The Folklore Project
Mother of a Black Child
By Heather Dempster
Through the heart of the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus is a straight line of stamped concrete — a road wide enough to park a bus on — labeled the “Free Speech Zone.” I know this because a nonprofit organization with which I volunteered parked a bus there, and I was leaning out of the bus door curiously when the demonstrators marched by.
“It’s about PEACE,” intoned a young black woman into a megaphone. “It’s about JUSTice,” replied the small crowd walking with her, maybe 10, maybe 15, all of them students, all of them black. All of them with grave expressions on their faces.
“It’s about PEEEACE!”
“It’s about JUSTice!”
I didn’t know who Trayvon Martin was at the time, but I saw his face and his name on the posters hanging around the students’ necks. I saw the posters lifted into the air — enlarged photocopied images of a young black boy in a contrasting white hoodie.
“It’s about PEACE!”
I knit my brows together and tilted my head. What was?
“Do you know what this is about?” I asked the woman volunteering on the bus with me. She was as fair-skinned as me, white-haired, small-boned, at least 30 years my senior. I was in my mid-20s at the time. Her voice was usually apologetic and breathless when she spoke, and now was no exception.
“Oh,” she breathed. “Something about a robbery? Sorry. I don’t know about all ...” — she waved her hand toward the demonstrators — “... this.” The word, this, a breath, and that appeared to be the end of it for her.
I suppose it could have been the end of it for me, too. But then, it wasn’t. I pulled up the notepad app in my phone and typed hastily, “Trayvon Martin.” For later.
I couldn’t Google it right away, because this was 2012 and mobile Internet was still often unreliable and painfully slow. The Free Speech Zone, at the time, turned out to be mostly a data-dead zone, unless I was lucky enough to catch a wifi signal from the neighboring library. I usually brought along a book to read, to pass the time between the waves of students that ambled by between classes. When I got home later, I would Google the name.
I guess I Googled it. I guess I learned who Trayvon Martin was, but I can’t recall what I felt. Did I feel anything? I don’t remember. What I do recall, though, is the face of the girl with the megaphone. She made a dent in my memory. I see her even now, vividly.
“It’s about PEACE!” she declares, her eyes narrowed in intensity, pinched at the corners, her white teeth bared against the word, white teeth against her dark skin.
“It’s about JUSTice.”
That was February. In August, we brought the twins home. I didn’t know what their race was when we accepted the foster-care placement, but I made a guess from the names contained in the email that the Division of Family and Children Services sent me, and that was after I’d already said yes. The email actually said we’d be picking up twin boys, 7 months old. That was lesson No. 1, I suppose, in never trusting anything that DFCS says.
When the nursery worker at the shelter turned the corner with the baby that is now my daughter in his arms, I exclaimed, “It’s a girl?”
The man looked skeptically at the child in his hands and declared, “Looks like a girl to me.”
The brown-faced, curly headed child was then plopped into my husband’s arms, and James became a father, for the very first time. My son, even darker skinned, was dumped into my arms a moment thereafter, and I became a mother. All the ensuing chaos that accompanies parenthood for the very first time followed. We didn’t miss a lick, including us nervously strapping them into our car for the very first time, and driving home at a snail’s pace.
The baby girl bonded almost instantly. She batted her chubby little hands at her father’s face and grinned, and she wound her way into our hearts so tightly that I couldn’t even understand it at first. We loved her an intensity that would have driven back a bear, or a tidal wave, or all the mud of a landslide. We loved her quickly.
We loved her twin brother, too, with all the same fanaticism. But even in infancy, he was a more cautious child. He reserved himself. Deidre, all the past and present trauma be damned, seemed mostly delighted by us. Devon, her brother, seemed more concerned. He cried incessantly. In his screams, in the pitch of his wails, I sometimes wondered if I heard the words, “I hate you.”
“I hate you,” as he rejected a bottle. “I hate you,” as I touched a washcloth to his back and tried to bathe him. “I hate you,” as I bounced him in my arms and tried to soothe him. Scream after scream after scream. And because of that, our bond was harder won.
“Don’t get too attached,” I heard those words ringing in my ears, from the licensing worker, from the other experienced foster mothers, from the mouths of my skeptical friends. “Don’t get too attached, Heather.”
