COMBING THE ROOTS PODCAST
By Ally Henny
Black Motherhood in the Age of Trump
Season 1, Episode 2
May 2, 2019
HENNY: This is Ally Henny and you’re listening to “Combing the Roots,” powered by The Witness – A Black Christian Collective. On this episode, I’m going to discuss Motherhood As Resistance; or, Black Motherhood in the Trump Era. Stay tuned!
HENNY: So before I begin, I want to offer a few – I’m not sure if I should call them disclaimers or if I should call them encouragements. I’m not really certain what word to use. But I want to say them anyway, because I feel like I need to say these things before I actually say what I’m wanting to say. The first is to nonparents; and I hope that people who aren’t parents will listen to this episode and that you’ll be able to get something out of my experience; that you’ll be able to –whether it’s learn something, whether it’s taking – that my experience in some way will validate some of your lived experiences. I don’t know. But I really hope that you’ll be able to listen, and hear me in what I’m saying; that I’m not saying that my life or my experiences or my marginalization is superior to any other Black person or person of color’s, just because I’m a parent; but I’m speaking from the perspective of being a parent.
The next encouragement or disclaimer – like I said, I’m not sure what to call it, but I’m going to say whatever it is – is to my friends who are in other marginalized groups: what I’m talking about isn’t necessarily intersectional. I am a cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian woman, and so my perspective as a person of color is coming from that vein. And so everything that I say is coming from that perspective, and I recognize my own privilege in some of the things that I might say. So I just wanted to let you guys know that: that in speaking in a way that maybe isn’t as inclusive or intersectional, I’m doing that because I’m sharing my lived experience as a mother, and I don’t feel comfortable really speaking into what could be other people’s lived experience. And so I hope that you will take what I am saying for what it is, and hopefully not read any exclusivity, or hear any exclusivity, rather, in anything that I’m saying.
So now that I’ve made my disclaimers, I want to get to the topic at hand: Motherhood As Resistance, a.k.a. Black Motherhood in the Age of Donald Trump. Let me give you a little bit of context for my motherhood. My oldest was born in 2014, right before the Ferguson uprising. She was an infant during the Ferguson uprising. And then my youngest was born on Inauguration Day of 2017. So she is as old as the Trump presidency, and there’s a whole bunch of shade that I want to throw, right there; but I’m not going throw shade. I’m going to exercise self-control and keep going. (Yes, I’m exercising self-control right now.)
And so my motherhood has been forged in this context of Black resistance, of renewed Black resistance. I mean, Black resistance has always existed. We have always pushed back against oppression; we’ve always been a people that have in one way or another, by some means or another, have always pushed back against our oppression. But I think that the time that we live in now is unique, in that it’s a lot like the civil rights era. I think there’s been this kind of compounding of our grievances. We sort of have seen a lot of ideas about things that would improve Black people – we’ve seen some of these things come and go. We’ve seen some things be a little bit successful and then not be successful; or be kind of co-opted or walked back a little bit. One fun fact, if you don’t know, is that schools are more segregated now than they were before Brown vs. Board of Education, which was to desegregate schools; so that’s something that’s just really interesting. But we live in this really strange time, where the race conversation has been thrust to the forefront of the national conversation.
And for us, I mean, we know. Race is always there. How white people have treated us has always been there. The topic of racism and our experiences – it’s just always been there, for Black folks. Like, it’s – I don’t want to call it the air that we breathe, but it’s just not something that we can get too far away from. What’s unique about right now is that it’s something that is in the national consciousness in a way that I didn’t see.
So I grew up in a rural context. I grew up in a rural, white context. The place where I grew up, where I spent my childhood, is over 90 percent white. And while there is a Black community there, and I was part of that, part of that community, I grew up around a lot of white folks. And then the city that I ended up going to college in is very, very white. And I did not realize that at the time, I had no clue; and then I showed up here and it was like, “OK, yeah.” Because it was a city. I mean, it’s one of the major cities in Missouri. And so I’m like, “Oh, wow, there are no Black people here. OK.” And so I came up in this context where – I think my experiences – I don’t know how unique they are from other people’s Black experience. I think that it would be worthwhile, even, for me to explore that, and do a podcast on that; because I think that rural Black people’s experiences are different. And I think that our experiences are often missing from the narrative of Blackness. But that’s a whole other, different conversation.
