When my Uncle Eric died, I returned to our emails as a source for preparing the eulogy that I would deliver. One of the most striking things about this correspondence, even as I look at it now, is how much of an authentic portrait of my family it seems to offer. He tells stories in a pitch that I recognize and he draws conclusions that I think are credible in that light. One of those story lines that always wends its way into my family’s reflections focuses on the favored child. It was always striking to me because of how futile it seemed but how committed were its tellers to weaving their yarn around which of the seven children was the winner. My mother even carries this concern into her reflections on her siblings’ progeny. She still talks in terms of “favorite” grandchild or niece. My Uncle Eric had fiercely drawn conclusions that were ones that I could see emerging in the clear-eyed focus that my grandparents’ parenting would have been responsible for creating. Eric thought that my grandparents had a favorite child, my Uncle Charles because he was the oldest–the focus of the family’s favorite family snapshot–but my Uncle thought it was reasonable and acceptable for parents to have their picks where favorites were concerned. Where he seemed to differ from the other siblings who engaged in this favored child story is that he did not think being less favored estranged him from his parents’ love; in fact, he was certain of that.
The certainty of some of us black children feeling loved by our parents stands out to me as I have been reading August Wilson, and thinking about other stories alongside his work where black children directly question whether they are loved or even liked by their parents. What informed their children’s heartbreaking questions? Though I have been thinking about this for some time now, the urgency of gaining clarity emerges in light of Newt Gingrich’s characterization of President Obama’s remarks about Trayvon Martin. In the wake of George Zimmerman shooting and killing the 17 year-old, unarmed Martin, President Obama stated: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” He continues:
“I think [Trayvon’s parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”
In response, Gingrich claimed that Obama’s remarks were “in a sense disgraceful.” Elaborating, he adds:
“It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background.
Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him. That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. It is a tragedy this young man was shot. It would have been a tragedy if he had been Puerto Rican or Cuban or if he had been white or if he had been Asian American of if he’d been a Native American. At some point, we ought to talk about being Americans. When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.”
My engagement with the heartbreaking question that black children raise concerning their parents’ love helps inform an understanding of David Plouffe’s contention that Gingrich’s politically informed critique was “reprehensible.”
Raising black children where racism flourishes involves navigating through an inhospitable world and fashioning one where joy can grow. African American literature reflects the struggles of black parents with limited job opportunities and thus with limited financial resources who must overcome belittling, demeaning assessments of their personhood to provide for their children. Ann Petry’s Lutie Johnson, Toni Morrison’s Eva Peace, and August Wilson’s Troy Maxson all have children who question their parents’ appraisal of their value. Bub’s worries about his mother’s need for money over her ability to have joy in her life and by extension him, seems reasonable in the face of his ultimate abandonment. Eva, though, stays with her children and answers her daughter’s question about her love directly. “Mama, did you ever love us?” Hannah asks her mother in Morrison’s Sula:
“You setting’ here with you healthy-ass self and ax me did I love you? Them big old eyes in your head would a been two holes full of maggots if I hadn’t.” (68)
Hannah clarifies her question:
“I didn’t mean that, Mamma. I know you fed us and all. I was talkin’ ’bout something else. Like. Playin’ with us. Did you ever, you know, play with us?” (68)
Eva offers a response that lays out a lesson in history and racial hermeneutics:
“Play? Wasn’t nobody playin’ in 1895. Just ’cause you got it good now you think it was always this good? 1895 was a killer, girl. Things was bad. Niggers was dying like flies. Stepping tall, ain’t you? Uncle Paul gone bring me two bushels. Yeh. And they’s a melon downstairs, ain’t they? And I bake every Saturday, and Shad brings fish on Friday, and they’s a pork barrel full of meal, and we float eggs in a crock of vinegar…” (68-69)
“Mamma, what you talkin’ ’bout?” Hannah asks her. Eva continues her lesson:
“I’m talkin’ ’bout 18 and 95 when I set in that house five days with you and Pearl and Plum and three beets, you snake-eyed ungrateful hussy. What would I look like leaping’ ’round that little old room playin’ with youngins with three beets to my name.” (69)
What always shocks me when I read this is that Hannah still doesn’t get what her mother is telling her so she offers a rather flippant remark, “I know ’bout them beets, Mamma. You told us that a million times.” So Hannah asks her:
“Yeah? Well? Don’t that count? Ain’t that love? You want me to tinkle you under the jaw and forget ’bout them sores in your mouth? Pearl was shittin’ worms and I was supposed to play rang-around-the-rosie?” (69)
And Eva still doesn’t get it: “But Mamma, they had to be some time when you wasn’t thinkin’ ’bout…” And so Hannah offers more:
“No time. They wasn’t no time. No none. Soon as I got one day done here come a night. With you all coughin’ and me watchin’ so TB wouldn’t take you off and if you was sleepin’ quiet I thought, O Lord, they dead and put my hand over your mouth to feel if the breath was comin’ what you talkin’ ’bout did I love you girl I stayed alive for you can’t you get that through your thick head or what is that between your ears, heifer?” (69)
Their conversation continues with each holding their distinct positions. I understand Eva’s sacrifice as love. I think because I was a child, an only child, who always worried about what it would mean for me if my mother died, I understood Eva’s tremendous gift of staying alive for her children.
