What It Means to Be a Black Mother in White America
Rebecca Carroll: “Most white people go straight to their
own sense of guilt.”
I was on my way to a final interview for a job as editor-in-chief of a magazine focused on independent film when I dropped a piece of unchewed gum on the subway platform. It was midday on a Friday in late August, and I was not about bullshit that day, self-serious as hell, with my arms crossed over my chest. I’d snapped out a piece of Trident gum, and it fell on the ground. I ignored it, popped out another one, and put it in my mouth.
I’d landed in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with a roommate after a few years jumping between writing residencies and house-sitting stints, and was on the subway platform in Williamsburg, where you transfer from the G to the L train that takes you into Manhattan. The platform was nearly empty at noon before a long holiday weekend.
“I’ll bet you a quarter that between now and the time the train comes, someone will step on that piece of gum you dropped.”
Slender and handsome, with level eyes and an understated smile, this white guy who walked up to me on the subway platform felt familiar.
“Um, OK,” I said, not entirely sure why I’d agreed to a bet over something so stupid.
We stood side by side, his shoulders not too much taller than mine, staring down at the small, white tab of gum as a few people walked by, their feet just nearly missing it. After a few minutes, we heard the rumble of the train coming out of the dark tunnel from the left, and as it pulled up in front of us, someone stepped on the gum.
We got on the train, and I paid him his due quarter. He was carrying an overnight bag as we stood holding the poll between us, and I asked him if he was going away for the weekend.
“Actually,” he said plainly, “I’m headed up to Harvard for a conference on race and social policy.”
I waited for him to go on about all the Black friends he had, or indicate in some way that he deserved praise or a reward for being a white guy who went to conferences about race. But no, that was all, just a white guy going to a conference about race, as if he was on his way to the grocery store for a loaf of bread.
“Do you live around here?” I asked, because now I was intrigued.
“Yeah, I just got back from Berkeley, where I was doing a post-doc. I’m living in Greenpoint.”
“Me, too! I’m living in Greenpoint, too, and actually I did a fellowship at Harvard—is your conference at the Du Bois Institute?”
“No, but that’s cool. We should get a drink sometime.”
“Sure, yeah. I’m Rebecca,” I said.
“I’m Chris,” he responded, unselfconscious, though not especially laid back either. There was an ease about him that seemed transcendent but also grounded, genuinely curious but not nearly as self-serious as I was. I gave him my card, which he took, and as he got off the train first, he said, “I’ll give you a call.”
Suddenly I didn’t trust him or the exchange, the serendipity or unlikelihood of it. What were the chances of meeting a handsome white guy on the subway platform who seems perfectly lovely, not weird or presumptuous, who cares enough about race to go to a whole conference on the subject but not make a big deal about it? This guy was never going to call me.
“Yeah,” I said, back to the self-serious, ain’t-about-that-bullshit mode I’d been in when he first walked up and immediately disarmed me. “You do that.”
He looked at me bewildered, but smiled anyway. The subway doors closed, and I went to my job interview. Chris called on Sunday night when he’d returned from the conference and invited me to dinner the following Thursday.
In a cozy restaurant on Houston Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, we’d just been seated and hadn’t even ordered drinks when I said, “Listen, I’m having a baby by the time I’m 36, so what do you want out of this?” I was 34 years old.
Chris smiled, unfazed, and said, “Maybe let’s have dinner first?”
We had dinner first, then we got pregnant, and then we got married. I was seven months pregnant with our son at our wedding in April 2005, a month before I turned 36.For the average white person in America, even and perhaps especially the average white liberal person who thinks they are on the right side of racial issues, the privilege is too entrenched.
In the 17 years since Chris and I first got together, as we’ve seen the country become more racially divisive than it was during my childhood, it has become resolutely clear to me that I only could have married a white man who is also a scholar of race and American history (and a former DJ with dope taste in music). Someone willing to immerse himself in the structural and racial disparities that have existed for time immemorial, who understands, because he’s taken the time to read and research, that Black history is American history, and that there are a million different Black stories and histories that have never been told by design.
For the average white person in America, even and perhaps especially the average white liberal person who thinks they are on the right side of racial issues, the privilege is too entrenched. The work and humility required to fully understand systemic racism in this country holds no realistic appeal. Most white people go straight to their own sense of guilt and then don’t know how to manage their feelings from there, as we’ve seen play out over and over again in the “woke” era of 2020.