But as I have learned and grown in my life – and as an adult, I moved to the East Coast, and I spent about half my adult life on the East Coast in a context that was more diverse than what I grew up in. I don’t know how diverse it is comparatively, but it was more diverse than the context that I grew up in, for sure. So that was a whole thing. Once again, that’s another podcast episode. But as I – I think that being where I’ve grown up, and being some of the places that I’ve been in – it gives me a unique perspective because I have been aware of how certain strata or certain demographics of white people have interacted with things. And I don’t know if everybody really has the opportunity to have that experience. So for me, as a Black woman who has retained her culture, who grew up very culturally aware, who grew up knowing my history – I grew up in a Black home, and we watched the Black shows, anything that had to do with Black folks, Black books, Black whatever – my mom was very intentional in making sure that I had that. And that’s something that I’m very thankful – I’m very thankful to her for that. Because I think that in raising a child in a context that is very white, it’s very easy to sink back into white normativity. But I’ll get back into that in a moment.
And so being in some of the positions I’ve been in, and growing up in some of the places that I’ve been in, I see that – I grew up with white people who didn’t realize that racism wasn’t just over. I think a lot of people have the idea that Martin Luther King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech and then he got shot, and somehow he magically, like, laid down his life and it ended racism. That is not how it worked. A lot of people have this really weird kind of mindset whenever it comes to racism. And so for the Black Lives Matter movement, for Colin Kaepernick, for some of these movements that have sprung up to resist racism – that’s a new one on a lot of white folks. I don’t know if y’all are aware of that, but that’s a new one on a lot of them. And so because of that – I mean, you know, because of white normativity; it doesn’t exist unless white people say it exists – that has thrust this conversation into the forefront in a way that I personally have not seen or experienced.
So then becoming a mother within that context – raising children as this resistance has been building – for me, I guess I don’t know it any other way, because that’s where my motherhood has been forged. But to raise children in this context: it’s an act of resistance. Because it is very easy, let me tell y’all, it is so easy for somebody that grew up around whiteness, grew up around white people – I understand white culture and white normativity, and I get some of these things – it could be very easy to just be like, “OK, let me just assimilate and act like none of this is going on.” I think that’s what a lot of people have done. I think a lot of us have retreated into the sunken place. And you know what? I don’t begrudge anybody their means of survival. But for me as a mother – for me, specifically as a Black woman, as a Black mother, raising children who are Black biracial children – I realize that I have to take a posture of resistance, lest this culture swallow my children whole.
And I know that’s an intense statement to make. But I’m just telling you the truth: that there is so much in our culture that tries to erase Blackness, that tries to come against Blackness, that tries to diminish it, that tries to pathologize it, that tries to do all these things. And, you know, I love my people. I love my culture. I see the way that God has forged us, that God has framed us. Through our oppression, we have been able to come out with this culture that’s just influential; and it’s bangin’. I mean, like, whenever I think about that, that we have been given like a lot of kind of just the turds and the junk of oppression and of life – as have other groups, but I’m Black and so I’m talking to Black folks; I’m speaking on Black folks right now, and that’s not meant to erase anybody else. But I see that we had all this stuff that happened to us, and we somehow were able to make a culture out of it. And we were able to make a way of life, and able to say, “We are” – like, Black people literally made lemons into lemonade. We literally took, like, turds; we literally took this awful thing called slavery and oppression, and we built an entire culture around it. And in fact, the rest of the culture even looks to our culture: they be takin’ our stuff, they be moppin’ stuff from us, all the time. And we are so excellent and so influential. And I’m not trying to say that in a way that’s diminishing anybody else. But I’m just saying that Black people are who we are.
