It is what would have been Breonna Taylor‘s 27th birthday, and I am braiding my daughter’s hair when I am struck for a moment with the desire to write a poem about braiding hair. I think about braids around the world, braids throughout history, different colors and textures of hair plaited together in different sizes and shapes of braids. I think about the hands that learn this, the mothers that pass it on to their daughters, the minutes—or sometimes hours—of still-enough togetherness between generations of women. I want to forge a connection across cultures, to express what seems a fairly common motherly thought: Your hair is all over the place, little girl. Please come here so I can do something with it.
I don’t write the poem, one of a few poems that I’ve chosen not to write in the past weeks. I would love to write something like this, tapping into the universality of motherhood deep in this season of division, and I sit for a moment with the impulse. Why, I ask myself, do I want to write it? And why do I decide not to?
When I was a high school English teacher, my students and I spent a bit of time reading some of the Black poets of the Harlem Renaissance, poems by Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes. We usually met them in the spring, when we were deep into our exploration of the American Dream, and examined The Dream through the lens of these writers. Though varying widely in tone and style, their general message emerged again and again: we share this dream, but not the access to it.
One of my favorites to read together was Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B.” The speaker, an African American college student, is trying to write an amorphous assignment set to him by his white professor, a page about himself. As the only student of color in his class, he considers the relative importance of that difference, then lists his interests:
Well, I like to
eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.I like a pipe for a Christmas present,or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.I guess being colored doesn’t make me not likethe same things other folks like who are other races. (20-26)
As I learn from you,I guess you learn from me—although you’re older—and white—and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B. (36-40)
Teaching this poem to mostly white students at an international school in Germany, I often pointed out the middle section, the lines above in which the speaker builds common ground with his professor. “Look,” I’d say, “he’s telling his professor that he likes a bunch of things that literally everyone likes. He’s reminding his professor that they’re both human.” The poem does end by admitting a difference, the deep understatement that the professor is “somewhat more free,” but in general it is a poem about a united America, made up of people who look different but share a great deal.
Given the context in which Hughes wrote this poem, his focus on common ground makes sense. Surely in the first half of the 20th century—a period marked by Jim Crow laws, lynchings and the continued rise of the Ku Klux Klan—the dominant narrative of white supremacy zeroed in on difference. Even in places that prided themselves on their liberalism, housing and education remained segregated by law or tradition. Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin In the Sun, tells of a Black family’s attempts to buy a house on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s, as they discover that though they can legally live in the all-white neighborhood in which they’ve purchased their new house, they will face a daily battle against the prejudice of their neighbors. In a period in which the white public clung to racial differences, Hughes worked hard to point out that they were not all that different, that the America to which they all belonged united them.
Today, though, I confess that I’ve been all too content to stop there. I read “Theme For English B” and then want write a poem about the shared experience of braiding a daughter’s hair, eager to share this humanity without looking too hard at the details. Because commonalities are important, but they are just the beginning, and I can’t give Hughes’s poem more than a cursory glance without noticing that America that the speaker and his professor share will look very different in practice. The speaker likes to “eat, sleep, drink, and be in love” (21) and “to work, read, learn, and understand life,” (22) but he does not tell his professor how much more difficult it is for him to do almost all of those things. I may be braiding hair alongside a Black mother, but it is quite likely that we are thinking about very different things. Even now, a century later. Especially now.
I consider what I worry about as a mother. I worry about my kids getting their hands on scissors, pills, cleaning products. I worry about them running into the street. I worry about them climbing up to and then falling from high places. I worry that the oldest won’t learn her letters before Kindergarten, and that the youngest will never stop pulling out all the potatoes and throwing them across the kitchen.
Sometimes I worry about my daughters’ future, about the concrete details like if they’ll like their teachers or make friends at school, or about the more nebulous threats, like climate change or authoritarian governments. Quite honestly, as a millennial white mother with more than enough access to the Internet, it’s often a matter of talking myself into worrying less, rather than more.
It is a privilege, the privilege of white motherhood, to worry like this. I never worry that my girls will lack opportunity because of the color of their skin. I never worry that their teachers will teach them less carefully, or that doctors will take them less seriously, or that they are more likely to die in childbirth than their white peers. I never worry that their presence will be interpreted as threatening, or that any kind of misunderstanding could lead to their arrest or death.
And those “sometimes” worries of mine—the way that I can push a few fears to a back burner labeled “future” to focus on the falling-down-the-stairs problems of the present—are also a privilege. I have the convenience of waiting to confront elementary problems when my kids are in elementary school, teenage problems when they are teenagers. Black mothers don’t.
It’s time for me to recognize that, in a very real way, the weight of motherhood that I find challenging sometimes is on the lighter end, all things considered. That while my own fears aren’t unwarranted, the Black mothers around me carry all of them along with many, many more. What should I do with the energy that I don’t spend on fearing all of those things?
One of the most stirring revelations of motherhood for me is the deep necessity of sharing this experience with others. I appreciate the mentorship of mothers who have come long before me, and also the practical advice of those a few years ahead. Lately, I have come to cherish the community of mothering friends who are “in it” with me. I’m learning, with every year that passes, what it means to come alongside these friends, how to make space and bear burdens in the midst of this chaotic, messy season of our lives. What would it mean to come alongside Black mothers, with vastly greater burdens to bear?
Motherhood is uniting, yes, but of course braiding hair is just the beginning. I have to repent of my tendency to rush to unity, looking past the suffering and double standards that keep opportunity out of the hands of Black families. I have to see where I have it easy, and use that extra space in my life to turn outward. I have to ask myself hard questions about the choices I make for my own children. Am I aware of how our choices impact, or even limit, the opportunities of others? I have to work hard to see the differences, or the differences will always be there.
Let me pay closer attention to the extra worries that Black mothers bear. Let me learn to see not just the beauty of raising children together in the world, but the uncomfortably different ways in which we experience motherhood. Let me listen, more than I speak, as we braid our daughters’ hair.