I am the white Jewish mother of Black sons. My older child was called “the N word” for the first time in Fire Island, New York, when he was three years old.
The younger one was called “the N word” for the first time in Massachusetts when he was six.
By the age of eighteen, he’d been interrogated by police in New York City and in many other places for walking, running, riding a bike, once on the road to Providence, Rhode Island, with his father, who quickly instructed him to put his hands on the dashboard in plain sight, as he’d instructed him and his older brother not to run on the street, especially at night, not even on our block, trying to catch a bus. He had been disciplined by white teachers for pointing to racism in classic white literature that would later be accepted by literary scholars. Now the cofounder and executive director of a nonprofit serving Black and Latinx youth, like most of his staff and youth members, he has been stopped and frisked many times.
My older son, an actor in Hollywood, is never called for auditions of characters assumed to be white. He is Black. A brown-skinned man like his brother and their father, the shade of their brownness irrelevant.
In 1995, home for a visit from college, my younger son and I are talking about race and his classes in African American studies. “I am Black,” he tells me. “I have a Jewish mother, but the term biracial is meaningless to me,” and, evoking the history of racial so-called “mixedness” going back to slavery with its long history of rape by white slaveholders of enslaved Black women, “I reject the identity of the tragic mulatto.” He continues to explain his beliefs, and when I say, “I understand,” he tells me gently, “I don’t think you do, Mom. You can’t understand this completely because you’re white.”
I remember being stunned—by his vehemence and by the idea. Like most mothers, I have strongly identified with my children. Like other writers of my generation, I have used the experience of motherhood to try to comprehend the human conflict between devotion to others and obligations to the self, the lifelong tension between the need for clear boundaries and boundless intimacy. I have experienced difficulty but also reparation in mothering children myself. But that day, standing in a darkened room, facing my son, I felt exiled from my not-fully-grown child.
Fierce possessiveness lies at the heart of motherhood right alongside the more reasonable need to see one’s children become themselves, and this emotion nearly choked me, obliterating vocabulary, my feelings too threatening to find easy language, minefields lining opposite sides of the road of my motherhood of this beloved son. What was this whiteness that threatened to separate me from my own child? How often had I failed to see it lurking, hunkering down, encircling me in some irresistible fog? I wanted words that might be helpful to him, offer some carefully designed, unspontaneous permission for him to discover his own road, even if that meant leaving me behind. At the same time, I wanted to cry out, don’t leave me, as he had cried out to me when I walked out of daycare centers, out of his first classroom in public school. And always this double truth, as unresolvable as in any other passion, the paradox: she is me/not me; he is mine/not mine.
As my son is not me and not mine, I am not his and not him—a harder truth for mothers to absorb, for social confirmation is rare and historically recent. Maternal mythologies about ultimate responsibility and perfect goodness are still pervasive and, despite our studied and even internalized understanding, often controlling. As mothers of grown-up men and women, let alone mothers of infants and children, we can still crave the ideal—to be all that is wanted of us, harmonically in tune with our children’s desires, perfectly responsive to their needs. Instead, we often face the reality of dissonance, difference, and resistance—aspects of love as threatening at times to our adult selves as to the shadowy children we always, in some way, continue to be. Growing up as Black men at the end of the twentieth century in the United States, my sons had to integrate our differences and separate identities with our deep attachments and similarities in order to preserve love and reconfirm commitment. But I learned early that embedded in the psychological demands all children face, my children faced a powerful injustice—the forces of racism, dangerous to growth of both spirits and bodies. Over time, making my way through a thick fog of denial I came to call “the whiteness of whiteness,” I became a student again, learning from my children, our Black family, and from books about an American history and experience I, like most white Americans, comprehended only in a shallow and general way. Being the white mother of Black children afforded me an opportunity—what felt like a demand—to face the dissonant realities that belong to all relationships between mothers and children, and this part of my identity became one location for relearning at all levels of awareness: I study and teach the history and literature of race, and continue to explore the forces in human character that have found brutal expression in white American racism. I write race and matters of race into much of my work in fiction, memoir, and essay. Then I dream myself as a woman of “mixed race,” scars on my face, like adolescent acne, like ritual cuttings, signs of battles survived.
In a society pervaded by racism rooted in the still-unconfronted history and consequences of fourteen generations of American slavery, five more of apartheid/Jim Crow, this engagement converges with familiar maternal dilemmas, clashing currents between separation and attachment. I remember my body containing and nourishing their lives, and I remember their own lives, suddenly outside of me. I want my children to know me and love me as I really am. Yet there have been times when I have wanted more than anything to be Black for my sons. Social and political realities entwined within my private and intimate life, and my children knew it before I did. How could I protect them then? How many mistakes had I made? As a mother, my first conscious response to all this was, of course, guilt. But guilt is often a mask for anger, and anger, acknowledged and specific, can open consciousness that may be both painful and redemptive.
Speaking of parental love, impotence, failure, and effort, James Baldwin, a great American writer who understood the wounds of racism better than anyone, wrote:
When one slapped one’s child in anger the recoil in the heart reverberated through heaven and became a part of the pain of the universe. [But…] it was the Lord who knew of the impossibility every parent in that room faced: how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised and how to create in the child—by what means?—a stronger antidote to this poison than one had found for oneself.
Like all Black Americans, Baldwin was forced to comprehend racism in all its obvious and insidious aspects in order to survive. Pushed into compassionate understanding of Black parents, he sought to forgive his own stepfather, whose brutality had caused his son to hate him. Through imagination to expression in language, his courage and brilliance sent his personal transformation into the public world.
I move back and forth between the interior world and the world in which my sons, now my granddaughter, as well as other children live—a world that includes pleasure and joy but also violence, racism, and injustice. Inspired by Baldwin and other African American writers, I try to imagine the interior lives and outside pressures on others, beginning with my sons but extending from them to encompass a broader world.
What do I want as a mother? Compassion for all the feelings this most profound, varied, and complex life experience gives rise to; for institutions, significant others, therapists, our children to listen to our words, not to interpret too quickly, not to reduce one thing to another.
After the blindness of whiteness is gone, the time of passing over begins. We must face American reality—from revising curriculum at all levels of education, to many aspects of social and economic policy, to matters of personal identity and choice. There is no easy escape from racism or racist history, but skin of various shades of brown is still only skin of various shades of brown. Imagine the grace of that ordinary enlightenment ending the great evil of color and culture remade into race and class.
Into the beautiful complexities of our identities, history sears like a knife. And white Americans must be told that Black Lives Matter, a radical rallying cry and a lamentation that such words must be said at all. ■
Jane Lazarre’s works include the novels Inheritance, Some Place Quite Unknown, and Worlds Beyond My Control, and the memoirs The Mother Knot and The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter (Spanish language editions by Las Afueras of Barcelona) and Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons. Two recent essays on race in America are “Once White in America” (TomDispatch) and “Where Do They Keep the White People” (TruthOut, ROOM 2.17). An essay on the work of Tillie Olsen recently appeared in Lilith. Her collection of poems, Breaking Light (Hamilton Stone Editions), is forthcoming. She serves on the board of directors of the Brotherhood Sister Sol, a social justice youth development nonprofit organization in Harlem, New York.
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