I see that, and that’s something that I want to pass on to my children. And yeah, there’s this joy and pain that comes with being Black. We can have the rhythm, but we got the blues. So I recognize that. I don’t want to deprive my children of the experience, of the understanding, of being people who are Black people, who are brown people – because they’re biracial, so they’re Black, they’re brown, however they form their identity – I want them to see the beauty in their culture. So I think that it’s so important to raise them to see that, to raise them to know that. But at the same time – all of this junk that’s going on? I don’t want my kids to have to have some of the same experiences as me. And so that’s why I’m out here: because I don’t want my kids to be living through some of the same things, to have to hear some of the same things that I heard, growing up.
So I’m going to unpack that a little bit more. I’m going to dig a little bit deeper into that, in the next segment.
HENNY: In the last segment, I gave you guys a little bit of context for my motherhood: told you about my kids, told you about some of my life experiences. And so in this segment I want to continue the conversation about Motherhood As Resistance.
So as I was saying in the last segment, I am very passionate about – I’m very set in the idea that I need to raise my children to know their culture, to understand their culture, to understand who they are. You could even go as far as to say that it’s a conviction. And I think that in this era, in a time when we have events like Charlottesville; whenever we have where a Black man can’t protest about this country, like Colin Kaepernick – he can’t bend the knee during the national anthem without being policed, and without people calling him into question, without a whole controversy surrounding it. We live in this renewed time of conversation about race, and some people have called it the new civil rights movement, or Civil Rights 2.0. But we are living, I believe, in a national moment. I feel like every day, we are walking through history that is going to be written down in history books and that will be studied for generations to come. And so as I become more and more aware of that, I see the need to make sure that my children understand who they are, they understand where they come from. And so with that said, I also feel a need to make sure that this world is a better place than it was for me.
And you know, it’s not that the world was – whenever I say that, some of my problems maybe are First World problems; I don’t know if racism really is a First World problem. But I think of all the people in the world who live existences that are much worse than mine, that they don’t have adequate food or housing or whatever, and I’m well aware of that. But I can’t help but think of, in my sphere, in my corner of this universe, some of the things that I’ve experienced as a Black woman, and wanting better for my kids. Not wanting my kids to hear things like, “Oh, you’re pretty for a Black girl.” Or having to have conversations with people where you realize all of a sudden, as a kid you realize, “Oh, man, I can’t go over to my friend’s house because their parents are prejudiced.” Or dealing just with all the myriad litany of things that we’ve dealt with. I want my kids, as much as I want them to know our culture and to know the things that our people have walked through and have struggled through; I don’t want them to have to do the same thing. I don’t want them to have to –whenever they’re my age, whenever my girls are 33 years old – I don’t want for them to have to be talking about the same things and fighting the same battles that I’m having to fight on today.
And so a lot of what I’m doing – a lot of the reason why this podcast exists, a lot of the reason why I write, the reason why I do a lot of the things that I do – is because I’m trying to forge a better world for them. I’m trying to create a better world for them. And I realize that whenever my kids look back in history books, that they are going to see a time in which I was alive, and they’re going to wonder what I did to make things better. They’re going to read about Charlottesville; and I want them to know that I was there – not at Charlottesville, but I was there. I was alive then, and I was working to make things better so that they hopefully didn’t have to live through that. And then my grandchildren, the same thing, and my great grandchildren. Because I hope to leave a legacy, if God tarries.
