Jeffery Renard Allen’s most recent essay is stunning. Urgently Visible: Why Black Lives Matter is a powerful and important must-read that masterfully combines thoughtful commentary on race, politics, and economics with well-researched, academic analysis and haunting personal narrative. It’s long yet I found myself rereading sections, my brain and heart rearranging themselves with each pass (yes, this essay is simultaneously cerebral and guttural), only to return days later to read the entire piece once more, eager to gleam new insights and understandings from Allen’s poetic, painfully honest prose. Original artwork by Anthony Young using bleach and gunpowder only enhances the message, the multiple messages, Allen is giving us. It’s a valuable read for everyone, but I urge all progressive white folk out there to read it, really truly deeply read it, and learn.
“Stop competing, start cooperating. Listen, compromise, try to empathize.” ~The Way Is Already
My band, The Brooklyn Players Reading Society, is in the process of mixing our newest tune to share with ya’ll next week. I wrote the words years ago and feel like the message is even more necessary today. Please take a moment to read over the full lyrics, accompanied by some pics from our recording process., and please also keep peace in the forefront of your minds whether you are protesting or celebrating this historic inauguration day. Stay tuned for the real deal coming at ya soon.
The Way Is Already
Prison yards in cultural centers
Benches packed with old forgotten men
run out of their homes by the big
corporations that wanted parking lots.
The only culture that they get here
is fast food, alcohol, and bein’ poor
’cause they followed glorified promises
of faulty jobs in the melting pot.
I say, We have lost the way
I confess, I’m just like everyone else, buying shit on Amazon
made by Indonesian girls who can’t afford their own Barbie Dolls.
Yeah, I know, things are tough all over.
But I am living for a future.
A future where money doesn’t matter
as much as being kind and respectful
because we know that our own happiness
depends on the happiness of our neighbors.
I say, We can find the way.
Protective parents rage over birth control
while their young daughters get STDs and pregnancies.
The politicians, mostly rich and male, agree.
“We need to keep our country moral!”
Yet they are hiding their true motives
behind the immoral masks of false morality.
Few of us actually seem to care
’cause corporate America’s so damn convenient.
I say, We have lost the way.
We all have to play the money game and fall victim
to materialism, consumerism and self obsession.
But if we continue to stay so separated,
we’ll lose our country and our humanity.
We’ve let go of our sense of community when really,
community is what we need the most.
Stop competing, start cooperating.
Listen, compromise, try to empathize.
I say, We can find the way.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” ~Fred Rogers
I’m thrilled that Mutha Magazine recently published my letter to my son, myself, and really to all of us on moving forward in Trump’s America, America after Trump, and life in general as a peaceful supporter of human rights and equality. Let’s all make a commitment to helping. Huge thanks to Mira Jacob for sharing her moving article on Buzzfeed, “Here’s What I’m Telling My Brown Son About Trump’s America,” that inspired this essay of mine. And thanks to you, my readers, for your time and support. Peace and love to you all.
I’d long been looking forward to yesterday afternoon with my mama friends and their babies at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. The museum is a cool and fun thing you’re supposed to do with your Brooklyn baby, and I had an IDNYC membership that I’d never used that was expiring soon, and I hadn’t seen these ladies in weeks. I’m also the kind of mom who really struggles with staying at home all day with my kid. I don’t understand this phenomenon – I love my home and my kid and can happily spend all day alone with either one, but when I put the two together, I go stir crazy. And in general, I like being busy and my husband doesn’t, so it’s a good balance for L. Also, I am plagued by the idea that good moms take their babies to all the fun places, and I know I won’t have the time and energy to do so once the new semester starts up, so I feel all guilty and anxious if I don’t go everywhere on my breaks.
It’s strange how I enjoy and feel really positive about my work, how I’m providing good money and health insurance for my family, how my child is so well taken care of during my work hours, how I get home by 4 pm every day and spend every weekend with him, yet I still have that working mama guilt (even though I know I’d claw our eyes out if I were a stay-at-home mom).
So anyway, I made big plans for this afternoon, and one thing that big plans doesn’t fully is consider is the fact that they can completely fall apart piece by piece no matter how hard you try, and then you’re left with the realization that we mothers and women in general can be so hard on ourselves, and also that no matter how much you meditate and do yoga and be mindful, you still create all these expectations that leave you bummed when they aren’t met, and this is something you need to work on (by you I mean me). So obviously, L and I didn’t end up spending the afternoon with our friends at the museum…
The shit (literally) begins at 2:30 pm, right as I’m packing up our last snack. The Boxer dog gets super antsy, more than normal, and starts doing poop circles in the living room. I let her out into the courtyard for some explosive, bloody diarrhea, do my best to clean it up (it’s a shared courtyard), only to repeat the cycle again ten minutes later. L is hungry and also poopy, and between him and the dog farts, my apartment smells like the end of the world. I am so determined to be a good mom who takes her kid to the children’s museum that after observing Bear for 20 minutes post-explosion and feeling fine about her current state, I rush us to the bus stop where magically, the bus has just pulled in. I’ve been texting my friends in the midst of all this about perhaps coming to my place instead of the museum, but I ultimately decide to stick with the original plan because I AM A GOOD MOM. (At this point in the story, it’s important to note that two days ago, I switched from an iPhone to an Android – it was free – but have no idea how to use it.)
