She is in a cloche hat and chunk heels, one strap across each ankle, her calf-length dress all lavender fringes and lace. Defly, she waggles her legs in ways that make the guests all laugh until they forget how hard it is here, to be black and act citified. The flat has gone hazy with smoke; its wood floors scuff and rumble under those who’ve chosen to dance.
A quarter earned everyone their entrance, but contraband is fifty cent a cup. When the air grows warm and dense with corn-liquored breath, she counts the contents of her can. There is rent enough for three months.
You do not worry, in 1926, whether she’ll make it. You needn’t wonder what she’s working toward. Wit and resourcefulness go far here, and here, her sand-and-copper hair, glittery eyes, and throaty laugh can insulate her. White benefactors have not yet taken to flinging themselves from the rooftops of neighborhood Savings and Loans.
Ten years later, though, she would be uniformed, her smock itchy with starch and the color of storm clouds. At seventeen, she’d be languishing as a maid, lamenting that the renaissance she’d hoped to age into had waned without much warning. Even the white folks were hungry — and the ones who employed her were keeping their crusts. She would be six feet tall and underweight, a dancer but only when everyone else was away from the rooming house where she could barely afford her fees. Her landlady would knock nightly, demanding the two weeks rent she’s owed. Somehow the girl, weary-voiced and hair rollered, is able to charm her with solemn promises, down payments, conspiratorial grins. Her resourcefulness is still intact; her wit is a bit worn. Here, in the 1930s, she has to hide more of who she is.
Your hopes are higher when you find her in the ‘40s. It’s wartime and, because she’s used to working, because domesticity has always been a gig rather than her life’s goal, because she believes that our men have been forced into under-employment and marrying one would be akin to taking a second mortgage when she hardly qualifies for a first, she joins the war effort, paints fighter jets, develops a fixation on flight, flits to Paris for a pilot’s license. But there, she meets a dapper soldier whose elegance and acumen for aviation rivals only her own, and she marries him, because the man who disproves what you believe about men is a flight all his own.
She would begin the ’60s bouffanted, sneaking into the main floors of movie theaters for better glimpses at Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. Danger would feel like something to court; she barely trembles at risk, barely flinches at the baring of billy clubs. On the theater’s first level, she is, of course, not wild enough to actually sit, but she is wily enough to become a shadow puppet. Her own silhouette flashing on the walls like she’s part of the moving pictures. Your daughter enjoys small subversions. She understands the keenest of all her injustices as balconies banishments and missing-paged schoolbooks. She is always reading, always watching. She knows when a law is worth breaking.
In the ’70s, she wouldn’t go in for white women’s feminism. She would be wary of connecting her politics to her underthings, her level of liberation to her libido. Free love cost black women too much, and she has always been a conservative spender. But she would write down dirges that render men and women rail straight in seats. Her hair is a perfectly rounded arc, meant to draw the eye to her face. Audiences would find many things there, but most all an otherworldliness. Pinned as they’d be to the melodies, they would miss what is true about artists: we are not after equity so much as immortality.
In the ’80s, her first car is a Delorean. Her first “I’m grown” haircut is asymmetrical. She does not sweat the technique, survives Reaganomics, mourns the death of Optimus Prime, shares your love of the film adaptation of Annie. There is little political about her, though she does sense the danger — new drugs and old policies — skulking just outside her periphery. As a black girl in a black town, where black people are not just allowed but expected to be middle class, her world — and her possibilities — feel open. Everyone around her is intent on becoming a Cosby.
The ’90s are the last decade you can bring yourself to imagine her. They were the last years you yourself felt safe. It was a false safety, you know this now, but she wouldn’t have known it then, not with her gele and her incense and her glove compartment full of De La and Tribe Called Quest CDs. Her college quad still would’ve felt like sacred ground whenever she walked it, and earning her degree — likely in fine or liberal arts — would not yet have felt like a toil in futility. You do not want to think of her after 1996, finding her first, real love in a chat rooms, entering the aughts importing all the wonders of breathable, tangible analog life into the slender flip phone in her palm, and finding herself, by 2009, constantly wondering if there is anything truly left to say, any new terrain to discover.
You certainly do not want her here, in the last quarter of 2013, where no one seems to value old Nigerian poets till they are gunned down in malls and everyone clings to the inevitability of mass shootings, when with empathy and openness, advocacy, medication, and legislative reform, so many of these tragedies could, in fact, be prevented. You do not want her watching her government give up on its citizens, in part to spite the black president whose election they still deeply resent. Were it up to you, you would will her to other times, before we knew what was to come for post-segregation black America. You would teleport her to an era where our fantasies of a free future were a clean and powerful fuel.
We are cynical now in ways that we can only be because we have reached an end. This is an “Are you happy now?” era of blackness, where even some of our own believe we’ve already overcome, where when we continue to fight, we are considered delusional: shadow boxers on crowded and bustling streets, hollerers in an online echo chamber. And I would rather you lived in a time before this technological revolution, before its bells and its whistles had built us a callus against the suffering beyond our shores (and the much of the heartache within our own borders) by reducing it all to banner ads and think pieces we can simply click away and forget.
I am afraid for us and our melting glaciers and the crumbling cliff’s edge toward which everyone is being pushed, the pit at its bottom rapidly filling with impoverished, unemployable bodies. We are becoming a nation that records and airs its citizens, burning their bodies and bursting through government barricades, begging for treatment and shelter and mental health care as its Congress bloats on self-interest, glories in its myopia, surfeits on its uninterrupted salaries, lifts food from the mouths of babies.
As your mother, it my job to imagine an improved elsewhere. I am supposed to chart a course that prepares you to survive even the bleakest of fates. But I have never myself imagined that I was see, so early as 33, as bleak a state as this. Perhaps we will recover; we have before. But it has become, for the first time in my experience here, quite possible that we won’t. This, dear child, is not hyperbole.
If you are alive on the other side, if we can regenerate everything we’ve destroyed, remember. Mankind may be meant to squander all its chances, every generation becoming more adept at readying itself to die off. But while we yet remain, we must live with an intent to leave the best of ourselves behind. We do this so that when future mothers begin to wonder when the most auspicious moments would’ve been for their children to be born, our now can belong to their narrative. We are knots for them to hold, touchstones on a seemingly endless stretch toward eternity. And that will always mean making the best of what is bleakest, believing that the idea of better will never be a thing of the past.