Of Black Mothers, Daughters and Grandmothers

What does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to be a Black mother? Those two questions continue to yield entirely different answers in America today. As the biracial mother of a 4-year-old girl with both Asian American and African American roots, and a father from Spain to boot, I am constantly aware of the way her identity is being shaped by the sights and smells and sounds that she takes in every day — on television, at the playground, and in her preschool classroom.

“Her hair is curly like mine,” she’ll say when we see another brown-skinned girl with matching Afro puffs on either side of her head. I pray that she continues to see such mirroring images with pride. That she will not crumble, like I did, with insecurities about the way I looked. I pray that she will not care, as I did, that my hair wouldn’t lie down flat like the White girls I saw in school.

I pray about so many things, as my husband and I sometimes struggle to explain the inexplicable. The police are there to help us when we’re in trouble, I say, as we pass a friendly neighborhood officer in uniform on our way to the subway. But she also knows that some of those men and women in uniform are not to be trusted; that there are times when they are not at all “nice” or “fair” to brown-skinned people.

“It is only a disservice when we hide ourselves,” writes Tubbs in the final pages of her book. “When our children do not know what we have gone through and how we survived it, when we allow others to define who we are.”

Earlier this year, I reviewed The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin Shaped a Nation by Anna Malaika Tubbs for the New York Times Book Review. What is perhaps most striking about this fascinating new book is how much we don’t know about these mothers. Tubbs does her best, diving into archives and securing what interviews she can. But even she can’t help reckoning with the fact that large swaths of these mothers’ lives have been lost to history; much of their stories to remain forever untold.

It reminded me of all the ways that my mother and grandmother must have silently done battle with their own struggles against racism and sexism while raising my cousin Lisa and I, who grew up together in a household made up of three generations of Black women and biracial girls. I know something about their sorrows. And a little about their joys, too.

I wish I knew more.

Which is why I decided recently to record voice memos for my own little girl, from time to time. They are little snippets about anything and everything. Books she’s read and her response to them. Questions she’s asked, and our answers. Challenges we face as a family.

Thanks to Tubbs book, I was reminded that everything we say and do as Black mothers does, in fact, have the profound potential to shape future families, communities; maybe even the country at large. Mothering any child is a sacred responsibility, and a blessing. Mothering Black and Brown children in the context of the America we live in today is on whole other level. We have to know that anything we do or don’t do, anything we say or don’t say, will resonate and echo over the course of that child’s lifetime, either sustaining them, or leaving them vulnerable, through all manner of racial slights and injustices.

On this Mother’s Day, I want only to feel that my words and actions will continue to nourish and uphold my little girl long after I’m gone. So I will write and speak to her about what’s on my mind. I’ll braid her hair and kiss her beautiful brown skin. I’ll hold and cherish her — sharing stories about who we are as a family. And I’ll revel always in her uniqueness, and her innocence.

“It is only a disservice when we hide ourselves,” writes Tubbs in the final pages of her book. “When our children do not know what we have gone through and how we survived it, when we allow others to define who we are.”

Award-winning journalist. Women, social justice, race, health, spirit. kristalbrentzook.com authory.com/KristalBrentZook @HofstraU

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store