When my daughter Kelsey was seven or eight years old, she began her early pursuit of ballet study in a classical arts setting that was predominately white. She didn’t make much of that difference. Her leotard was as black as the asphalt on streets we trekked to arrive at Florida Ballet, and her tights were a pastel pink —soft and nimble, much like her first pair of Capezio ballet flats that were neatly tied with a simple bow to hold-firm her toes. In the reflection of pristine clean, floor-length mirrors, Kelsey respected the hue of her own brown skin. She was a passionate Black girl who was long and lithe. My “Rosebud at the barre” just wanted to dance.
As her Black mother who had earned a degree in journalism, but more important, minored in African-American studies, my vantage point was much different. My 24-7-365 mindset became political after I completed studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. This would be years before Kelsey was seven or eight and broaching two decades before we returned to the “City of Brotherly Love,” where she upped the ante on her dance training at
I knew what the world of classical dance could be, what the world of classical arts — could be. The world I grew up in as an army brat was much different with regard to inclusion for a Black girl in the South (and later the North). It was a challenge, but not an impossibility. The push-back was subtle but the institution strong. I was stronger. My skinny kid owned a natural facility for dance in a platform that never expected the likes of a talented Misty Copeland to emerge.
Many of my experiences as a Black mother align with those expressed by author Dani McClain who penned the riveting essay that follows this introductory account. Eloquently and fluidly, McClain scribes the intricacies of being a Black mother in the 21st century. She is emphatic and unapologetic regarding a maternal assignment that indeed comes with its own complexities, the least of which is political. I thought it Mother’s Day thematic that McClain’s essay is shared.
Dani McClain’s (excerpt):
When I was seven or eight years old, my mother would put on Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” every day before we left home for school and work, and we sang along from start to finish. Standing in the living room moments before we shrugged on our coats, we belted out lyrics about self-reliance and persistence, finding a kind of armor through song. We wrapped ourselves in the richness and power of Whitney’s voice, reaching for the high notes right along with her.
I can’t remember how long this lasted, but I consider it a defining ritual of my childhood. She’s too young now, but I plan to do something similar with my daughter, Isobel, who is 2. Black children and their families need this. We need a kind of anthem, a melodic reminder to ourselves and each other that we are not who the wider world too often tells us we are: criminal, disposable, lazy, undeserving of health or peace or laughter.
Black mothers like me know that motherhood is deeply political. Black women are more likely to die during pregnancy or birth than women of any other race. My own mother, who has never married and who worked full-time throughout my childhood, is a model for my own parenting, but culture-war messages from the left and the right tell us she fell short of maternal ideals. My grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts, and elders in the community supported my mother as she raised me.
Their investment in me and in other children — some their blood relations, some not — demonstrated an ethic that we can all learn from. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins has called this “other-mothering,” a system of care through which black mothers are accountable to and work on behalf of all black children in a particular community. “I tell my daughter all the time: We don’t live for the ‘I.’ We live for the ‘we,’” Cat Brooks, an organizer in Oakland, told me.
In addition to serving as other-mothers, we’ve had to fight for our right to be mothers. Prior to Emancipation, the child of an enslaved woman was someone else’s property. Slave owners routinely destabilized enslaved people’s lives, severing kinship structures rooted in marriage and blood ties; family as a concept became elastic and inclusive.
Black women and fear
Because of this history, black women have had to inhabit a different understanding of motherhood in order to navigate American life. If we merely accepted the status quo and failed to challenge the forces that have kept black people and women oppressed, then we participated in our own and our children’s destruction. In recent years, this has become especially evident, as dozens of black women and men have had to stand before television cameras reminding the world that their recently slain children were in fact human beings, were loved and sources of joy. The mothers of those killed by police or vigilante violence embody every black mother’s deepest fears: that we will not be able to adequately protect our children from or prepare them for a world that has to be convinced of their worth. Many parents speak of feeling more fear and anxiety once they take responsibility for keeping another human alive and well. But black women especially know fear — how to live despite it and how to metabolize it for our children so that they’re not consumed by it.
In the fever dream that has been life in the United States since Donald Trump came to power, some of black women’s deepest fears have become more comprehensible to the broader society. No one has ever been able to guarantee safe passage into adulthood for their children, but nonblack parents with money, citizenship, and class status had a leg up on the rest of us. Now, even for many of them, the threats and uncertainty seem to multiply by the day. The Trump era has given those who may have previously felt invulnerable to the shifting tides of human fortune a wake-up call.
Black mothers, on the other hand, are scared not of talk of race, but of the impact of racist oppression. We’re scared because we have no choice but to release our beloved creations into environments — doctors’ offices, hospitals, day-care facilities, playgrounds, schools — where white supremacy is often woven into the fabric of the institution, and is both consciously and unwittingly practiced by the people acting in loco parentis. Black mothers haven’t had the luxury of sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that our children learn about race and power as they go. Instead, we must act as a buffer and translator between them and the world, beginning from their earliest days.
Dani McClain is a contributing writer for The Nation. This essay in its entirety can be read at www.nation.com. Full title: As a Black Mother, my parenting is always political: To care for, protect, and prepare our children for adulthood, black moms cannot merely accept the world as it is.