Mother: What is a woman?
Child: A woman is… um… hmm…
It is a trick question. The definition will always differ, depending on the person being asked to provide it. You will define womanhood differently than I, for instance. It will mean something else by the time you become one than it meant almost 20 years ago, when I did. But I will still ask you this question often anyway. I will ask it, in part, because we are Black and this means that even though you are six, there are many adults — even some in positions of authority — who will begin insisting on your womanhood in just a few fleeting years. Depending on your height and when your curves come in to assert themselves, pressing upon all the previously flat and straight plains of your body, those adults may ogle you. They may reach for you on the street and curse at you as you run away. (While you are still a girl, always run away.) They may accuse you of something, then try convincing the judicial system to see adulthood in your still soft cheeks, your brace-bedecked teeth, the hair you’re still only allowed to straighten on special occasions. They did this to Catherine Jones in 1999. They tried to do it with Bresha Meadows just last year. You should know that some adults begin to treat at black girls like women as early as age 10 or 12 or 14. It has happened to other little black girls as early as 7 and 8. Countless ones, whose names we may never know, but whose disappearances Black mothers quite feel acutely as we look down into the faces of our own daughters and implore them, admonish them: Don’t be in no hurry. Take your time getting grown.
You must figure out for yourself what a woman is. You must never lose sight of yourself as the girl that you are and be certain that you are ready to molt girlhood when the time comes. It cannot come late enough for me. If I could, I would certainly postpone it. But it is not for me to decide. My prayer is that you will be the only person who will have a say in deciding it.
You did not speak a language I could clearly understand until the middle of your fourth year. Before that, when you spoke at all, you added -en suffixes to words where I would not have guessed they could belong. On your tongue, water became wah-den. Granny became Go-den. And for a while, without any reason I could decipher, you called Nana, your great-grandmother, Morning.
When you were two-and-a-half, I had you assessed. You weren’t talking much at all then. The women who came into our home with their folders and tote bags, jotting across their clipboard pages when you could complete a puzzle, scribbling furiously along their carbon triplicate forms when you could not, suggested that I take you to an audiologist. Within six months you were being fitted for hearing aids, with an estimated mild to moderate loss in both ears.
I believe that, the way that you hear greatly informs the way you interact with the world. It’s what led you to the language you developed. It’s what keeps you locked in to your vivid imagination, with its cast of unseen characters and its action that only plays inside your mind. And sometimes, I’ve felt that it’s kept me locked out. You have been attending school for nearly four years now but this is the first year when asking you what happened there is an action I can expect to be met with a descriptive, decipherable answer.
I have had to learn that you are on your own time. We have always been on a road where I have had to trust you to indicate when you are ready for us to pull over and ready for us to move on.
I think I am a better parent for it, at least I hope that I am. You are not a child who would benefit most from having my will imposed upon you. You are not a child whose ideas I want to mold so that they mimic mine. I am not even sure that, with you, such a task would be possible.
You did not have much time here before the core of American civilization found itself deeply compromised. You did not point to television screens and cry out, “There’s Obama!” until his very last year in office. Nana told you who he was. She made you practice saying his name. O. Bah. Ma. You seemed to like repeating it, seemed to relish the ease with which the vowels swept through your throat. Like speaking out was easy.
I know you will ask me when you are older and finally see photos of other children, hoisted upon their parents shoulders or tucked safely between chest and arm: Why didn’t we carry signs? Why didn’t we go picket injustice? Cry loud, spare not, wear pink. Cuss without blushing. Why didn’t we find ourselves in the company of all those other women? Washington is so close, after all. We could’ve.
It is impossible to know if you will ever be satisfied with my answer. I am still quite unsure of decisions like these, concerning you, myself.
In truth, it may have been better for you to go. Perhaps you would have understood, on a visceral or emotional level if not yet an intellectual one, that something is amiss with all the world, and now, what has long been so is finally affecting our centuries-insulated country in ways White people no longer feel safe ignoring. Women have volunteered to lead the charge of dissent because women have far more to immediately lose than men, now that this man and his cronies have assumed the national seat of power.
Maybe, at six, that would have been useful for you to intuit, if not yet truly know.
But if I may be entirely honest — and with you, this is ever my aim — I do not much feel like being a warrior. I want to remain the mother I’ve already fought so hard to become. And she is soft-edged, yielding, and kind. She spends her weekends wrapped in a hot pink Snuggie with her child, staving off her constant financial woes, silently keeping her existential inner conflict — about housing or untimely death or co-parenting or politics or the romance she sometimes pines for but has not yet found — in check. She frequently dissolves into giggles. She hugs hard and delivers smatterings of kisses to every inch of exposed skin. She is not carefree, neither is she careless. But she is about the business of preserving the sanctity of her domestic life. And for her, this is its own resistance. She remembers the Black women who fought in generations before her, who were forced to have children they did not want or plan, who were unknowingly sterilized or implanted with unregulated birth control without consent, or denied clean, safe, affordable housing for children they were shamed into delivering but could not afford to raise. I think of what they must have been fighting for — and it was the hope and the freedom my generation thought it had finally achieved in the eight years that the First Family was black and the Black mother in the White House declared herself a mother first and a freedom-fighting advocate second.
I am not yet finished pretending I can afford myself the same luxury. I, too, want to be the mother I have fashioned myself to be, first. I want to fold my activism into this existing model. For me, this means figuring out how best to support the other mothers who feel so far removed from the idea that a poster and a chant will reunite airport detainees or close the miles between them and their stranded, visa-less children. It means thinking of and praying for them in a somber and meditative space. It means writing and writing and writing, because for me, writing is more effective than marching at making my efforts feel less futile. I would rather teach you what’s at stake by explaining that your school, with its large percentage of students from immigrant families, is filled with classmates who are facing a far different set of challenges and odds than you.
But so far, I haven’t told you anything. Nana no longer beckons you to the television when the president begins to speak. She has not taught you to recognize him, has never encouraged you to utter his name. For now, I wish to keep it this way.
My wish for you is that you will stay right where you are, so often locked in, by your unique way of hearing, the vestiges of that language you invented when you were a toddler, the lingering barriers of communication only those who love and protect you can currently breach. At present, I believe you are safest there. And as in all things, I will look to you for my cues. You will tell me when you need to know more.
You will have so, so long to be a woman. And, for as long as men like this president and his mostly male team hold political sway, fighting for your basic rights — human, racial, gendered, reproductive — will be as disheartening as it is essential. If you are like me, you will grow weary of demanding what should have been yours by right of birth.
I am more than happy to do this for you. I will defend you, myself, and others in the ways I hope I can be most effective. As a woman, I know how important it is for a woman to lift her own voice. As your mother, I know how vital it is for your to find yours. I can imagine how much time it will take and how distinct it will sound. This is not a process I intend to rush. I suspect that there will be plenty left for you to fight, when your time has come; and I believe we will find ourselves in highly capable hands, however you choose to do so.