This excerpt of an essay by Twin Cities writer Shannon Gibney is from the book “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” published by the Minnesota Historical Society. Read a review of the book in Sunday’s Star Tribune.
And though we may wish for our children to remain children for as long as possible, what we wish more is for them to live, and to grow and flourish into adulthood and on into old age. This requires a delicate balance between educating our sons about the ways they are seen by law enforcement and the general public at increasingly younger ages, before it may be developmentally appropriate, and helping them envelop themselves in the magical world of childhood for as long as possible.
My child is six and a half now, thoroughly engrossed in Rescue Bots and Ninjago and bugs, but I am already getting twitchy about the upcoming talks that loom large, talks about holding himself in the classroom, engaging with his teachers and peers, and, most of all, making sure he is giving no one, especially white people, any extra reason to view him as a Problem or Threat. As a mother, I know it is my duty to protect him. As a Black citizen in a country that has never viewed Black bodies as worthy of protection, I know I cannot.
This is the Fear of the Black Mother.
How do you protect the thing you love most in the world, when it is also the very thing that the world most fears? How do you tell yourself that you can still be there for your child, that you can still be the mother you always wanted to be, when your fears, validated every day by the news of another death of another young Black male child, tell you otherwise?
And this fear is not new. It has been with Black mothers always. Black life has always been conditional in this country, and very well may always be so. Only the specific circumstances of our children’s subjugation is new: the stop-and-frisk laws, the drug war and its attendant shocking incarceration rates for working-class young Black and Latino men, the everyday racial profiling through every neighborhood in our city.
You get used to it, but you will never get used to it, not for your children. You ask yourself: is that what parenting is? Preparing your child to live in and accept a world in which they are seen as animals? And there is no answer. …
But if there is a Fear of the Black Mother, there is also the equally punishing Fear of a Black Mother. This is the sometimes concrete, more often nebulous fear that those around you project, because they unconsciously believe you are unfit to mother your own child simply because you are a Black woman.
It is the teacher who wonders how your child could not be potty-trained yet, the play group which is “just not a good fit” with the other middle-class white moms and their children, the story on the front page of the paper of the young Black mother who left her children alone in the park while she went to work at a fast-food restaurant and therefore had her parental rights terminated.
It is the side eye you get from the shop clerk on the day you, like so many other mothers, have run out of energy due to exhaustion and raise your voice at your child after he will not let go of a toy you already told him he cannot have.
The Fear of a Black Mother, not unlike the Fear of a Black Planet, has you “wonderin’ why / People livin’ in fear / Of my shade / (Or my hi top fade) / I’m not the one that’s runnin’ / But they got me on the run / Treat me like I have a gun,” as Public Enemy so powerfully puts it.
It is the already known, fully accepted truth that you are contaminated, damaged motherly goods, and that every mistake you will ever make while parenting (and like everyone, you will make many) was pre-ordained in the universal color and gender caste you grew into as a young woman: the Black Female Form.
In the public view, your audacity to assume this body and dare imply that you are fully capable of caring for another small body, when by virtue of your own body it is clear that you cannot even take responsibility for your own, is tantamount to heresy.
With each loving, careful move you make through public space with your child, you are upsetting the natural racial and gender order of the universe and, therefore, blowing up people’s minds right and left.
With each impatient, angry move you make through public space with your child, you are reinforcing the natural racial and gender order of the universe, increasing people’s fear of you and their desire to “intervene” on behalf of your child, who would, after all, be better off being parented by a “real” (read: white) mother.
No one wants to admit this, of course, but people love their fear. They love to see the world reflected back to them as they know it to be, and they love to know that there is something and someone else out there who is exactly the opposite of them: bad when they are good, mean when they are nice, irresponsible when they are selfless.
If they didn’t have this, then what would they have, exactly?
Mothering under these conditions is mothering under constant surveillance. It is accepting the fact that at all times you are either proving them wrong or proving them right.
At no time are you simply building an ant farm with your child, or helping him learn to hold his breath under water.
I don’t fear that my child, or anyone else for that matter, will one day see me as a bad mother; I fear that I will gradually and insidiously allow these uncomplicated views of me as a human being to rob me of these moments with my son.
That I will be so busy bracing for the next “hit” of bias or racism, trying to keep us safe and intact as a family, that I will not be able to be truly present with the very best, most innocent, most magical thing in my life: my son.
Although the Fear of a Black Mother may never disappear from our culture, I need to find a way to resist it while not letting it over-determine how I engage with my child. Some days, I find that nothing is harder. …
Because the truth is Black life — here, in this country, and here in Minnesota — is as contingent as it’s ever been.
No Black mother who looks away from this reality is doing her child a favor. But it is also a deeply intimate journey, a pact between mother and child that binds things that maybe should not be bound, like love and fear and acceptance and anxiety, and that transcends any facts that the outside world may claim to know.
There is an inside to this experience of Black mothering, a sacred wholeness that is undeniable when I am within it. It is only the Black mother and her children who can embody it.
Society at large, and whiteness especially, cannot conceive of it, much less know it. In the end, that is what saves us.
Excerpted from “Fear of a Black Mother” by Shannon Gibney in “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” edited by Sun Yung Shin, from MNHS Press.