Beyond Baby Mamas: Conversations with Single Mothers of Color, Current Events, Fashion & Beauty, Natural Hair, Nonfiction, Parenting, Pop Culture

What Solange’s Remarriage Means to Never-Married Single-Mother Me.

 

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1. “Carefree” is a crossroads, the center of four paths: parent and lover, artist and merchant. You dance in the dirt with hydrangea in your hair and you are wild when you’re expected to be tame. This is where people see you, where sun rays collect in the gold of your skin, so that even in the dark you’ll be swathed in phosphorescent spotlight. And dark it will be when you leave here and venture down each of the roads, where destinations are dim and the underbrush, unwieldy.

The road where you mother: The gravel cuts your feet as you carry your sons and your daughters.

The road you create: You dig until your fingertips bleed for art that feels rich and raw, as untapped as underground oil.

The road that may lead you to love: This is the longest most dubious walk and even when you’ll want to travel it solo, you will not often be alone. Here, you mustn’t forget that your child will become your lover’s cargo. He must carry him as carefully as you do. He must accept that when he joins you on the path where you parent, his own feet will also be cut.

You should watch what you are paving. Turn back to the clearing as soon as you can; your love and your art and your mothering find their greatest sustenance and purest ambition there.

You should marry at the crossroads, where you child and your art and your industry swirl up from the earth and make a sparkling white column of dust. Bask in how high it rises and in the way it all settles again.

2. Everything is inspiration, and when you are working toward something that inspires you, the sweat of your brow is someone’s aphrodisiac. God bless a working mother. God bless the passionate woman.

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3. And sometimes your sister’s sacrifices earn you your freedom. Her years of hiding under an industry’s expectations and artifice allow you to be your truest self out in the open. Then, you coax her authenticity out from the shadows in return. When the world demands your inferiority and calls you a mere facsimile of sun, you keep your light and refuse to be eclipsed.

4. Other lives simply aren’t enviable.

5. We unmarried mothers who have been so afraid have been told to be afraid. We were told we wouldn’t find love, or that the love we might attract would not be worth finding. We were told that missteps preclude forward motion. But there is no shame in having lived through a moment unwisely. Neither mothering after divorce nor having had no husband at all is cause for resignation or shame. The demise of our difficult relationships are no cause to deny ourselves new love.

6. No decision a black mother makes will diminish the Maatkare markers in her blood. We are queens, even us, be we ever so bowed or broken or humbled. We are regal — whether burdened with low-income or beset with incomparable wealth. We are regal when we choose to be, and the choice is all that matters.

Image by Rog Walker

7. Hair, in its natural state, is a halo. But you are well within your rights not to behave as angelically as you appear.

8. Hurt cannot be hidden. It will seep out in the notes and on the page, will be seen in the set of your jaw on the subway. So bare it bravely in the public square, where someone well-equipped to soothe you may see it.

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9. When you are young and you’ve found a boy your age and whatever combusts between you feels like a kind of love, it is fine for that love not last. Even if it results in a pregnancy, even when the baby propels you both toward the altar, it is okay to flee. Marriage borne mostly of obligation flings you forward in ways that will disappoint you; the union itself is a stop so short of what you’d imagined for adult life to be that it may be best to run before it feels far too late. Keep running, with your child’s hand in yours, toward hope, toward extended family, toward your older wiser self, toward the kind of love that acts as a reincarnation.

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10. Single mothers who wish to marry greatly benefit from seeing other single mothers marry. Wearing white and frolicking, with gold bands ‘round their wrists, reveling with the same village that’s helped to raise their children, enacting intimate, in-joking customs as nontraditional as their their premarital lives, dancing silly choreography with their children, who appear quite secure and supportive and happy. It happens, the nuptials seem to testify. It happens far more often than we’re told to believe. It can happen for you.

 

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Appearances and Publications, Nonfiction, Parenting, Pop Culture, Resisting Motherhood

Busyness, Business, Birthday, Buzzfeed.

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I haven’t been able to blog here in over a month and I miss it. I didn’t want anyone who follows me here to believe I’ve abandoned this space. It’s my sanctum. But I’ve had the very good problem of being swamped with paid writing work — in so much that some of the things I might’ve written here have been placed — or will be placed — at very cool websites.

Writing on deadline and being increasingly line-edited by people committed to making the work better than I can make it on my own (disjointed as my trains of thought have become with the noise of my toddler, the relocation of her dad to town, after years living on the other side of the country, and the demands of raising a child while working a day job from home) has been rewarding and humbling.