But with all that said, I think that being a Black mother particularly – because like I said, that’s the only experience I can really speak to, is being a Black woman, is being a Black mother – I see – and it’s daily, if not hourly in some cases – I find myself looking, when my kids watch cartoons, I find myself looking at who’s represented and how they’re represented. And there are some things that I don’t allow my kids to watch, because I don’t like the lack of representation. Or if there is representation – and it’s not just even race representation, but also gender – there are some things that I’m like, “You know what? I don’t want to watch that,” because I don’t want my children to have those ideas of what it means to be feminine, and to be a woman or to be a girl. I don’t want them to have some of those ideas. But it’s looking at what books we bring into the house. My preschooler – my four-year-old’s preschool – we actually had a little bit of an incident where she was asked to draw a portrait of me, and she colored in that portrait of me with white skin. And so whenever I asked her about it, she was under the impression that that was what she was supposed to do. And so we went to the preschool and we had a hard conversation with the teachers and with the administration there. And we’ve been pushing them to make some changes to how they speak, to how to color people, and that type of stuff. And so we’ve had to have some difficult conversations; and I wasn’t prepared for that in preschool. I thought preschool – certainly, like, white normativity is everywhere, but my goodness, it’s like, I’m certainly not going to have to go my preschooler’s school and deal with this! But lo and behold, I did. And my youngest has started preschool too – as much as a two-year-old can go to preschool.
But these are the types of things that I think about. I think about – because especially since I ended up, I lived on the East Coast for a while, and then, circumstances, we ended up moving back to Missouri, and ended up moving back to this community that is very, very white. And I mean, I like the community, insofar as there are people here that I very much value and very much care about; but I realizing that, as I’m raising my children here, there are a lot of questions that I’ve had to ask myself, and a lot of things that I’ve had to think about. I’ve had to think about – you know, the school that my oldest will start kindergarten at next year is fairly diverse. It’s a Title I school, and it’s fairly diverse; especially for this city, especially this area, it’s fairly diverse. But I’ve had to think about the conversations and stuff that I’m going to have to have with teachers, and with classmates, and with parents.
And even as I think about that: recently, in the news in my city, there was a middle school kid, an eighth-grader at a middle school here — who was a Black kid, and I’m guessing at a middle school very much a minority – but there was another white student who photoshopped his picture on one of those old kind of portraits, drawn portraits of slaves. He photoshopped this kid’s face, this Black kid’s face, on these old slave portraits of them being like chained or something like that; and then he photoshopped the principal’s head, the white principal’s face, onto this picture, onto this portrait, of slaves being held in chains. And this administration pretty much did nothing about it. They said that they took action, but the kid was still at school; the Black kid still has to interact with this child in class. And the other thing that I forgot to add to that story is that the white child posted those pictures of him on Instagram.
And then also just recently, a substitute teacher at another middle school in town asked some Black children, some Black teenagers – I think it was also an eighth-grade class they were subbing in – said something like, “Oh, I should shoot you,” or something like that. And another student – and I’m assuming that it was a white student, so good on that white student, because it wasn’t any of the boys that it was said to, that reported it. But it was another student – and I’m assuming they were white; maybe they weren’t – but they actually, like, left class and went and reported it to the principal. So good for that person for doing, like, for doing the right thing, that they did that.
But that’s something that happened. And that’s something that I have to think about, as a mother. And I have to train my children to know that these are the things that people can’t say to you. These are the words that people can’t use around you. You know what? Like I said, my oldest is going to kindergarten next year. I’ve already been vigilant in looking around at people at her preschool, looking around at parents and seeing: Are there certain political stickers on their cars? I have a friend, actually, whose Black daughter attends a private Christian school. And there’s a family there that has a Confederate flag on their car; and a lot of Confederate stuff on their car, for that matter. And so it’s just – it’s a lot. That’s the culture that I am in, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that; thinking a lot about where I want to raise my children, and praying through if we need to make changes, and if so, what changes we need to make.
I realize that might not be everybody’s experience, and the culture that everybody, that maybe you’re not having to deal with some of those things, or maybe you’re even having to deal with worse But I recognize that my resistance to racism, my resistance to the white normativity in this area – the white supremacy, the racism – my resistance is by raising strong Black children.
I want to get to that, and talk about that a little bit more, in the next segment.
HENNY: Welcome back. I’ve been talking about Motherhood As Resistance, a.k.a. Black Motherhood in the Age of Donald Trump. And so I’m going to continue that conversation on.
