Black History Month, the Olympics, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, Kwanzaa, Nigerian Independence Day — my mother looked forward to these days like they were Christmas.
“Mom, you’re hurting me!”
“I am not. Hold still or your headwrap won’t look right.”
“I don’t want to wear the headwrap. It looks weird. Everyone will laugh at me!”
“What kind of African are you??”
I looked up at my white mom as she tugged on the gele around my head, and tried very hard not to roll my eyes.
We had the same arguments throughout my childhood, my mother and I, whether it was about geles to school, the black power afro pick she was hoping I’d wear in my hair, the afro that I wouldn’t wear to hold the pick, or the locs that I wouldn’t grow instead. While technically mixed race, my brother and I did not have the light beige skin and loose curls of the few other mixed race kids in town who passed as mildly exotic with their golden eyes and permanent suntans. We were black kids — lighter-skinned, yes, but black kids with black colored Nigerian hair and dark eyes. We had names that prevented any fantasy of passing — Ijeoma and Ahamefule. We were black kids. In our poor suburb of Seattle, we were the only black kids throughout all of elementary school.
And so, the last thing I wanted to do was show up in a gele to “Heritage Day.” But I had to, and my mom came along with giant plates of jollof rice, mai mai, and fried plantains for the kids, trying to get her Kansas tongue to say the words in the Ibo accent she had been taught. This scenario was repeated every year whenever my mom thought that our African-ness or blackness would be a fitting part of the school curriculum. Black History Month, the Olympics, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, Kwanzaa, Nigerian Independence Day — my mother looked forward to these days like they were Christmas.
My mother loved our actual blackness and African-ness, not just the artistic representations of them — the hair and the clothing and the food. She loved the history, the music, the language. And she wanted it for us. My mom took us to cultural events, begged black mothers to invite us over for playdates with their kids, took us to every black movie, and talked at length and with pride of black history. With our father gone, Mom’s greatest fear was that she would be a white woman who didn’t know how to raise black kids; that we would be lost, adrift with no culture, no community, and struggle hair.We had names that prevented any fantasy of passing — Ijeoma and Ahamefule. Click To Tweet
But despite her best efforts, for many years, we were lost. As much as my mother loved our blackness, she was (and is still) a white woman. A very white woman. Susan Jane Hawley from Wichita, Kansas. And while steeped in love, my mother’s idea of blackness was very much a white person’s idea of blackness. She was worried that we wouldn’t know the proper handshakes, that we wouldn’t be able to dance “black enough,” that we wouldn’t know the “slang” of blackness. She was worried not that these things would prevent us from being black (she’d always reminded us that we were black, absolutely and completely), but that there was a secret code to being accepted in the black community that we needed to know in order to not be rejected by our own when we finally went to find “our people.”
And we felt that difference between the expectations of the type of black we were supposed to be, and the type of black we were — which was black nerds raised by a white woman in a poor white neighborhood. And when middle school came around and suddenly there were a few dozen black kids — real black kids — we compared outfits and attitudes and knew that we, my brother and I, just didn’t measure up. I stayed invisible to both black and white kids while my brother was teased mercilessly for “acting white” with his love of jazz music. My mom would console him, saying, “They just don’t understand yet sweetie — jazz is black. It’s real black.” We would roll our eyes at her. What did she know?
We spent our adolescent years alone, my brother and I. It was hard, and it was sad. My brother barely made it through — depression and anxiety causing him to drop out of high school. But music got him through, motivating him to get a GED and a scholarship to a prestigious art school. Meanwhile, I stayed invisible — or as invisible as a 6-foot-tall chubby black woman could be. I got a boring cubicle job. I got boring friends, and cringed while my blackness became the butt of every “friendly” joke. I only thought critically of my race when I was being pulled over by cops or filling out a census form. My mom gave up on trying to get me to stop relaxing my hair. I was determined to be . . . safe.
But, like my mom said, jazz is black, and as my brother became an adult, he found himself immersed in blackness in a way that life in the white suburbs simply could not allow. He settled calmly and quietly into his blackness, and it became as much a part of him as his music.
As for me, I just got tired. I got tired of laughing at jokes that weren’t funny. I got tired of explaining my hair, of celebrating other people’s holidays, of swallowing microagressions, of pretending to believe lies. I got tired and one day I just stopped.
I started speaking up and speaking out, I stopped compromising, and suddenly — I was myself.
And it turns out I’m black. Hella black.
I’m blacker than my mom had ever imagined, and yet just as black as she always knew — because she knew that no matter what we wore, how we talked, who we loved, or what we did — we were black and we were beautiful. But she didn’t know my blackness would be like this.
It was a bit disconcerting for her at first, to see that my blackness was outside of her preconceived notions. It was hard for her to see that my blackness was so complete that I couldn’t take her with me. She didn’t understand my conversations anymore, and she didn’t understand why my blackness wasn’t bringing more blackness into her life.
“I mean, I think I know what it’s like to be black,” she said to me once.
“No, you don’t,” I emphatically replied.
“But . . . I raised you,” she argued.
“So you know what it’s like to be a white woman who raised black kids,” I replied, “But mom, you are not black, and will never know what that’s like.”I started speaking up and speaking out, I stopped compromising, and suddenly — I was myself. And it turns out I’m black. Hella black. Click To Tweet
She paused for a minute and then tearfully asked, “How come you never identify as white, too? I mean, you’re half white.”
I was flabbergasted. Here was the woman who had spent our entire lives telling my siblings and I that we were black — black black blackety black — and she wanted to know why we didn’t identify as white?
But I knew what she was asking — she was asking where she belonged, she was asking what part of our life and our culture she could share. She was asking what part of her legacy lived on in us. My mom loved our blackness because she loved us, and now that love had put our very identity out of her reach.
“I’m going to call your brother to see if he feels the same way,” she said. But I knew that she’d have no luck. My brother is hella black too.
And now, with these openly and proudly black children, my white mother is trying to find her way. She’s asking questions that she didn’t know she had to ask, she’s reading all my articles, she’s attending lectures. She’s identifying as white in a way that she didn’t think she had to, and she’s identifying as a white ally to black people, a white mother to black children.
“You’ve done all this on your own,” my mom guiltily told me last year, “I don’t know if I have a right to be proud.”
But I have black friends who were raised by white parents who tried to erase their blackness, who raised them to “not see color,” and they grew up feeling unseen and unloved and they are scarred and hurt to this day. My mom has every right to be proud.
I took my mom out for drinks a few weeks ago, and after about 1.5 drinks (my mom’s a notorious lightweight), she got all sentimental.
“I see what you do. I see you now. I see how hard you fight. I won’t ever know what it’s like to be black, to see the news and know that the people being killed by cops could be you and that breaks my heart. But I’m angry, I’m so damn angry and I just want you to know that I will fight and I’m not going to be a white lady who just thinks that things are okay anymore. I’m just so damn proud of you.”
And as my mom was drunkenly crying and pounding her fist on the table in a mix of love and outrage, I rolled my eyes like I have countless times my entire life.
Because that’s what you do when your mom loves you and she’s not afraid to show it.