A Black mother’s burden | Opinion

Published: Sep. 12, 2021

By Enobong Hannah Branch

Enobong Hannah Branch of Rutgers University says the burden of moving through the world as a Black woman with Black children is pausing to reflect on whether situations and circumstances would look different if we were of a different race. 
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A Black mother’s burden is to love her child fiercely with the conscious recognition that the world around you does not do the same. To protect their innocence when they are greeted with suspicion. To create and hold space for their joy because they will have a lifetime to be introduced to anger at the incongruity between their self-love, pride and celebration of Blackness and the world’s denigration of it.

With every moment of moral outrage and indignation that ensues at what has become a recurring spectacle of Black death, I wonder whether the collective outrage will be productive. Not just injustice for the victims whose names we speak, but in raising the consciousness of America to see the racism in the everyday that precedes the violent loss of life. The suspicion that a bag of skittles is a threat, or a toy gun is a death sentence. To challenge the reality that to be Black and move through the world is always an exercise in taking care because fates are not kind to your sudden movements.

More than a year after the death of George Floyd, and the racial awakening that it represented for so many, I am still asking, has it been productive? Or have we used the brutality to locate racism there, Black bodies lying in streets, and absolved ourselves from reflection on racism here, the everyday. Do Black mothers fear less for their children because we have put up Black Lives Matter signs on our streets? No. This is the burden, the unseen weight of mothering while Black.

The torch is carried by those of us who live the dash between global indignation and collective complicity, who experience racism in the everyday. The burden of moving through the world as a Black woman with Black children is pausing to reflect on whether situations and circumstances would look different if we were of a different race.

Allow me to illustrate. Recently I hosted a birthday party for my youngest daughter at the local pool. The start of the party coincided with the daily 15-minute adult swim; all the children patiently waited for their turn to splash and play. Toward the end of the party, a second adult swim was announced that felt arbitrary and potentially targeted.

Adult Swim is not a new concept, typically occurring once an afternoon, to give adults a chance to cool off without the clamor and splashing of children. Why was a second adult swim called when most of the adults around and in the pool were with the party and were happy to be with children in the pool? More troubling, would this have happened if the majority of those swimming were not kids of color?

Racism in the everyday is often cloaked in “rules” and their arbitrary application. Arbitrariness is always used to harm those who are perceived to be powerless and under no circumstances was I going to allow the joy of brown children on a warm summer day to be dampened arbitrarily.

In speaking with the manager, who insisted on the kids getting out of the pool, I tried to calmly explain why the choice she was making to be obstinate in the face of reason was wrong. She was unmoved and stood by her decision to have a second adult swim. I flatly told her the kids were not getting out of the pool, and they were blissful in the water oblivious to the mayhem surrounding their joy. There is a lot to trouble and unpack in my interaction with the manager, but I wrote this reflection so you, the reader, could zoom out from this incident to see the larger struggle and your role in it.

Black bodies in public space are always subject to surveillance and even more so in pools, this recent unfortunate incident just brought it into sharp, deeply personal relief.

In 2014, as part of a pool safety campaign, the Red Cross released a poster that illustrated all of the children breaking the pool rules as brown. For three years the poster overtly said “be cool and follow the rules” and implicitly said watch the Black children. It was not until 2017, when Margaret Sawyer’s Facebook post calling for accountability from the Red Cross went viral and gained national media attention that the Red Cross pulled the poster from all locations and issued an apology.

Going to the pool is supposed to be carefree, a respite on a hot summer day. All children should enjoy the passing of time with cannonballs, handstands, and games of Marco Polo. Enjoy cooling off without arbitrary surveillance and suspicion. Creating and holding space for the joy of brown children is resistance, too, a form that Black mothers practice every day.

So the next time you visit the pool, look around and take in the joy, and if you notice anyone dampening it, speak up. Share the burden, preserve the joy.

Enobong Hannah Branch is the coauthor of Black in America: The Paradox of the Color Line. She is also the senior vice president for equity and professor of sociology at Rutgers University and the mother of two delightful Black girls, ages 8 and 11.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-09-13 03:50:09 -0700