My aunt just called a few minutes ago to check in on my daughter and me. I told her I was getting M ready for her weekly soccer game and shared an anecdote about how a few seasons ago, when her team was experiencing a pretty disappointing losing streak, M copped the biggest attitude and told me she was sick of losing and didn’t want to play with “those girls” anymore.
“She said that in front of her team?!” my aunt wanted to know.
“No, of course not,” I said.
“You should’ve let her,” she said. “That would’ve woken them up.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but more than likely it would’ve brought the wrath of their parents down on us. Those white dads especially. They get intense about their kids and sports.”
My aunt then backed down. She said she didn’t realize that M had white kids on her team. She asked if M was the only black kid, and I told her, yes, a lot of the time.
Soccer isn’t the “blackest” sport. But M’s father played when he was younger, and coaches now, so it’s our sport. They bond over it–she and Daddy–and she loves it. She has an aptitude for it.
“You should get her in some activities where she can be around more black people,” my aunt concluded. “She needs that.”
“No,” I said. “She has enough of every kind of person around her. She’s fine. Her school is pretty integrated.”
My aunt disagreed.
“No, she needs exposure to her people,” she said.
And I–reflecting on my childhood in an all-black neighborhood, going to all-black schools, said, “A lot of the time, the more black people there are, the more messiness there is. She’s good.”
I have some baggage. I won’t lie. It was hard as hell being a poetry-writing, grunge-loving nerd in a black high school in 1991. Forgive me.
“Don’t say that,” my aunt chastised me. “Don’t talk negatively about black people in front of her.”
Well, M wasn’t downstairs with me. But that didn’t stop me from telling my aunt that I won’t be disparaging, but I will talk truthfully in front of M.
“If black people are fucking up, I’ll say that. If they’re doing good, I’ll say that. I’m not going to lie.”
My aunt didn’t like that, but I didn’t care. I told her we weren’t going to argue about it; I’m the mother; it’s my decision what to say or not to my daughter; then I told her I’d talk to her later.
The conversation reminded me again of how controversial the concept of telling your child the truth really is in our culture.
My daughter and I have had some conversations over our eight years that I’m sure would make some people’s ears ring if they’d overheard them. We’ve talked about global warming, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, genetically modified food, vaginas, Donald Trump, Caitlin Jenner, my past, her father’s past–we’ve even talked about the plurality of religions in the world, AIDS, heroin, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
My policy is to answer her questions as truthfully as I can in terms that fit her age and level of comprehension.
I tell the truth about everything, even my own past.
My goal is to make her intelligent, incisive, and wise since I can’t always make her–nor will the world always conspire to make her–happy.
Once, when we were at Target, looking at the Disney princess collection, she wanted to know why there was only one black princess–Tiana.
I told her that’s what often happens in movies or TV shows: Black people get a token character–one black face to pacify their desire to see themselves represented on the screen.
She nodded and took it in. And I thought that was that. Until a couple of weeks later, at her dance recital, when she looked at the group of four girls dancing with her in her vignette, all white, and said, “Mama–I’m the token.”
I cracked up. Her father didn’t think it was funny, but I thought, hey, it’s life. She wasn’t devastated by it; she was just showing off her new knowledge and stating a fact.
She went on from there to dance her little heart out without a seeming thought of who on stage was black or white.
I’m an adjunct professor, 39-years-old, teaching in a fairly large city in Ohio, in 2016, and I’m still a token–the only black part-time instructor in my department, office, and building. So, for me, tokenism is a reality of black life.
It sucks, but I’m sure there will be future situations when M will be the “only” again. She’ll have to deal with the inconveniences of being the “only” with grace and confidence.
Knowing that the “only” is often in a spotlight where she must confront people’s expectations and preconceptions will be helpful for her, I think.
Knowing that black people are often excluded–and included–for political reasons–but understanding that you don’t have to be delimited by those politics–will be reassuring and help her to stay sane.
Bridging off of that first conversation, whenever M makes the observation that she’s the only black girl or person in a situation, I can tell her not to worry about it.
