I stayed home with him until just before his first birthday: Nursing was my defense against strangers who assumed I was the nanny. I weaned him just as he learned to say “Mama.” Now he could claim me as his own to the skeptics at the playground or when we were out running errands.
For the most part, the neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut, where we lived for the first 11 years of our son’s life was a refuge from such skeptics. Sure, the new crop of Yale grad students and junior faculty who moved in each year often looked askance when our son would yell “Mom” to me across grocery-store aisles, but they soon caught on. Everyone in our neighborhood knew us as a family.
Like other mixed-race children, our son started his journey to figure out his racial identity early. From kindergarten through about third grade, he would say he was African American. Then, the summer before fourth grade, he switched to identifying as biracial. When my husband and I asked about the change, he said no one at his day camp believed him when he said he was African American. He thought laying claim to a biracial identity was more likely to be accepted. But he soon learned that biracial seemed just as implausible as African American to his peers outside the neighborhood.
Read: Teaching my black son about American racism
School is the place where kids navigate their identity and relationships apart from their families. In our children’s case, school was also separate from their neighborhood: Each day, they boarded a bus to attend a diverse magnet school about five miles from our home. It was there that he would make his black identity known. His older sister’s being there certainly helped serve as a marker, but she, too, was navigating what it meant to be a racially ambiguous child. Each year, I made a point of chaperoning the first field trip of the school year. My volunteerism was as much a display of parent engagement as it was a subconscious way of helping my children assert their blackness.
We moved to Washington, D.C., after 16 years in New Haven, and mere weeks before our children started high school and middle school. As the moving day approached, our son’s concerns intensified. One day, while sorting through old picture books, he revealed the root cause of his anxiety. “How will they know who I am?” he asked me. I reminded him that middle school would be new to every sixth grader. He replied, “No, how will they know who I really am? How will they know I’m black? I’ll have to start all over again. This time no one is going to believe me.”
Around that same time, we took a week-long road trip through the South, culminating with a family reunion on my father’s side. Our son sat alongside his cousins of varying hues of black and brown as they listened to stories about how their great-uncle was fired from his factory job after he told his boss he supported Martin Luther King Jr., and how he later sold scrap metal to send my eldest cousin to college. Our son roared with laughter as his mother and aunties stayed up late singing and dancing to soul, R&B, and old-school hip-hop. This was his family, and he belonged.