Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a beautiful black boy coming of age in a dreadfully under-resourced section of Miami. As with any great work of art, it’s the tiniest details that reveal the most — the inflection of a phrase, the subtlety of a glance, the seconds of silence. Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, with cinematography so lush, the balmy humidity of south Florida oozes off the screen, Moonlight is filled with moments like this. It happens when young Chiron avoids eye contact with a drug dealer during their first encounter, and again when Chiron welcomes an unexpected friendship on the soccer field with clear hesitation. You can see it every time Chiron flinches at his mother, is high on crack and disappointment, and in the need that remains in the shadows of his eyes. It happens when his mother makes Chiron read books instead of watching TV. “Find something for you to read,” she says.
The first time I saw Moonlight, these small revelations of humanity disarmed me. I felt exposed, and had to turn away from the screen. How did the filmmakers know, I wondered, that growing up black could be so contoured with dark peril, so layered with pure, sweet joy? That yes, absolutely, a drug dealer could be a respite, a much needed stand-in for a father? I realized its novelty is due in large part to the sheer, sad fact that it is rare to see black characters coming of age on screen. Two thirds of the movie is dedicated to Chiron’s childhood and adolescence; we see his intelligence and sensitivity unfurl, retreat, and finally unfurl again.
Black families have been so pathologized in the American imagination it can be easy to think of black parents and children only in stereotypical ways. We have the 1964 study The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, written by Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to thank for that, in part; a study which called black families “highly unstable” and blamed female heads of households for the instability. The report introduced terminology like “broken home” to the public, and to its credit, acknowledged that the legacy of slavery had a hand in the crisis. But the language of pathology has endured for decades — even President Obama bemoaned “absent fathers” in many speeches during his time in office. This narrative has always been woefully inadequate. It has never told the full story of what I know about black love, of black family life.
In the midst of the peril in our communities, there has long been a deep and abiding concern for the well-being of black children. You can hear it in the classics of soul music like Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely, Nina Simone’s Young, Gifted, and Black, Donny Hathaway’s, Little Ghetto Boy. There is affirmation in these lyrics, and care, and the community, a whole, spirited thing, always, always picking up the slack.
I grew up in the urban south and my own parents were pained by the vicissitudes of black survival: how to pay for this or that, how to make sure I had a Christmas, how to get me into a decent school. With all of the stress, it sometimes wasn’t easy to tell that my mother adored me. How do you learn to shower a child with unadulterated affection under the constant threat of racial terror? My grandparents had been sharecroppers, a mere generation removed from chattel slavery, when children did not lawfully belong to their own families. The truth is that loving black children has always been a fraught and scary thing — but it has also always been an imperative.
This reading list is inspired by my own life and choices — it’s a product of my own reckoning. If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve been ambivalent about having children. After years of working to make a career, the desire to become a mother hit me hard at 29. Still, in the years that followed, I chose partners that didn’t entirely make sense. I always knew somewhere in the back of my mind that those relationships would never materialize into the kind of situation where I’d be comfortable raising my very own black child. Now, at 36, as my fertility winds down, I feel an urgency and a fear in equal parts. I know that I have many good things to teach a little person who comes through me. I am confident that I could make a magical life for us, that my extended family would laugh and cry with me and support us to no end.
Still, I wonder, will I be woman enough to protect this child from the world? To teach her every day that she matters, when our social structures are still set up to deny that very thing? Can I protect her from what haunts us, from what haunts me?
I admire these six writers because they grapple with this history, with all of that fear, and take the plunge anyway, daring to love their families, daring to attempt an intergenerational dialogue that is ripe for healing. They give me hope that maybe, despite my own brokenness, despite the brokenness of our society, perhaps I, too, can stitch together a life that supports a healthy and happy black child.
1. “Beyoncé is Not The Magical Negro Mammy”
(Denene Millner, NPR Code Switch, February 2017)
After Beyoncé’s stunning performances at the 2017 Grammy Awards, Millner takes on the toxic depictions of black motherhood throughout time, and applauds the performer for reimagining them.
Our reverence for the miracle of pregnancy, the gift of motherhood and the divinity of life is as old as time: Ancient West African religions include deities like Osun, the Yoruba river goddess of love, beauty, prosperity and fertility; and Yemoja, the African goddess of the ocean and the patron deity of pregnant women. Both are considered sacred — worshipped for their ability to bless believers with babies. Surely, Africans brought those beliefs with them through the Middle Passage and, in their own way, even amid the force-feeding of Christianity to the enslaved on American shores, worshipped the power of those deities, who today enjoy a growing resurgence among young people of the diaspora reconnecting with the beliefs and practices of the Yoruba religion. Indeed, Osun was one of the deities Beyoncé channeled in her Grammy performance, as evidenced by her gold headpiece and floating yellow robe, mimicry of artistic representations of Osun.
In other words, we been wanting, and loving on, our children. And collectively, like moms of any other culture, background or race, we are fine mothers.
2. “Coming of Age in the Time of the Hoodie”
(Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Guernica, by arrangement with AGNI Online, June 2015)
Ladipo Manyika — who grew up in Nigeria, where blackness was a given — grapples with raising a black son in racialized America, trying to strike a balance between, as she calls it, “mindfulness” of the trauma, while not giving in to the despair of it.
3. “Am I Going to Have Another Baby?” (Carla Bruce-Eddings, New York Magazine, April 2017)
Bruce-Eddings wrestles with the fear of adding a second child to her family in the wake of President Trump’s election.
4. “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City” (Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times, June 2016)
Hannah-Jones’ sprawling piece tackles gentrification, school desegregation, and the pull of private schools in New York City.
In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers. Part of what makes those schools desirable to white parents, aside from the academics, is that they have some students of color, but not too many. This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city’s black and Latino children.
5. “Hey Mama” (Kiese Laymon, Guernica, March 2014)
Novelist and essayist Kiese Laymon and his mother talk about the south, black life and death, and the politics of respectability.
So how can you still believe people are basically good?
What’s the alternative, Kie?
The alternative is to accept that white supremacy and patriarchy don’t want us to ritualize the work of loving each other, which means white supremacy and patriarchy literally want us dead. We ain’t dead yet. We ain’t even got good at really loving each other and we still ain’t dead yet. So we just have to get better at the hard work of loving each other. That means loving at home, loving policy, loving institutions, loving economically, all that. Wait, would you raise a girl or boy in Mississippi or the South if you could do it again?
If I had to raise a child now — no matter the gender — I would probably not choose Mississippi. There’s so much love and history of black excellence in our state, but the state’s structural commitment to black death is unparallelled.
6. “My Father and I Both Chose HBCUs, But Not For the Same Reason” (Frederick McKindra, Buzzfeed, March 2017)
McKindra takes a road trip with his father to his alma mater, the historically black University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and complicates the conversation about HBCUs.