“If you’re being included, it’s because you’re good enough to be there,” I tell her.
“Just be you. The people that like you will like you, and the people that won’t are not your concern.”
When Tamir Rice was shot, and M’s father and I were lamenting his murder, M was there. We had another one of our conversations.
She heard us talking and asked to know the particulars. So we told her: He was a 12-year-old boy playing with a BB gun on the playground. Someone called the police and told them. The police came and, without questioning him or attempting to take the gun from him, shot him on sight. He died. It was wrong.
M’s response to all of this reaffirmed for me the importance of being truthful with her.
“Maybe he shouldn’t have been playing with a toy gun,” she said. “That made it easy for the police to make a mistake.”
“Why couldn’t the police tell he was a little boy?” she asked. “Little boys don’t look like grown men. They’re smaller. They’re faces are different. They should’ve seen.”
She was able to engage critically with what we told her–at seven-years-old.
I honestly think that if I hid every difficult or important conversation I have with other adults from her (I don’t), sugar-coated my explanations of the ugly things that happen in life (I don’t), or gave her fairy tales as answers to questions that are scientific (I don’t), she wouldn’t be able to interrogate situations like this. I don’t think she’d be able to assimilate to changes and certain inconvenient or unfortunate circumstances as well as she does.
I also don’t think she’d trust me as ardently as she does or be as truthful as she is. I like to think I’ve led her by example to speak her mind and to dig through rhetoric and propaganda rather than passively accepting and doing what she’s told.
And since I don’t want her to be dumb or a doormat, it’s gratifying to me when I tell her the truth, and she pushes back against it. Or when I see her acting out, in a positive way, of something I may have told her when I had misgivings about it on the front end.
One of the hardest conversations we ever had was when my aunt–her great-aunt–passed away in October of 2013.They were extremely close, as were my aunt and I, and her death was sudden, and so it came as the nastiest shock.
After sitting with her and the rest of the family at the hospital, going over to her house and helping to gather her paperwork, with the reality of what was happening still sinking in, I had to go home and tell M that her beloved TiTi was gone. I was terrified of how she would take it.
But I still told her the truth. TiTi had a heart attack. The doctors couldn’t get her heart to start beating properly again. They tried for the better part of an hour. She died. I’m so sorry. She still loves you. She’s still proud of you. You can still talk to her. You can talk about her all you want to. I’ll always talk with you about her. We can look at pictures. But we won’t be able to see her anymore. She’s not at her house anymore. She’s not “here” anymore. She’s gone.
M cried more bitterly than she ever had in her life behind this news. I held her and let her cry. I let her body and spirit absorb the truth in their own way and time.
I told her I was so sorry to be the bearer of such hard news. I told her I loved her, and I was still here. That even though it felt terrible now, to grieve her TiTi, eventually it would hurt less. Eventually, the pain would become livable.
I told her that death is a part of life, and nothing to fear. That nothing in this world disappears; it just changes form.
“Like liquid to gas to plasma?” she wanted to know.
“Just like that,” I told her.
My little metaphysicist.
She moved through the stages of her grief in a very healthy manner, and I can’t help thinking the fact that I told her the truth rather than a more comforting but ultimately false version of events helped her to do so.
I have definitely had some moments when I’ve wondered, Is this too much? Can she handle this? Should she? But I’ve also had some vivid memories of running into hard truths about life that I simply wasn’t prepared for because the adults around me–in an effort to shield me–never told me just how hard certain aspects of life can be.
I honestly think that being black, a woman, and poor (because if you’re not making a million dollars a year in this country, that’s what you are) in this craziness that we call a country is hard enough; I don’t want to give M the extra work of having to pick apart my lies to get to the truths she needs to survive.
That’s not my job. My job is to help her. To equip her. And I think the truth is one of the most crucial tools we use to get ahead.
So I tell M all the time, “Life is hard–so hard–but it’s definitely worth the struggle.”
I tell her that other people may not love her, but I love her, and she should love herself.
I tell her she’s amazing. Miraculous. Beautiful and capable of anything.
And since I don’t lie to her, and she knows that, I really do think she believes me.