October was a rough month for me. My life felt racked with big, disconcerting change and I wasn’t sure how to adjust to any of it. I’m still figuring that out, but I’ve had experience. I have to remind myself that, in the years since my daughter was born, I’ve transitioned out of adjunct college instruction, moved from Michigan to Maryland, navigated the IEP and pediatric audiological processes with my daughter, written for various national publications, started an online community for single parents of color, and scored a fellowship in social media community engagement. I’m constantly criticizing myself for not being “further along” in my career, but sometimes, we’ve just got to stop and assess the ground we’ve already gained. In fact, if we don’t take the time to do that, we’ll reach a point where it’s difficult to know what’s left to conquer and which direction to turn in order to pursue any of it.

In less than a week, I’ll turn 35 — and it’s a good age, a good time. I’m not at all where I envisioned myself, when I was younger and strained to imagine what it would feel like to be just five years shy of 40. But I’m making my way and it’s been an incredible trip. The past month in particular has been teaching me things I’ve actively avoided learning:

  1. Forgiveness from afar looks different than forgiveness up close. And sometimes you think you’re over things, simply because you’ve enjoyed a great deal of physical distance from them. But there’s always a closing of that distance. There’s always a day of reckoning.
  2. I’m not my best self when I’m afraid. And it’s incredible how quickly and drastically fear can make you regress.
  3. It’s an honor to be receiving an increased number of requests to write. But it’s also okay to decline those requests when I’m overextended or just going through something that’ll compromise the quality (or punctuality) of the work. Not everything is about “writing through it,” and you don’t always have to push yourself. Or, I don’t, at least. I shouldn’t speak for anyone else there.
  4. If you sense that you’re plateauing, you probably are. Take on assignments that won’t be such cakewalks for you. (For me, that’s meant scaling back my unfiltered, unedited blogging here and letting my words go under other writers’/editors’ scalpels. It’s changing the way I compose and making me less certain of where a piece is going — which can be pretty thrilling (if also terrifying and debilitating).
  5. At some point, it can’t hurt to find yourself a therapist. I’ve never had one; finding one will probably be my birthday gift to myself. There are things I need to work on in the next five years that aren’t career-specific or even particularly measurable — social and emotional things — that I don’t think I can handle anymore without help from an objective outside party.

My performance of adulthood has sharpened in my 30s. Like Nicole Richie is saying in the gifs above, I’m finally ready to declare myself a grown-up. Mostly. I’m definitely still living like a glorified commuter student in a lot of ways. And that’s okay. Mostly. There’s no one way to live, no single set of social markers that we have to reach in order to declare ourselves mature or well-adjusted or highly-functioning. We just have to keep going.

So I plan to greet my next year of life, incomparable gift that it is, with contentment.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been published in Buzzfeed. Twice. Here, I’m talking about mothering and empathy. And here, I’m talking about Bill Cosby’s pre-Huxtable persona and how it leaves me feeling less shock and betrayal about the “good” doctor’s alleged bad deeds.

Also look out for a short piece on The Hurston-Wright Foundation I’ve penned for the Jan/Feb ’15 issue of Poets & Writers, a piece in The Guardian (hopefully; I’ll edit to embed a link when/if that goes live), and a long feature on black fatherhood in Colorlines, scheduled for publication in the upcoming week.

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Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race

Writing is a Brawl: Thoughts on Another Week at WaPo.

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I am not especially tough. I think most people who know me would be able to confirm this. My skin is gold-leaf thin, and this is especially true after I’ve written. You will find me at my most vulnerable on the day that something I’ve penned has been published. It doesn’t matter where; this is true whether I’m in control of the posting and it’s seen by a few hundred people, or if an editor at a national publication is involved and the post is seen by several thousands.

I am old enough to remember a time before the internet, when writing was far more romantic to me than it is now and when writers had a few insular hours or days or even months before reviews of their work began to trickle in. A letter to the editor or an op-ed or a missive to the author would travel through a postal cycle or onto the desks of various news staffers before it reached the eyes (and the ego) of the writer herself. Those were pleasant times — or they seemed to be, anyway. Some would argue that the time between publication and response, pre-internet, felt tortuously interminable. I think I would’ve appreciated the breathing room. Immediacy has obliterated the insulation of the writer’s ego, and I’m still mourning that loss. But the more frequently my work sees the light of day, the closer I get to accepting things as they are.

