There was a time when some of us believed our daughters were safe. “At least you have girls,” a white colleague said to me after Trayvon Martin was murdered. Her flippant comment ignited a rage mingled with guilt and shame I felt at having soothed myself with the same thought. This was before Renisha McBride, Sandra Bland, before all of the videos, before the writers, witnesses, and recorders in this Age of Ferguson, as I like to call it, left us no place to hide.
Hiding is a temptation for me these days. I want to protect myself as well as others from the beast of my rage. It’s always there, that rage, crouched in a corner, ready to spring. Sometimes I worry that what my daughters will grow up to fear more than police violence, or white violence, is their mother’s rage about such violence.
I read Between the World and Me from the perspective of a black mother of splendid twin 9-year-old brown-skinned girls. Black American motherhood in the Age of Ferguson is relentless. It follows me into the classroom where, in a discussion of a news story about Renisha McBride, I asked my students, “What do I tell my daughters? That they shouldn’t ask white people for help?” My students were white. The room went silent.
Black motherhood is not only relentless, I believe, it also engenders a split-screen view of the world that makes it possible for me to sit in my living room and placidly put together a cupcake jigsaw puzzle while listening to my daughter Isabella’s sweet, soothing voice as she reads to me from Little Women, and at the same time think thoughts that Marmee, the novel’s matriarch, surely never thought, such as: Whoever hurts her, I will destroy.
“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession,” Coates writes. Early in Between the World and Me, he remembers that his father once beat him for letting another boy steal from him. Something similar happened to Richard Wright, whose poetry frames the book. In Black Boy, Wright describes an afternoon during which his mother turned him out of the house after he came seeking shelter from neighborhood bullies. She told him to go out and not come home until he had bested them, until he had won. I think of her a lot these days, in the Age of Ferguson, when I am out with my daughters. I make a point of maintaining physical contact with them at all times. Hand on back, palm on head, a firm grasp on the shoulder. I thought of Wright’s mother yesterday when I was walking with my daughter Giulia and held her hand, cupped it, wrapped it with my own, curved it into a tiny fist. You’re not taking her, my hand said. Not this one, not today.
I was childless, a college student, when I first read the scene between Richard Wright and his mother. At the time I thought she was cruel. But now, when I think of Richard Wright’s mother, I think of all that I, too, am willing to do, and not do, in order to keep my daughters safe. My role in this life, in this Age of Ferguson, seems to have both enlarged and shrunk to “Mother,” custodian and shepherd of the lives of two dark girls who must navigate a world that I had believed would be different, that my parents and grandparents believed would be different, better—a world in which they would actually be free.