Don’t be stupid. Don’t do something ridiculous, like fall in love with these children. Don’t you know? Don’t you realize? Your job here is to keep them alive — not love them. Why would you waste your time on loving them? They’re just going to leave. Don’t work too hard at this loving thing.
It was probably around October of 2012, three months later. Devon was probably 10 months old. I was soaking in the tub, trying to forget the pain of the day, trying to forget all the horrors that accompany a childless woman trying to mother two motherless children. All the impossible needs. All my endless failures. The wailing. The wailing that never ended.
“Can you bring him to me?” I asked my husband, as the baby screamed.
“Now?” James asked. “But you’re in the tub. And isn’t he supposed to be sleeping?”
“But he isn’t sleeping,” I noted, as we both listened to him shrieking from his room and through the baby monitor, piercing, angry, relentless.
My husband brought the tiny little boy to me, and I in the tub took him, extended him, hovered him over the tile of the bathroom floor. I zipped off his footed pajamas with one hand, managing to balance him in the other, and I tossed the clothes away. I unsnapped his diaper and tossed it, too. Then I pulled the small naked lump of child onto my chest. He was solid and heavy, like a big rock.
I let the warm water cover his legs and his little round rump and his smooth little baby back, dark and silky as the silt in a riverbed. I let him sink into my abdomen and into the water. He seemed unsure at first. He squirmed. But then finally he relaxed, and eventually, finally, he nestled his small cheek against my damp breast, just above the surface line of the water, and he settled into a deep and even slumber.
“I love you,” I whispered to him, “whether you want me to or not. And I will not stop.”
It was some weeks after that, in the growing sunlight that was seeping through the bathroom window, when my husband asked, “What is that?”
We each stood in front of the bathroom sinks, bleary-eyed, both still a little resentful from being pulled away from much needed sleep. Both a little cranky. We tried our best to brush and wash and whatever anyway.
I was staring down at my breasts, chin flattened against my sternum, the straps of a tired and worn and terribly uncomfortable bra hanging loosely between my fingertips. I had fallen asleep with it on again.
I stared puzzled at the overworn and pilled cup lining, where whitish liquid pooled. My nipples hung free of it and swollen.
Could it be? Is that even possible?
“It’s…” said James. “It looks like…”
“Is it?” I breathed.
Adoptive-induced lactation, actually. It’s a thing, apparently. It sometimes happens to non-postpartum women (and even men on extremely rare occasions) in seasons of extreme baby-induced stress.
Find yourself a baby. Sit alone with it for thousands of hours, and at all hours of the day and night. Be unable to comfort it. And your body might just give you a hand. Or, actually, milk.
During those early days, when Devon was still screaming inconsolably for no reason, when he would just sit on the floor and look at me with an expression I can only describe as baby-hate. The look a baby gives you when you are not the woman it was expecting. You are not the woman it knew, even if he only ever knew her imperfectly. During those days I would pull my shirt and my bra over my head, toss them unenthusiastically and dejectedly towards the floor, and I would pull the tiny little boy child towards me.
“You don’t have to love me,” I would say, positioning his small frame against my chest, “but I am going to rock you regardless.”
And so he would scream at me for a good half hour.
“I don’t even know you!” his screams would say. But eventually his screaming would subside, and he would nuzzle up against a breast, and he would fall into a deep sleep, unequivocally succumbed — the meaning of rest settling on him.
I would watch him there, his dark cheek squished against my pink skin, and I would think how much I loved him and how much I didn’t even know why. This made no sense. It was despite the fact that my ears were still ringing, despite the fact that his face was still creased from his fading outburst. Despite it, his cheek was now tucked into my skin, on the softest part of my body, and he snored.
I was tired. And apathetic. And done. And that’s exactly what he was, too. Just done with it. We were both so tired. And there we both found ourselves still in the quiet together. Skin on skin. Night after night. Finally resting.
In the wake of all that, in the wake of the angry baby, so inconsolable — in the wake of the child who didn’t know what to think about me, but was nevertheless tucked tightly against my mammary glands — in the wake of all that, my body did what felt right for the occasion.
It made milk.
The next summer, on July 13, 2013, almost a year after bringing my babies home, a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
It is some other thing, to hear this news when you have no son. It is another thing when you have no black son. It is some other thing entirely to hear this news when you have a small black boy in your high chair, eating green peas and drinking from a sippy cup.