Hannah lives in a world of ignorant bliss. Cory Maxson’s question regarding his father’s love breaks your heart because he lacks Hannah’s apparent foolishness.
Troy and Cory’s exchange reveals that one aspect of what black children find incomprehensible about their parents’ love is its relationship to debt. “I owe a responsibility to you,” Troy tells Cory. Black parents who have experience or an historical awareness of the uses of black bodies as currency to pay off debt, whose bodies have labored for debt, take seriously their indebtedness to their children. In the case of parenting, debt is the unearned right of the child to extract their parents’ labor; it might just be their sole privilege. Black parents’ frustration with their children comes from their ignorance over this birthright. But how could they know when keeping them healthy and happy involved their ignorance of what inheriting blackness means in America?
An important aspect of parenting black children involves shielding them from the scorn of inheriting blackness. But for how long? For many black parents, the answer was, “as long as possible.” One of the many heartbreaking scenes in Spike Lee’s exceptional film 4 Little Girls (1997) features Chris McNair recounting a time when his daughter Denise asked him why she couldn’t buy and eat a sandwich at Kress’s department store in Birmingham, Alabama. What makes the scene memorable is the active search that Mr. McNair continues to make for a good answer to how you answer your hungry child’s question about why she can’t eat food that was clearly available for consumption. American racial absurdity became a black parent’s burden to explain to their children.
To keep a child available for joy, black parents shielded their racial burdens from their children as much as possible. But is ignorance safe? Black children could not and cannot afford to be ignorant of how blackness is understood in American culture. A very good friend was the first to draw my attention to one of the most poignant references to its mechanics. In “Of Our Spiritual Striving” in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois writes of the “all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil.” So many of the very poignant (news) stories offered in tribute to Trayvon Martin’s memory convey their journey to understanding what it means to be black in America. Newt Gingrich, and now Michele Bachmann, want to deny this history, this journey, and this reality.
Barack Obama’s remarks were appropriately evocative in that they allowed for his body and expressed identity to speak to listeners and to allow them to craft their own narratives of his relationship to Trayvon. Though in crafting those narratives, one could not deny that if Obama had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon Martin. Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and now Michele Bachmann want such an evocation to be false or at least silenced. Their critique is due in part to the fact that here is an instance where an appeal to blackness might serve blackness, which is never what it is supposed to do. I don’t think that Obama stopped being a politician when he offered his eloquent testimony, but I do value it as honest political expression over what the Right is attempting to do: they want to evoke the tension over the O.J. Simpson trial by suggesting that Obama is “playing the race card.” What Trayvon Martin’s slaying and George Zimmerman’s freedom should underscore about the limitation of this metaphor, as a good friend said to me years ago, is that “black people do not control the deck.” We play the cards that we are dealt. Too, if Trayvon had a card to play, the black one wouldn’t be the best one to play. As Obama’s move reveals, even an eloquent assertion of blackness will be viciously contested.
From the photographs that I have seen of Trayvon Martin and the profiles that his family and friends have offered, there is no doubt in my mind that he was a child, much like my Uncle Eric, who knew the certainty of love. Despite the struggle over how much racial ignorance, hatred, and hostility black parents negotiate in raising their children, it is very possible for black children to know beyond a doubt that they are loved. Trayvon Martin was loved so much he felt wealthy enough to give love to others. He volunteered, he babysat, he baked cookies. He brought sweet things into the lives of those he loved; and he still is. As many of us claim “I am Trayvon Martin,” we are revealing more of our stories about how we show love to our children. And in doing so, we are bringing awareness to the struggles we confront in having our children embrace the certainty of being loved in a hostile climate. These are stories that I recognize as having the same pitch of authenticity that I read in my Uncle’s stories of feeling loved. Thus, through the honesty of our revelations, we are showing the ways that black parenting should be considered a model of parenting under siege instead of as a model of deficiency.