For the second time this year, Alyssa Rosenberg has generously shared her space at her Washington Post blog, Act Four, with me. This go-round, she did so while she traveled to Toronto for the city’s International Film Festival (TIFF). (Be sure to check out her coverage, now that she’s returned!) I wrote six posts in total: Thursday and Friday of last week, Monday through Wednesday of this one. Writing daily for a Washington Post blog was as exhilarating now as it was back in May.

But if I told you that I approached each day with confidence, if I claimed that I didn’t feel anxiety at dusk every day worrying over what to write and how to frame it and how it would be received and how frighteningly possible it was that I was on the absolute wrong side of an issue, I’d be telling you the boldest-face lie there is. I’d be talking about someone other than my quietly neurotic self.

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no crying

For writers like me, who struggle with the cultural disintegration of a feedback buffer, there are side effects to writing at a breakneck pace for a broad audience. The first among them is, of course, the comments section paranoia. I learned a few years ago to fastidiously avoid those unless I’m asked not to and then, only to spend as much time on them as I comfortably can without crying. The second is staggering self-doubt, which — I assure you — will annoy everyone within a mile radius when you’re on daily assignment. The third is an inability to sleep. The fourth is an uncanny aptitude for focusing on the three critical statements, rather than the 30 favorable ones. This last also manifests as talking myself out of great comments by convincing myself that 2/3 of that feedback is from people I know, people who love me, people who know just how little it takes for me to wither or chafe.

If you regularly experience any of these effects, I’ll let you in on a little life-hack. At 1 am, when you’ve reached delirium and you’re still pounding keys on what seems to be incoherent, remember: there is no time. The only minutes you have to spare are for sentences, not self-questioning. And when you wake up again at 5:30 am to re-read what you wrote at 1, you’ll realize you’ve developed an immunity to iocane powder. (Word to the Dread Pirate Westley.) Honor the absence of idle time and all that clutter casts itself aside. Head down, keep typing. That sound of your fingers flying across the keyboard amplifies, like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. Eventually, you surrender to it.

Is that enough? Will you be cured? Are your insecurities behind you? Man, nah. Your insecurities will always be nipping. Sometimes, they will clamp down and rip themselves a good chunk of flesh. I have yet to learn how to play off that limp, to walk a straight line when I’m wounded. This is what terrifies me: the more I’m read, the more often I’m wounded — and if I want this life, this daily-published life, I better learn quick how to self-suture.

There is nothing as exhilarating for me as writing. A close second is being widely read and well-received. I am trying to reconcile that some people will always think my purple prose sucks and that others still will almost always disagree with my central claims. Not everyone thinks that I’m good at this. I am working hard to become that most feared kind of woman: the one who does not require validation. But this, I suspect, will take as many years as I have left — and I do not know, having tasted validation, if it is a thing I could ever learn to eschew.

Here is another thing I’ve learned: publication is petrifying for the conflict-averse, but to write is to kick up dust and to beg for a brawl. To write is to wait for the big kid after school, with eggers-on encircling. You will want someone to root for you. You will want someone’s help with the wounds.

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During this guest-blogging run, I think I gave as good as I got. I took more risks, made more leaps, tried to make interesting intellectual connections. I tried, as is the wont of Rebecca Traister, by way of Amy Poehler, not to f—ing care if you liked it. I’m enclosing all the links, in case you want to read them to see for yourself if you’d declare me this round’s winner or consider the whole thing a draw:

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Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture

A Musing on Misogyny and a Guest-Blogging Stint.

Follow your own hand gestures, dude.

Follow your own hand gestures, dude.

As promised, here’s another quick update with another writing-related announcement. Before I get to that, I wanted to point to this piece I published this morning at Medium about CeeLo Green and whatever terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad mess is going on with him right now. There are a few reasons I didn’t publish or cross-post it here, but I’d love it if you went there and read it. If you do, please feel free to leave a comment here, letting me know what you think. Here’s an excerpt:

The truth is: all the music men will disappoint us. They’ll make exceedingly wack albums or be rude and dismissive in person. They’ll abandon art for commerce or go into hiding. They’ll catch the most absurd, unsettling cases. You’ll live. Sometimes, if you’re a die-hard fan, you’ll give them the widest berth, remembering the good album, the great guest verse, all that as-yet-unrealized promise.