The bus ride is brilliant. L’s obsessed with “The Wheels on the Bus” song and is literally watching it unfold right before his eyes. People smile and wave at him and he acts all coy in response. A Caribbean teenage boy sits across from us and instantly falls in love with L. His friends tease him but he doesn’t care. L smiles and gives fist bumps and I feel like the world is a beautiful place. The teenager even helps me with my stroller when I get off the bus.
L and I walk to the museum and I see that I’ve missed a call from my friend. No texts, though, so I assume it’s fine. We get to the museum where my membership has expired and it will cost us $22 for the final hour before it closes (I guess good moms make more money than me). Also, my friends aren’t there. I realize (a little late) that my new phone does not have most of my contacts in it and therefore I can’t call anyone except the friend, Caedra, who isn’t answering. L and I are chilling in the lobby in which he is happy and I am anxious. Finally, she calls back (she’d been on the subway) all like, “You didn’t get the texts? We switched to Jade’s house instead because the museum is so far away.” Excellent point, but no, I didn’t get the texts, new phone, yada yada, but noooo worries, we’ll just run right over to Jade’s. I hang up as L and I bump into a neighbor with the queen of all museum memberships who offers us a free pass (ugh, good moms have real memberships that haven’t expired), but we’re going to see our friends, it’s okay, thanks anyway.
Ten minutes of a very cold walk later, in which L is screaming and my gloveless fingers have turned to ice, I realize that all of this is insane. There’s no easy way via subway to Jade’s, and even though I’m on Eastern Parkway, there are zero cabs. I call a car service that puts me on indefinite hold. My kid is screaming because he’s hungry and while I did pack food, I can’t give it to him because he’s wearing mittens and layers and is wrapped up in one of those stroller insert sleeping bag things that make me very jealous. Also, it will be dark in approximately 40 minutes. And my dog is home sick. I call my friends and tell them we can’t make it and then immediately feel tears in the back of my eyes. I have turned down a free hour at the museum with my kid so that we could walk down a sidewalk and not go see our friends. I just wanted to be a good mom who does fun things with her baby, and instead I made bad choices and am now here starving him out. I suck. Also, since I have been marching in a direction vaguely toward home while running in angry circles in my head, there is no easy way to get back home on public transportation from where we are now, so I must use this last 40 minutes of daylight to walk us there. Oh also, I have no idea how to use my phone.
The sun goes down, I am cold, and L keeps screaming, “I want food!” I keep saying, “I know, I’m sorry,” while blinking away tears and berating myself in my head. We make it to Erv’s, a pleasant bar in my neighborhood with otherworldly cocktails, but the bartender I know, a laid back father with incredibly warm and loving energy, is not working. The overall vibe is cool, but not fatherly, and they seem mostly okay with L but not totally (or are they okay with him and I’m just being paranoid? This is a regular worry of mine. Are you judging me or do I just think you’re judging me? And if the latter, what does that say about me?). L eats, I drink, things feel somewhat reset. But then L has eaten all of the food I packed and is still asking for more (eating is his super power), and I cannot fathom cooking for us at this point because the afternoon has felt so draining even though I also realize that I’m being dramatic and my difficult afternoon isn’t that big of a deal compared to PEOPLE DYING IN SYRIA, but whatever, I can’t deal with cooking so we go to another bar/restaurant in the neighborhood that is literally a block away from my apartment.
Again, the usual bartender who I know is cool with kids is not working and an older man is there instead. He is friendly enough but not welcoming (evil eye directed at baby, hints about taking the food to-go). My first reaction is to feel like we’re supposed to leave, but then I decide, Fuck it, I’m starving, the kid’s still hungry, it’s only 5:30 and there are only three other people in this bar anyway, so who are we possibly disturbing? Besides, I’m a paying customer just like everyone else, and now that I have an Erv’s cocktail in me, I don’t care if you’re judging me or if I just think I’m being judged because it doesn’t freaking matter either way (the key is learning how to feel this way all the time). Also, my baby is awesome even when he’s being a shit and don’t you dare tell me otherwise.
