You know “Black girl magic,” the notion that a combination of African culture and resilience in the face of oppression has endowed Black women with a special ability to negotiate and create in the world? Recently, I was in a group discussion online and the hashtag was laid down, and people were listing some pretty impressive attributes and achievements that initially left me feeling like I was lacking. I had barely managed to put my four foster kids to bed that night and I had dragged through my day at work with that unique kind of attitude born of extreme sleep deprivation.
In a totally unrelated message, blinking at the bottom of my screen, a friend recounted to me how he managed to change a dirty diaper with one hand while still pushing the stroller at top speed down the block.
It was then that I realized it. As a Black parent, I make magic happen every single day and it’s largely a legacy of the way I was parented. The tradition of Black parenting is much maligned and, at best, still misunderstood by those who haven’t experienced it. In the spirit of understanding, I made this list. (Dedicated to my parents!)
1. We can make a dollar out of fifteen cents
Since the days of slavery, Black parents have been taxed with making life livable for their families with barely any resources to speak of. The great tradition of soul food came out of the need to make nearly inedible scraps, such as pig knuckles and ox tail, edible. Hip hop came from the need to make music though people lacked access to musical instruments or lessons.
Black parents perform equivalent miracles of ingenuity and innovation almost every single day. Whether it’s finding field trip money or making sure that your daughter has dress to go to the prom, Black parents have been making it all happen with nearly nothing since 1492. For Black parents, Black ingenuity is Black wealth.
2. We know the power of compassion
The world marveled as Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, the parents of Trayvon Martin, forgave the ruthless killer of their teenaged son, who showed little or no remorse for the killing. Georgia Ferrell, whose son Jonathan was murdered by police after a traffic accident, said to her son’s killers: “You took a piece of my heart that never can be put back, but I do forgive you. I truly forgive you and wish you the best with your life and turning it over to God.”
For a world unused to exploring the depths of the soul, in which such compassion exists, these acts and statements may seem confusing or strange. For Black parents, our deep faith traditions and the complexity of our lives in the diaspora mean that we know more about the mysteries of compassion than most people. Many of us choose to teach it as a core value.
3. We teach the complexity of the idea of grace
Black people’s survival in the New World is somewhat of a miracle and a mystery. So many enslaved Africans died within the triangle trade of enslaved Africans, rum and sugar on their way to the American continent that some people estimate that as many as 22 million of our ancestral bodies lie in the Atlantic Ocean. The experience of enslavement itself killed many more on the American continent and in the Caribbean. This has given Black people an inherited awareness that they exist in a state of perpetual grace.
Everything from James Baldwin’s writing and the music of Mahalia Jackson to Solange’s latest album is dedicated to exploring this reality. Black parents attempt to convey the complexity of the gift of life both through grand gestures and through the simple act of living a good life. As my friend Sabrina W. Robbins says: “We teach our children that they are part of a larger Black community. Our fates are interconnected. We owe it to our families and communities to try our very best!”
4. We teach that gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving
Have you seen the video where hip hop artist Jeffrey Lamar “Young Thug” Williams has to go back to the airport and apologize for being rude to airport staff, who he blamed for missing a flight, because his mother didn’t raise him to act that way?
Some Black parents are fond of saying “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice,” as a way of reminding Black youth that you’re never too important to be civil and grateful for what the world offers. The ups and downs of Black existence have taught us the necessity of gratitude as an everyday lived action.
5. We Do Literal Acts of Magic Sometimes
My scooter broke down when I was in college. I was pretty upset, because it was my sole means of transportation and I didn’t have the money to fix it, so I called my dad to help me haul it home. He showed up within an hour in his old van and fixed that scooter with no tools and a shoelace from his own shoe. I rode around on that repair for years. Now that I am older and understand more about how engines work, I still don’t know how he did it.
6. We sacrifice everything without expectation we’ll receive social rewards
In general, parents reap certain social and cultural rewards for the contributions they are imagined to be making to society. These rewards are largely non-existent for Black parents, since mainstream culture has associated them with almost every negative stereotype of parenting from deadbeat dads and “crack moms” to “baby’s daddies” and “welfare queens.” Despite what many in the Black community know to be true, in mainstream culture, “good Black parents” are seen or celebrated as the exception rather than the rule. Mainstream culture refuses to acknowledge the struggle faced by those it routinely shames or showcase the daily success of a true majority of Black parents.
Black parents still get up every single day and do the unglamorous things that help kids grow up strong and healthy.
7. We Know Our Own Minds
Some people won’t like that this list even exists, but that doesn’t matter. Black parents tend to know their own minds and feel comfortable deciding for themselves what is worth keeping and what is worth discarding.
Martyred South African civil rights activist Stephen Biko wrote, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Black parents wage a lifelong struggle to not only think critically about the world but to raise children who are critical thinkers as well.
My friend Lisa Moultrie remembers that in her childhood, “I was told I could do or be anything that I wanted. So when I bumped up against people who told me I couldn’t, I knew not to believe them.”
This piece previously appeared in MUTHA Magazine: Exploring real-life motherhood, from every angle, at every stage.
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