I first felt panic rise up in my chest. I scrolled the news on Facebook. There, I saw my black friends be loud. I saw, in contrast, my white friends and family (and there were many more of them) be silent. In the moment, I realized two truths. I was a white woman, and I would always be a white woman, as long as I ever live. And I was also the mother of a black son, and I would always be the mother of a black son, as long as I ever live. I was part of two worlds now.
The dawn of this realization had been growing in me for some time.
When I think of the woman that I was (can I even write woman? I was just a girl) hanging out of the bus door as a volunteer, at UNLV in spring of 2012, I can barely recognize her. She was just a girl who knew nothing. A child.
But maybe I do know her, and maybe she wasn’t as clueless as she could have been. Maybe I can give her some small bit of credit, because she never did get the face of that student out of her mind, that young black woman with the megaphone with the clenched face and the white teeth. The face lived on.
“It’s about PEACE!”
Nearly a year after bringing my children home, I had read prolifically in … good gosh … in everything I could. What stone hadn’t I overturned?
I started with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., because that is where every white person starts when they want to learn about race in America. (I was a cliché in this, I know.) But then I didn’t stop at “I Have a Dream.” I either read or listened to (and I mean this honestly) every single word King left behind. I challenge you to find a single speech or sermon of King’s I haven’t consumed. (Because if you do, I want to know. I want to know what else that man had to say before America killed him.)
I moved onto Malcolm. I spent time with Baldwin. April Sinclair. Ishmael Reed. I found Dr. Elijah Anderson, of Yale, and I soaked him up like a sponge. I found Van Jones. I loved him. I loved many others.
I cautiously approached Ta-Nehisi Coates in his very early days at The Atlantic Monthly, not being sure if I loved him or if I did not love him. Here was a contemporary, and someone whose star was just now rising. Here was someone alive and current and feeling and thinking and writing in the moment, not yet dead like Martin or Malcolm. Coates was a man of today, of this very hour.
I am still unsure if I love Coates. He sometimes feels contradictory to me. Which I think shows how it is sometimes more difficult to love great leaders in the present tense than it is to love them in the past tense.
At any rate, I became a well-read white woman in the ways of black folks, Langston Hughes/Lawrence Ross pun very much intended here.
Maybe your response to that is prickly. Maybe it isn’t. But if it is, and you have an assumption that I am a voyeur here, peeking into black culture without an invitation, I want you to know I hear you. You can judge it if you need to. I know you, and I hear your objections now. And I can only respond by inviting you to go ahead and criticize me. I can take it.
You can accuse me of being a white girl who is only dabbling in blackness, perhaps to make herself feel important. To make herself feel complicated. To make herself feel like something most white girls can’t, even now, in 2017. To make herself feel less white.
And dear me, I will hear you say that.
But I will also tell you, if you are umpiring me in this way, that I can probably guarantee that you personally have never been an adoptive mother whose body has made milk for a child. You’ve probably never known what it feels like to have your breasts ache for a baby that you did not birth. To have your body offer up everything it can, in defiance of biology and race and whatever else might be a barrier between you and the child in your arms. And leak milk.
I sobbed when I heard the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial.
A long-suffering friend — so loved, so patient, also the mother of a black son, black herself — interjected herself to placate me. You can call her my token “black friend” if you want to. But the truth is, she was. She was black and she was my friend that day, and I needed her.
“Now you know,” she said to me, in a moment that now feels intensely formative.
Now I know. Now I know so many things that I did not know before.
Now I know how it feels to have a white friend specifically offer my daughter the one page from a Disney coloring book that features Princess Tiana, as if my child must automatically defer to the only black character available.
Now I know how it feels to be hurriedly gathering our belongings from a white friend’s house, and happen across a baby doll whose origin I can’t quite place, in the exhaustive fog of my motherhood. Does this doll belong to us or not?
“Is this ours?” I ask, holding the doll up by a limb.
“Well, it certainly isn’t ours,” says the friend, with a small laugh. It takes me a moment to register that she is saying she would never buy a black doll for her own lily-skinned daughter.
Now I know how it feels to have someone who has never met my children’s biological family and who has no idea about any of the family’s personal qualities, redeeming and admirable and also otherwise, refer to them in a collective known as “those people.”