So, I order that glass of wine and a plate of totchos (yes, nachos on tater tots instead of corn chips, brilliant) and tell him we’ll eat the food here. And then I glance around the bar and fully take in the other patrons: three young white men sitting at the bar, fresh with that douchey I-just-moved-from-Jersey-into-the-brand-new-condos vibe (sorry, New Jersey, I recognize that you are much more diverse and beautiful than the stereotype I just boiled you down to, but I needed to hearken a specific image). The bartender is sucking up to them, offering them tastes of this and that, using fancy words to talk about the food, and then, on their way out, offers them free drinks next time they come in. Like they can’t afford $4 happy hour beers on their own. I’m annoyed but then the totchos arrive and Lew and I share a beautiful moment in which we eat together out of the same little aluminum tray and we’re both enjoying the food and being together so much that my heart actually hurts in that overfull happy way (I am choosing not to think about things like sodium content), and I realize that after all of that trekking around trying to fulfill so many desires at the same time, I really could have just walked a block away and gotten totchos. Or stayed at home and played with puzzles. Or cuddled and watched cartoons. All L wants is to be together. He doesn’t need museums or big adventures; the bus ride alone blew his mind. All of that other shit was my shit. We mothers hold ourselves to such high standards, and in New York City where there is so much to do all the time, we often succumb to the idea that we’re supposed to be doing these things. Women in general hold ourselves to overly high standards. And it’s not like it’s our fault; our society puts this on us. Yet at the same time, we can decide how we react to these pressures, we can control our own actions and thoughts, we can choose to not let it bring us down.
Still, it’s hard.
Thankfully, it doesn’t feel so hard anymore, now that I’ve got totchos. And in the midst of this beautiful moment followed by this sweet ruminating, two black men come in, say hi to L and laugh at him sucking strings of melted cheese off his fork, then hold open the door for us on the way out. I sm struck by how kind they are. In America, so many young white men just think about themselves all the time, and our society completely supports that. I recognize that not all white men are like this and it’s unfair to place that on every white man, but as a woman, and especially a mother, I’m used to second-guessing if I should be in a certain place or not. I’m used to second-guessing my worth. I’m used to worrying about how others perceive me. I imagine black men feel much of these same things all the time.
So, what’s the takeaway from all this?
- Mamas, you’re awesome. Your kid needs you, not all that other shit. Don’t give into the guilt we so easily feel.
- Women, stay strong. Be yourself. Fuck stereotypes and expectations and all that.
- Parents, take your kids out when and where you feel like it. Having a kid suddenly means people feel okay about openly sharing their judgments of you. Fuck ‘em. In other countries, like most of Europe and the Caribbean and all of South America, people are expected to have their babies out and about with them in all types of places. We should do that here, too.
- Black people, I’m sorry.
- To everyone who has ever held open the door, given me your subway seat, carried the stroller for me, etc, THANK YOU.
- To myself, remember that expectations often lead to disappointment. Just let things be.
- Switching from an iPhone to an Android is really hard. And are we actually this dependent on cell phones? (Yes, and it makes me a little sad.)
- I think the Nuvaring I recently started is making me a lot more emotional and I wonder how/if differently I would have reacted to this afternoon without it. Yet another crazy thing we women have to deal with.
- The dog is better but not totally and has a vet appointment on Monday.
Kera Bolonik recently wrote a beautiful, thoughtful piece for The Cut on when and how parents should address racism with their children, and how her particular circumstances as a white, queer woman raising an adopted, black son affect these conversations. We as parents of young children have a deep responsibility to our future society to raise open-minded, empathic, not-racist adults, and we as white people really bear the brunt of this responsibility, but what is the best way to do it? I understand not wanting to shatter a child’s innocence too soon, and part of me wants to wait until questions naturally arise, but then I think of that poor little girl who watched Philando Castile’s murder, and of all the other kids who suffer as a result of racism and race-based violence in this country, and I suspect that this concept of not shattering their innocence is another aspect of white privilege.
I also wonder about my son’s abilities based on his developmental level. If he grows up hearing my husband and I talking about race-related issues, if we address things head on with him even if it seems too early, will that build a more solid foundation for him and make him less confused, or will it be too difficult and even more confusing? I know that so much of it depends on the individual child, but it’s hard to figure out that line. I want Lew to be the best Lew he can possibly be, and I want him to have the freedom to explore what that means to him, but at the same time, I want to ensure that he’s loving, thoughtful, compassionate, and not racist.
Perhaps I’m being hasty. He is only 18 months old. And as it is completely ingrained in every aspect of our culture, I’m sure there will be a million natural opportunities to discuss racism, from the toys he will play with to the characters in the movies he will watch to the ads in the subway he will walk by every day. Maybe instead of considering how to handle these conversations, I should for now just sit and luxuriate in the easy ones we currently have about ball balls, dog dogs, nanas (bananas), and agua (meaning water, milk, or any liquid, really). But either way, these are important things to think about and discuss with other parents; the more we communicate with one another, the stronger we (and our children) will be.
If you don’t know who D. Watkins is, get to know him. He’s smart, brave, strong, funny, and dedicated to teaching kids and the country at large about the realities of growing up black on the streets of Baltimore. This drug dealer turned teacher and writer tackles serious issues head-on in a completely relatable way, even if you (like me) grew up in a very different place. But don’t worry, he’s not all drugs and death; you’ll definitely laugh a little, too. Read him, listen to him, be grateful for people like him.
Check out his newest memoir, The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, and his 2015 release, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.
Photo taken from NBC News.
It’s encouraging to receive comments like this one from fellow writerparent Cari Jackson. People care. It might not feel like it, but they really do. If we keep speaking out, we can make a difference.
This is how Cari responded to questions about if we writers have a duty to start conversations about our country’s current crisis and how we can talk to our kids about racism.