trips to the dentist were not necessities. My grandmother was too busy making sure food was on the table and our backs were clothed. A desire for straight white teeth, like my overcompensating work ethic or my dreams of middle-class status or my fixation on quiet overpriced suburban landscapes, is yet another attempt at countering the loathing I’d felt growing up Black, poor, and motherless in Saginaw, Michigan.
There are times where showing teeth among strangers means playing along to get along. You have even called me out on it. Like when we’d gone out with a new friend on a bus tour of Oxford, Mississippi. Someone made an offhand joke. Everyone laughed. I laughed, too. Mostly, I laughed because I was nervous about the strangeness of living in Mississippi as a Black Northerner. Then you looked at me with bent lips and whispered, “Mom, that laugh was so fake!”
For if I could bring life into this world, and nurture it properly, I could surely use wishful thinking, imagination, and purposeful actions to refashion myself. This is what Black people are known for.
I snickered, and you smiled, assured of what you’d accomplished: a testament to those who wield great influence over our relation to truth. I do not always know how to be authentic within the predominately White and intellectual spaces I occupy. I just know I’ve always been good at hiding behind teeth while learning and nurturing others.
Days ago, you told me I could have taken care of you by myself. That as long as single mothers had good paying jobs and family support, we had the capacity to raise decent Black men. I am not surprised by your optimism. I am, however, disappointed that I’d tried to hide my struggles when it was clear you knew I had neither a good job, nor family support—two things I agonized over and fought so hard to secure. When you were younger, I wasn’t always sure I could raise you successfully alone. I wasn’t always sure of myself, and while I’ve gotten a fair idea of what I want out of life, I often worry about the way in which you’re processing the world around you. I worry life trials might coarsen you. I have watched my own brothers grow from innocent, mischievous boys into hard men. Men whose rage can no longer be soothed by the voice and touch of the women who had a hand in raising them.
After a turbulent divorce that left both our worlds tattered, I can’t help but feel, even now, we are both recovering from an unexpected departure. Where other exits from one another were merely a matter of distance, this one is hard to describe.
It is James Baldwin who said once that “the only way you can get through life is by knowing the worst things about it.” It is this Baldwin quote that prompts me to share all I can about my life before you existed. Before you forced me to reckon with the self-hatred my community bred in me. Before I realized giving birth to you was a kind of awakening and deliverance from self-doubt and the unquenchable act of self-annihilation. For if I could bring life into this world, and nurture it properly, I could surely use wishful thinking, imagination, and purposeful actions to refashion myself. This is what Black people are known for. Our resilience and ingenious abilities to reinvent ourselves, despite our long suffering, is historically demarcated. We must celebrate in self-awareness and in knowing that what is broken can be redeemed and that in the redeemable, there is new life, new hope and new-found happiness.
I love you deeply. There is no greater love.