“It is such a beautiful thing that you saved your children from a life living with those people. They won’t grow up to be like them.”
Never mind that you know absolutely nothing about them, and you have earned no right to an opinion about their quality.
Now I know how it feels to research my children’s biological family tree, through official government records, and realize that it is truncated abruptly in 1953. Before then no one officially made much effort to keep records on impoverished black families. For a vast majority of black families in America, there is only family history to rely on — stories passed from one generation to the next, memories kept as the only proof the souls ever lived.
Now I know how it feels to grieve because that history was never “official” in America, and so much of it is lost to time. What a waste. What a loss for us as a nation. What a loss for me and my own children, which we will have to reckon with more fully, as they grow.
Now I know how it feels, in a world of overwhelmingly white political representation, to see Barack Obama flash across the news. To see my children take him for granted as a normal American president, the only one they’ve ever known.
Now I know how it feels to have a leathery old white man — white-haired, red-cheeked, bottom lip bulging with tobacco — refuse to sell me a bottle of water at a gas station in rural South Georgia, because I am lovingly holding my infant son in my arms.
I approach him with child and water bottle in hand, jostle the bottle of water onto the counter, rummage for my wallet. The man won’t meet my gaze. After a few tense moments and without a word, he wanders to the back of the store, leaving me confused at the counter, holding my debit card.
Now I know how it feels to have a black woman, my age, my height, start yelling at me in a Starbucks courtyard. I’d received news that morning that my 37-year-old uncle had died tragically, and then immediately afterwards, in my shell-shocked grief, I had to leave our house abruptly because it was on the market and had a showing. I stumbled to Starbucks unwashed and fragile and barely alive. I had not brushed my own hair, much less my daughters.
But all that this black woman saw in me was a white woman who had not combed my black daughter’s hair. She began aggressively berating me, without end. Raising her voice. Gesticulating. No matter that I kept asking politely, weakly, dead with grief, pushing through with all the strength I had, that she please leave me alone.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you, now please. Please stop. Thank you, but please stop. Please leave. Please stop.”
When she finally did, a shocked stranger in the courtyard, an elderly white lady, asked me if I needed her to call the police.
Now I know how it feels to have a white family member enthusiastically share pictures of our children playing together on her Facebook wall.
“Look at us!” the photos seem to say. “We are a progressive family!”
A chorus of white friends gasp with, “Beautiful!” and “So touching!” and other comments that seem just a little out of place beneath ordinary photos of kids eating sandwiches.
And then not more than two posts later, I watch this same family member share a video featuring thinly veiled racist language from The Blaze commentator Tomi Lahren.
Now I know how it feels to be sitting in a living room in rural Georgia, with a few old white men sitting in chairs on the periphery. One of them is as familiar with my son as he is with the other male children in the room, which is to say not very familiar, but enough to know their names. He calls those children by their names, and if he can’t remember a name, he finds some way of getting their attention that is not the way he chooses to get my son’s attention. For my son, he barks the word, “Boy!”
It happens once, and I scoop my baby up and leave without hesitation, and I never return to that living room again.
Now I know what microaggressions are, and how they wriggle their way under your skin and stay there — like a thousand tiny pieces of glass, rubbed in over time. It won’t kill you, but it makes life so uncomfortable. After enough of them, it makes it exhausting to move around anymore.
Now I know.
Now I know how it feels to protest, in response to the murder of a child that could have been my child. A child that could have been your child. A child walking home with Skittles in his pocket. In response to the not-guilty verdict in the murder of Trayvon Martin, almost two years after his death — it was then that I first learned how it felt to march. How it felt to bare my own teeth against the words “Peace” and “Justice” in unison with others.
And I learned how it felt when oblivious onlookers seemed aggressive, or simply bothered, or much the worse — indifferent.
Now I know how it feels to be the mother of a black child.
For our cross-country move, we made the drive to Atlanta, Georgia, from Las Vegas, Nevada the week before July 4, 2015. During that week, there was some controversy over a certain flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse. Many people wanted the flag removed. Many people didn’t.
Responding to the brutal, racially motivated murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome, a 30-year-old black woman, was arrested at the South Carolina Capitol. There she scaled a 30-foot flagpole and unhooked the flying Confederate flag. Police officers shouted at her to come down, but Bree shimmied to the top anyway, took the flag in her hand and responded defiantly, "You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today."