But a time may come, as that artist approaches midlife, when you realize he has let the ugliest parts of himself go unchecked. He has shirked rehab, reason, or the idea of reckoning. And if he’s anything like CeeLo, nothing he’s ever done will disgust you and chill you clear to the bone like knowing that despite your patience, despite his vast exposure to the extravagance and cruelty in each corner of the world, despite the eventual responsibilities to the next generation that come with advancing age, your favorite music men could hit 40 still believing and imposing as rule of law that respect, tenderness, decency and even acknowledgment of women’s humanness is some sort of meritocracy, individually earned, publicly debatable.

The other news is a little bigger. If you’ve been visiting this blog for a while, you may recall that I guest-blogged for Alyssa Rosenberg’s Washington Post page, ‘Act Four,’ for a week back in May. (It was big. I’m talking major milestone.) Well, I’m back on tomorrow for another week, as Alyssa screens films at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Since this is my personal blog, I’m going to let you all in on a not-so-secret truth: this work — this incredible, high-profile, quickly turned-around work — is no less scary for me this time than it was the first time I did it. Part of that is that Alyssa is pretty brilliant and she makes the most interesting connections between histories, events, and media — and she does it daily. I don’t want to bore or disappoint her loyal readers. Part of it is that I don’t often know what I’m going to write from day to day — and the better part of a day may go by without an idea coming to me. The third part is that my daughter’s embarking on her full days of pre-K (9-11:45am), starting tomorrow, and I’m her drop-off/pick-up person. And I also have another work-from-home job, so you know. Life’s hectic. The fourth part is just your run-of-the-mill writerly nerves and doubt.

To calm myself, I am thinking of Langston Hughes and his poem, “Theme for English B.” When I was in high school, it was one of my favorite things to revisit — and I’m coming back to it now, like a student timidly knocks on the door of her mentor, days before her thesis is due. I won’t reproduce the entire poem here, only the part that I love most (made all the more relevant by the lone comment left on Alyssa’s kind re-introduction post):

Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.

Word, Langston. Word.

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Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race

The Girl Who Pitches Hope.

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The little girl is leek-long. Her eyes are hazel, her gaze intense — that is, till she’s off the mound. Then, her body melts upon missing a catch or swinging at air or hitting a foul. She is all early adolescent angst when she isn’t “on,” and her eyes are suddenly more like lakes than stones. I am watching her and recalling what it is to be thirteen and sure about some things. I am watching her and recognizing how much has already changed — for her and for the world she is set to inherit. I am listening to her quick pitch slice through wind and remembering how fleeting everything is.

This week, Mo’Ne Davis became the first Little League player to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. She is the 18th girl ever to play in the Little League World Series and the first to ever pitch a shut-out there. What too few reports of her prowess are mentioning is that she is also the first black girl to do any of it. That matters as much today as it did in the 1940s.

It matters because, while it is sweet that she is a role model for all little girls and an emblem for the mainstream “Throw Like a Girl” movement, she is a particular fruition for the late Toni Stone, one of the only three women allowed to play in the Negro Leagues. She is walking justice — an excelsior in motion — for Mamie (Peanut) Johnson, the only of the three who was a pitcher, the only of the three alive to witness Mo’Ne’s meteoric rise. It all matters because the girl’s infiltration of a mostly white, largely male, and predominantly middle-class space provides specific inspiration to black girls growing up in communities where this kind of diamond has never been presented as a credible aspiration.

As a black woman, this August has been one of the most wearying months of my life, and I do not believe I speak only for myself. Black women spend every day outrunning the hounds of our history,  but in this week — in these past 12 days — I’ve felt like they have caught me. I feel those hounds’ incisors at my ankles and when I open my mouth to yell, I hear the cries of four little girls in a Birmingham church. I hear a pregnant Diane Nash calling out from a prison cell. I hear Myrlie finding Medgar in the driveway.

And then, from some far-off place, I also hear delight: a mother muffling the full range of her exuberance in a mostly-white crowd of 30,000. She is yelling for her child who is striking out boy after boy on a baseball field. Four. Five. Six. And this is far from the first time. She doesn’t want her daughter hurt. Or tainted or entirely transformed by her newfound notice. But she is proud — vocally proud, in a way black mothers haven’t always had the luxury to be. She is proud and she wants the ancestors to hear it. She wants the ancestors who were afraid to boast about their children, lest they be sold off or dragged away in the night, to know that, though it may seem so this month, they did not die in vain. All the children are not dying. Some are soaring. Some, like Mo’Ne’s teammate Zion Spearman, have held onto their beautiful smiles even as manhood looms large and threatens to steal the unabashed glee that Little League seems to prolong. And not so far away, there are grown black men feverishly patrolling and penning and processing evidence. Not so far away, there are grown black women returning to classrooms and opening their arms to the scarred and traumatized children. There is always something left to recover. There is always a girl or boy who comes bearing enough joy to replenish all that’s been depleted.

