Between the World and Me: Black American Motherhood

The challenge of raising African American daughters in the Age of Ferguson

Jim Young / Reuters

Over the next few weeks, The Atlantic will be publishing a series of responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. (An excerpt is available online.)

This is the third in a series. Readers are invited to send their own responses to, and we will post their strongest critiques of the book and the accompanied reviews. (The first batch is here.) To further encourage civil and substantive responses via email, we are closing the comments section. You can follow the whole series on Twitter at #BTWAM and read all of the responses to the book from Atlantic readers and contributors.

Several years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates took his son, not yet 5, to see a movie on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As his son made his way off the escalator, a white woman pushed him and said, “Come on!” Chaos ensued. There was a black parent’s rage and a white man’s threat to have the black parent arrested. Coates narrates the incident in cool, steady prose. Ultimately, he writes of the regret he carries: “In seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.”

More than the murders remembered in Between the World and Me, more than Coates’s searing and precise analysis of the world in which we live, more even than the bold, gorgeous narrative itself, it is this scene that stays with me. And not the scene itself as much as what is left for the reader to imagine, which is what it was like for the small brown boy to feel the hand of an angry adult on him, a stranger’s hand, without warning, without reason.

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.

“I love you so much, I want to carry you around all day in my pocket,” I tell my daughters, even though I am well aware of the fact that the same urge to protect them from harm would, if acted upon, result in their suffocation. For this black mother, the trick is to provide my children safety without suffocation, and prepare them for the fight while also reminding them that the world is a good place, where it’s good to get angry and good to hope.

Coates is suspicious of hope. He begins his book with a scene in which a newscaster asked him about hope, which he calls “specious,” a symptom of the disease of the Dream, which is itself  “the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” I am drawn to his argument intellectually, but in the deepest part of me, I believe in hope. Even more, I believe that Coates hopes, too. For it must be hope that sets his pen to paper, a hope that his words will reach and transform his readers, and provide them with the relief of knowing that they are not alone. A commitment to struggle is what his letter is meant to inspire in his son. But I believe that hope is not the enemy of, or even separate from, struggle. Hope is what galvanizes the struggle itself.

Hope is what keeps me from hiding. It is hope that enables me, finally, to go out into the “terrible and beautiful world” that Coates describes. Hope is what inspires me to let go of my daughters’ hands and watch them uncurl their tiny fists. Hope is what makes me determined to let go of my rage and believe in their freedom.