Newsome recited Psalm 27 and the Lord’s Prayer as she brought the flag down. As soon as she reached the ground, she was arrested, along with James Tyson, who had stood at the bottom of the pole to spot her as she climbed.
The flag was replaced about an hour after Newsome took it down. Bree went to jail. And the Confederate flag went back up. I read this news as we were driving, and it wriggled its way underneath my skin. Another piece of glass.
Welcome back South. I had felt it creeping up on us as we drove from the dry ground of New Mexico into the middle humidity of Texas, then into Louisiana under a wet blanket of heat. After so many years living in the bone-dry desert, there was now this clamminess that was gradually covering us. It was finding us.
“I can’t breathe,” I had said to my husband, somewhere near Shreveport, Louisiana.
“The humidity?” he asked. Then he gave me a look of acknowledgment that of course it was more than that. “This is going to be our new normal.” Then he amended, “Our new old normal. Our normal again.”
We were driving home.
In Shreveport, we fed our family lunch, then we drove on to Jackson, Mississippi for the night. It was during the following morning’s drive from Jackson to Birmingham that I began to see the bumper stickers. And the flags. Everywhere.
One particularly large diesel pickup truck, a white Ford, was covered in the Confederacy. Flags of various sizes and materials mounted on every surface. Where they could not fly, they were stamped in stickers, and accompanied by pithy sayings that pledged allegiance to things like God, the Republican Party, and the Tea Party. Another one declared, “NOT MY PRESIDENT.”
This was perhaps a response to Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley having just removed the Confederate flag from the Alabama Statehouse. It is probably worth mentioning that then U.S. Sen. and now Attorney General Jeff Sessions vehemently and vocally opposed him over removing the flag.
“This is the right thing to do,” Gov. Bentley had told a reporter. “This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down.”
Alabama’s citizenry responded accordingly. Here was the proof, on the white Ford truck. My 3-year-old son marveled at the novelty, as it thundered past.
“It’s Captain America?” he asked. As a burgeoning fan of Marvel comics, this was a question he posed to anything sporting red, white, blue, and stars.
“It isn’t,” I said softly, trying not to convey the darkness. Not today. Not yet. Soon. But not yet.
Another piece of glass.
We stopped in Birmingham to pay homage at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in 1963 white supremacists killed four black children about the age of my own now, and injured 22 others, and wounded a countless number of souls among black citizens and their allies. There we stood at the feet of Martin Luther King Jr., his likeness memorialized in a statue above us, until I finally felt like I had the inner strength to make the last leg of our journey to Atlanta, which would be our new home. My new old home.
Just before we left, as we stood beneath the statue, a white, middle-class woman walked over to gawk at my family.
“Beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Just beautiful!”
Her buoyancy grated against the glass in my skin. The church behind us, where the children had died. The truck with the flags. Sen. Sessions declaring that Alabama’s pride in her glorious history should never be erased. Keep the flag flying. Bree Newsome, who brought down the flag in South Carolina, sitting in a jail cell. My tiny son, marveling at a truck that was emblazoned with love for a symbol that had kept his ancestors beaten and in chains and oppressed on all fronts.
Pieces of glass.
There was a bedraggled, elderly black man walking around the park, panhandling people for money. His hair was white and brittle against the dark leather of his skin. I calculated the years between him and the bombing that memorialized this very place. He must have been a teenager at the time.
I saw him wander over to the white woman who had gawked at us. He asked her for a dollar. He wandered over to others, engaged them, walked away. But he never did approach us.
As I was strapping the kids in our SUV, I looked across the lawn and caught him looking. For a quick moment, we made eye contact, my pale blue irises meeting the dark brown in his, watery and tired.
And I wondered. “How much glass is in your skin?”
The answer was in the quickness with which he turned away.
I looked then at my son in his car seat, still so small and innocent, with his own dark skin a little red from the Alabama heat. I placed my fingers on his arm gently, the flesh still chubby with toddler fat, still unscarred and unweathered. I thought about all the glass that would accumulate there over the years. I wondered if I could somehow stop it. If I could find a way to take it all in my own skin instead.
That should be an option, for a mother, I think.
It isn’t fair that it isn’t.
Then I closed the door and strapped myself in the front seat. And we drove on to Georgia.