It’s as if the only way for white people to become conversant in issues of racism and racial injustice is to make it their full-time job, which is maybe not such a bad idea?
It has been critically important to me that Chris, as a white man, understands how dearly I hold onto my own Blackness, but equally important that he understand how necessary it is that our son be encouraged to hold onto his Blackness, too.
For years during my twenties, I tacitly memorialized the version of me from a fictionalized world created by the white gaze with photos of myself as a little girl on the walls of my various homes—clad in a purple-and-green bikini wearing sunglasses and sitting on a yellow banana-seat bike, emerging from the water with wet droplets falling from my afro, wearing a flowy scarf around my neck and a straw hat and striking a mysterious pose.
I took most of them down as I got older, but there was one that I kept up after my son, Kofi, was born, of me when I was about four years old. In it, I’m holding a frog that I’d caught in the brook near our house on the hill, and I am grinning from ear to ear, my brown face alight, afro wild, eyes delighted.
The photo was on the wall in the longish stretch of hallway opposite the kitchen in our second apartment as a family together. Kofi, who was born less than two years after Chris and I met on the subway platform in Brooklyn, learned to walk by pushing a little plastic cart up and down that hallway, passing the photo, which was too high up on the wall for him to see. One day, when he was about four years old himself, he looked up and saw the picture, and then turned to me and said, “Mommy, why I’m holding a frog?”
In the sound of his small, sweet voice, I heard what I’d been waiting to hear my entire life: this boy, with his tiny brown fingers grasping the handle of his little cart, eyes deep brown and bright, loose curls reaching up and around his tender, curious face—this boy saw himself in me.
Years later, when Kofi was about seven, he and I arrived for our annual summer visit to my parents in New Hampshire ahead of Chris, who would join us after he finished his summer advising work. We were out for breakfast with Mom and Dad at a busy local restaurant and were looking at our menus when Kofi leaned over to me and quietly whispered, genuinely mystified, “Mom, why is everyone here white?”
When I was my son’s age, this wall-to-wall whiteness, which he looked at with discerning and culturally sophisticated, city-born eyes, was all I knew, and although I took some comfort in Kofi’s bafflement, I wanted Mom and Dad to account for their choice to raise me there, to my Black son, directly. “Ask your grandparents,” I said.
“Because many of the people who live here are descendants of the first settlers to the area—those who worked and farmed the land for their livelihood,” Dad responded. “And the first settlers were white.” Without needing a prompt to answer further, he said, “As a naturalist, I need to feel connected to whatever undeveloped land there is left.”
It had only ever been about him and what he needed. I didn’t want to make a scene in the restaurant—already people were looking at me and Kofi, the only two Black people there—but I felt enraged anew through the keen reflection of my son. A rage that has only continued to blaze years on.
A few weeks after that visit with my parents, Michael Brown was fatally shot in the back by police in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. This time, Kofi asked me, while we sat at the kitchen table together in our apartment, “Are you gonna get shot, Mom? Am I gonna get shot? Because we’re Black?”
I explained that yes, there was a chance that white people might shoot us because we are Black, because American history has not been kind to us, and that we, Black folks, and especially young Black boys, are left with the burden of fear that we might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“We were never supposed to be here. Or to survive. But we are here and we have survived, and you, Kofi, can look to that legacy of survival and resilience and beauty and strength as your own,” I said, echoing the same sentiments that inform what has become my life’s work—writing and talking about Black culture in America, amplifying black voices, and holding up the narrative of Black folks both collectively and as individuals.
Kofi got out of his chair and came to sit on my lap, his nine-year-old self still small enough to curl into my body, though just barely, and we sat together for a little while without talking. I breathed in the smell of his hair and skin, absorbed the magnificent weight of his need for my love, for the safety he found in my arms—for his need for me. It was bittersweet, not just because of the subject matter that had prompted this moment, but also because I thought of my birth father and felt a wave of sadness take over me.
The year before, a friend of Joe’s had found me online and called to tell me that Joe had died of complications from diabetes and kidney failure, among other things. Joe did not have health insurance or access to proper health care, and subsequently did not survive as a Black man in America. I thought there would be more time, but now Kofi will never meet or know his Black birth grandfather, and that will always be one of my deepest regrets.
Excerpted from Surviving the White Gaze: A Memoir. Used with the permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2021 by Rebecca Carroll.