One day I picked my 8 year old child up from a playdate at her friend’s house and before leaving she showed me the art she made. It was a poster in the style of a protest sign and prominently said, “Plant Lives Matter”. I just stared at it. Her friend’s mom, who is White, kind of glanced at me to see how I would react. “Plants lives matter,” I read, and then I made a noise that was part wonder, part shame and part stupefaction. I gave her friend’s mom a half wave, thanked her for the playdate and ushered my child out.
How should I respond? Tell my child that her art is offensive and infuriating? Tell her that I’m glad she’s a budding environmentalist? Tell her nothing at all? The family she was visiting has a Black Lives Matter sign in their yard, and she told me that was the inspiration for her sign. I’ve tried to explain the BLM movement to her, in particular after we helped paint a community BLM mural on the street in front of the high school she will one day attend. She can’t seem to attend to the subject; she just floats off into her inner world. When I was child, I loved stories about confronting injustice. I couldn’t get enough of slave revolts, protests, Supreme Court decisions, protest literature and movies. This child though, is thoroughly wrapped up in the world of Wings of Fire novels, graphic novels, fairies and unicorns.
As a parent who works in both education and anti-racism, I was really torn about what to do. Do I force my happy little fairy to sit down and understand how the world will try to break her as it has tried to break me and women and girls who look like her? Or do I give her a few more days, months, of innocence?
Into my maelstrom of ‘what-should’ came Waetie-Sanaa Cooper Burnette’s poem, To: The Faith and The Fear. Her poem is a beautifully crafted permission slip to parents of color. She confirms that we can pay attention to our children: how they are developing, their sensitivities and interests and grant ourselves the freedom to parent them/protect them as we see fit.
I know Waetie-Sanaa from college. She is the founder of Breastpowered.org, dedicated to promoting breastfeeding and lactation education among families of color and their allies. Read below for a poetic exhalation:
The Faith and The Fear
by Waetie-Sanaa Cooper Burnette
Sometimes I fear for my Black Boy As a Woman of deep faith I don't live in that space. But there are days like today when sleep eludes me. I look at him breathing in and out.... Sleeping so peacefully. But I fear for his bright eyes His wakefulness and many questions His ability to see the truth Because In shielding him for so long in allowing for his innocence I have not trained the sweetness out of him I have not beat the joy from his soul I have not prepared him to meet his abusers I think to myself: How else could he have won the award in Kindergarten for being the most Curious? I tell you. I did not shut him down. I have held his hands And rocked him to sleep I have looked into his eyes for hours Three years he breastfed. I have taught him how to hold a gaze How to pray for his friends How to dance & sing from the depths of his soul From the moment I cupped him in my hands Gathered him to my chest And prepared him to crawl and then walk away I knew he would return to me shocked one day Dismayed Perplexed by the idea that anyone could not love him That others might hate him for no good reason But I wanted to delay and preserve that moment of irrationality for him for as long as possible I kept it at bay.... I knew the unadulterated belief in his own goodness was his birthright..... As it should.be for any wild and free child born on this earth….. Shouldn't they all have the freedom to roam and dig for bugs and collect frogs? To fall & get up more times than they can count To fall in love with your seatmate at school Your neighbor Your first girlfriend A white girl who wrote him notes at recess Uneventfullly, blissfully, neither of them thinking it strange Because the only Emmett he knows of is his grandfather And the white girl's mother and I both smiling, feeling both proud of some small symbol of progress and awkward all at once… I have wanted so many things for my Black Boy But it is getting harder and harder to fend off the fear I have delayed many talks already So he knows how to handle police to a degree How to protect his sister If only by never leaving her behind To come inside right away at the very sign of trouble or strife or if the sirens result in parked police vehicles with us too close to the action Sometimes it is better just not to know anything At 8, certain things are required I try to keep the list short And my eyes watchful Ready to intervene Ready to speak up He has watched me use my voice He is not totally naive But I cannot tell him about Adam Toledo That he was just a Brown boy... almost a baby to me I cannot tell him the statistics I will not weigh down his gait with all of the names. I refuse. I am not sure what I am waiting for. But tonight will not be the night. He doesn't need to know that Adam was just a little boy or that he stopped running. And still died. So until that night, I will watch him closely. Diligently. Like a blind person in need of a seeing eye dog, I decipher situations to him. You see that. You think that is just a toy gun. Not such a big deal in the house or in the back yard. It is just a game, of course. It should be your right to play Cops and robbers Or what do you play now? (It's a miracle to me that he's not too afraid to play it). So just sit down a while. Let me explain how easy it is for a nervous Police officer to think that a plastic gun is real. So, no. If I am.not right here. If I am not standing right here. No toy guns. Got it. Good. OK. And, if Aunty Lisa says no guns at all at her house Then you need to understand that that is why. Some people don't tolerate it at all. You understand? I understand, Mommy. It is endless. It is endless. There is something new.... Something subtle all of the time. And I am not shirking my responsibilities I can see that he is getting taller and taller. More handsome and more confident, Which is to say more of a threat to some eyes. But I just cannot break him today. I have spent years building and building this beautiful, brown, sweet, boy. And today is not the day. Today is not the day that I plan to break him.