Zion Spearman, smiling.

Zion Spearman, smiling.

Baseball isn’t even her sport. By college she wants to be a basketball player at UConn. I can already see her there, of course. She is as still long as a leek, full of stony resolve on the court and just as vulnerable on a bench as she was in a bullpen. She plays to keep ahead of her own hounds. She plays as though she’s never been a legend. And darlings, let me tell you: on some dark future days, watching her is the only thing that keeps communities going. On some dark future days, she looks like purest hope we have.

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Nonfiction, Pop Culture

How to Spend 9 Years Without the Love of Your Life (A Tribute to Ruby Dee).

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Live to be 91. This is the hearty number of years he would’ve wished for you, even if it meant that nine of them would be lived without him. He will know how to wait. Try to remember a time before him. You were just as whole — which seems impossible to fathom, given how full you felt with him near, but it’s true. If you were not, he would not have sought you, found the echoing hollow near your neck and whispered revolution behind the first of many theater curtains. You were always fully his and fully your own. This is true, even now that he’s gone.

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Be the matinee idol next door, embodying housewives and grandmothers, Shakespearean shrews and slave women, while coming home to a husband who is writing you lines while you cook him dinner. You are rarely cast as the tragic beauty, nor the cleavage-baring vamp. You do not purr in leotards, are no dancing darling dashing off to the cabarets of France. But a stagecoach is as essential as a rollercoaster. We need long and stable passage more than the adrenaline thrill of a route that ends too soon. This has been why you are so beloved; you are approachable as our own matriarchs, as accessible as every brilliant woman any man worth his salt has been wise and lucky enough to adore.

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Laugh at the young folks idealizing your love, wondering aloud how you can possibly go on. Oh, the nights! How long and cold they must seem without the heft of a 57-year love on the other side of the bed! They do not know it all. Even the most glorious partners snore or break wind or talk about someone else they’re romancing in their sleep. And these are not the only nights you’ve slept alone. Besides, don’t these young ones know that you witnessed and weathered and railed against worse horrors together than the inevitable ache of Death willing you apart?

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Keep going because he left you marching orders. Look at the children and find him; he is right there, in the ardor of those eyes, in the firmness of their embrace, in their booming laughter. Not every widow and widower is afforded such auspice. Some are wrenched from one another without the least bit of warning. Some are left wondering what long lives would’ve wrought. You are living well and with no end of grace, in part for them.

In brief, be a bit like Ruby Dee: a warrior in your own right, who can conjure the besotted gaze of a newlywed as easily as the stern and steely glare of a no-nonsense elder; an actress, as unwilling to neatly fold away her hurt as to primly pretend she hasn’t dived a thousand leagues’ depth into passion. It all preserves you, loss and love, when you let it. And if you are open-handed, the balm of it protects everyone else you touch.

Then one day, when you are ready and the Good Lord wills, just go to him, like you always have, willing and aimed toward the next great adventure.

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Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it. ― Toni Morrison, Jazz

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Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race

Under the Awnings of Powerful White Men: Thoughts on Amma Asante’s ‘Belle.’

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay in 'Belle.'

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay in ‘Belle.’

“I show up on TV because I have the cover of a powerful white man.” – Melissa Harris-Perry, The New School, Black Female Voices series, November 9, 2013

True favor isn’t often courted. It is bestowed by condition or order of birth; it stems from long observation, from arbitrary affinity. It is built from the bestower’s personal ordination or, just as likely, from sheer auspice.

If you have to curry it, the favor will be fleeting. If you must work hard to retain it, you will find yourself in a position most precarious: the circle within which you mingle has an imperceptible crack, and you will be all too aware that you are one quip from slipping through it.

In Amma Asante’s gorgeous film, Belle, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay is a favored niece of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Dido was also biracial, her father a navy admiral who left her in Murray’s care, following her enslaved mother’s death in the 1760s.

