Though I can remember almost everything about that day, from my mother's facial expression to her subtle physical responses, only recently have I tried to understand her reactions and consider her feelings throughout my coming-out process.
James Baldwin said it best: "Everybody's journey is individual," and that was definitely true when I decided to come out to my mother. Inviting others into one's personal life and no longer rendering one's sexuality invisible is important and can momentarily leave one incapable of understanding what anyone else is experiencing, and justifiably so.
My only focus at the time was the need to understand my attraction to men. I spent hours and days thinking about what that meant and how it would change everything around me. I was my only focus. And I neglected to fully consider what past experiences in my mother's life would shape her reaction to my news, and her subsequent acceptance. The typical narrative crossed my mind about how she was groomed in a Southern Baptist church, and though I believe those past experiences had an influence, I wondered if there were other factors affecting her reaction. I wondered about her contexts; growing up as a poor black woman in the patriarchal Jim Crow South, for example, might have shaped the way she views the world.
I could only half-heartedly recreate the portrait of how hard it was to raise a black daughter and son in the South. And I blindly mused about the ways being a divorced, single black woman may have affected her life, but honestly, how could I fully understand -- then or ever -- what that must have been like? So I became incensed when she rejected my sexual identity, and I grew even more enraged when she rejected me after she'd promised to make an effort. From my vantage point, I could not see her effort, and that was the beginning of our problem. We were both blinded by our own viewpoints. My viewpoint: a search for my own identity. My mother's: the vision she had for her only son. When I proclaimed I was gay, her second comment was, "You're already black." Immediately I understood what that meant. As a black man, I was born into the world with one indelible strike against me, and to my mother, the idea that her supposedly strong black son would "intentionally" take another strike against him was unimaginable.
My mother grew up as a young black female in the South, meaning she witnessed the manifestation of hatred directed toward a particular group of people. Segregation, hatred, and quite possibly death were the results. She was raised with (and helped raise) four brothers, so I can only imagine that she observed firsthand what the world had in store for black men. Maybe she understood that raising a black son meant teaching him one of his most important lessons: how to stay alive. Though I often perceived our relationship as being defined by favoritism, it was actually something much deeper: My mother kept me close in order to save my life.
My life was in her hands in more ways than I had the knowledge to understand then. And what mother wants to tell her son, "This world hates you," or that he was never meant to survive? I can only attempt to envision what she may have been thinking. Actually, how can I? I can't visualize living as a black woman being perceived as a "welfare queen" during the Reagan years, or being perceived as a family-destroying matriarch at a time when black women were the lowest-paid wage earners (as is still the case now), or being objectified and caged into the myopic imaginations of others, all while watching husbands, uncles, and brothers die and/or be treated as savages, then birthing a son. Being a parent is inherently arduous, but to live in the U.S. as a parent raising a black son is to live in constant fear, to live in a constant state of anxiousness about what the world might do to him every time he is out of your sight.
So how could I understand? Why would I imagine her history when it was not mine? But I'm trying, trying to understand why and how the fact of whom I love could rock her to the core and unravel a relationship that I thought was stronger than the Rock of Gibraltar. I announced my sexuality in an effort to get her to see me as an extension of her, as an adult and not the little boy whom she worked so tirelessly to save and protect. The generosity of her love was the sustenance that I lived off as a child and continue to benefit from as I strive to define success for myself today.
I will persist in working to remove the space that still exists between us, which has been caused by years of uncertainty and heartache. Thankfully, we've allowed each other the space to cope with the external forces that shaped our actions consciously or unconsciously with each other, and now that she has accepted me, all of me, I can rest, but only for a moment, because we must continue to remove the space created by our perceived differences and replace it with love.
Love removes the empty space that allows our fears, insecurities, and inhibitions to keep us apart. Love is freedom. So we can finally see each other for who we really are, as individuals who must now and forever do the work to understand the other's perspective and respect (as opposed to inspect) every decision or choice that the other makes. We must practice the art of viewing everyone through the lens of love. Our world will look vastly different when we do.