The film explores this central conceit — that it is favor which saves Dido from a life of enslavement, favor that elevates her above conditions of servitude within the Murray manse. Belle makes a point of asserting that the only reason Dido is left with the Murrays is because of her father’s blood. Much is made of her legal right to residence in the household. But we know what tenuous claims (if any) white blood afforded blacks during the 18th century. If biracial children were to be free at all, it was solely at their white parent’s behest.

Favor, then, was as much a requisite for freedom as moral, legal or genetic imperative.

When Belle arrives at the house as a girl, her first exchange with Murray establishes that he finds her “clever.” They are looking at paintings of their family in the halls of his vast estate (paintings which will be a recurring theme, as the film is based on a real rendering of Dido and her white cousin, Elizabeth, with whom she was raised). In fact, Dido’s cleverness is noted by all the white men she meets.

Tom Wilkinson plays Dido's great-uncle, William Murray, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

Tom Wilkinson plays Dido’s great-uncle, William Murray, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

In the Austen tradition after which Belle seems patterned,  a woman’s cleverness is a commodity. It aids within a larger social system meant to undermine and underestimate women. In tales like these, men are always a bit surprised when women are clever. We can tell the good fathers and brothers and suitors from the despicable ones when they do not scoff at or feel threatened by a woman’s quick wit, talent or intellect.

Dido has three such good men near her. First her father, who’s only seen briefly, plucking her from the slums and insisting she is loved. He is so effusive in favoring her, it’s tempting for viewers to doubt him. Instead, his adoring tone sets up what will come for Dido: a charmed life in which her uncle and an eventual abolitionist suitor, John Davinier, both protect and praise her with the same fervor.

Sam Reid plays one of Belle's suitors, John Davinier.

Sam Reid plays one of Belle’s suitors, John Davinier.

I loved Belle. I loved its delicate treatment of race. We aren’t often offered portraits of 18th century life for blacks who aren’t enslaved. We aren’t often offered an onscreen reprieve from the brutality marking the era.

But this gentility is also troublesome. Dido is sheltered enough that she is unaware of the slave ship insurance case her uncle in the process of deciding until Mr. Davinier tells her. She has to plead with him to do so.

Unlike her uncle, Mr. Davinier expects Dido to be more “in touch with her blackness,” more vocal about it and less concerned with the frivolities of upper class life. (That expectation is compounded by his initial resentment that Dido’s station of birth is higher than his own.)

Meeting Mr. Davinier does, in fact, lead to a racial awakening. We know that Dido has never felt fully integrated into the Murray household; she’s required to dine alone and only invited to certain functions. She is fully aware that it’s because she’s biracial, but she also expects a change in station. She is surprised when she is not permitted to court as openly as her white cousin does. She is surprised whenever inequity presents itself at home.

One gets the sense that, if Mr. Davinier had not arrived to provide Dido with broader racial context, she simply would not have had it. (Here, it’s worth noting that — at least for part of the film — there is one other black woman present: a free black maid named Mabel, whose only lines in the film are offering to help Dido comb her hair and protecting Dido from being caught sneaking out. If the two women had been permitted more screen time or a single private conversation, we likely would have had the film’s only Bechdel Test-passing scenes, and Dido’s context for race would not have been confined to such narrow white gazes.)

Bethan Mary-James is Mabel.

Bethan Mary-James is Mabel.

Aside from Victorian fantasy, Belle is also part cautionary tale. It warns us against a race-blind approach to transracial adoption. There is no sheltering black children from the atrocities they may face beyond the gates of an all-white household. And it’s foolhardy for both parent and child not to anticipate how large race will loom in a black child’s life — even when that child is favored.

Late in the film, William Murray asks Dido just exactly what it is she wants. He is resigned and weary, convinced he’s given her everything he possibly could. He’s right. He has. But providing her a personal insulation from racism hasn’t been enough.

Earlier this year, Melissa Harris-Perry found herself in trouble with transracial adoptive parents for hosting a segment that featured a photograph of Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandchild. A panelist quipped, “One of these things is not like the others” and Harris-Perry chuckled knowingly at the truth of it. Kieran Romney will be raised in an all-white household in conditions of great wealth, but he will not experience life like the rest of his family.

Perhaps it is easier to make that point in a 90-minute film than in a 5-minute TV segment. But here it is: the favor of powerful white men does not shield black children from the blight of racism, neither does “white blood” when it courses under black skin.

It’s a lesson every child of color living under the awnings of powerful white families must learn. Even within their crystalline castles, life for us won’t be no crystal stair.

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