So I think it’s really important for Black mothers – for Black parents; I’m speaking mostly to mothers because I am one, and so I can speak to that experience, I think, more clearly. But I realize that it is so important for us to raise our children with an understanding of who we are – of our culture, of our history, of what it means to be a Black person. I think that it is critical that we do that, because I really believe that respectability politics, that white normativity, that white supremacy, really is out there and wants to swallow our children whole. It wants to create this sense of identity in our children that their culture, that their language, that their ways are somehow inferior. And what I’ve realized — and I’m not criticizing previous generations, because I understand that respectability politics, that there are certain things, certain adaptations, that Black people have had to make throughout the years, simply to survive. So I don’t want to criticize anybody’s means of survival. I know that there are people even today who, we adopt certain things because we just want to survive. We just don’t want to die. You know, we just want to be able to exist. But I really feel like, for us to push back against racism, for us to resist it – I really feel like we’re at that point now. I think that playing ball with white people – that saying, “OK, yeah, we’re going to assimilate to your culture, yeah, we’re going to try to talk like you, we’re going to try to dress like you, we’re going to try to understand your culture and move to the same places that you live,” and whatever – I think that a lot of us have tried to do that, and it’s not gotten us anything. I mean, we see, LeBron James is a multimillionaire, and somebody still spray painted the N word on his house. Oprah, who is like the richest woman, I think, in the world – she’s definitely the richest woman in the United States – she went to a store; it’s been probably a decade ago now. She went to Harrod’s in London, I think it was, and she tried to buy a bag; and the person told Oprah Winfrey that they didn’t think she could afford this bag. And that’s Oprah Winfrey! And they didn’t even realize who Oprah Winfrey was.
So anyway. It doesn’t matter how much money that you have. I mean, Henry Louis Gates, who was a professor at Harvard, tried to get into his own house, and had the cops called on him by his own neighbors! We can’t escape this. Any level of education, any level of financial stability or financial abundance that we could experience: it doesn’t exempt us from white people’s racism. And so it’s my opinion that instead of trying to sink back and seep back into white normativity – and I know that it feels comfortable. It’s something that, at least in my mindset, because I came from a rural context, I understand white people; I’ve been in contexts with white people, so I kind of understand their ways a little bit; I’m married to a white man. And so I understand white people and understand their ways a little bit, and I know I could play the game if I wanted to play the game. I don’t want to play the game. But if I did, I could. And I know how easy that is; that that feels like a viable alternative. And sometimes I’m just, “Yeah, let me just sink back into the sunken place.” I don’t ever do it, but there’s times when I’m like, “You know what? My life would be so much easier if I sunk back into this here sunken place, and didn’t always try to bring my Blackness with me, wherever I go.” But you still experience discrimination. And sometimes the discrimination or the ignorance or whatever kind of comes in the form of, “Oh, well, you’re not like one of those. You’re not like this, you’re not like that, you’re not like whatever.” But there’s so much dehumanization that we can experience even whenever we do try to assimilate.
So I am of the opinion that it is important for us to raise strong Black children. And when I say that, I want to be sure to say that there’s no one way to be Black. Whenever I talk about our culture: Black culture isn’t monolithic. There’s a lot of different ways to be Black. So please hear me, whenever I say to raise strong Black children, to raise your children in the culture, I’m not saying that that includes any one cultural expression or any set of cultural expressions or ways of raising our children. Basically what I’m saying is that those of us who are raising Black children, or who are raising biracial children who are Black, or multiracial children who are Black; I think that it’s important for us to forge a strong Black identity in our children. Because once we forge a strong sense of identity in our children, that is something that cannot be taken away. It’s sort of like in “Black Panther,” that scene in “Black Panther” whenever T’Challa is fighting M’Baku, and they’re up there on that cliff; and T’Challa is about to die, he’s about to get sleep; and then the queen yells out, “Tell them who you are!” And he starts – I’m about to cry, thinking about it – but then he starts telling them who he is –and he was able to stand up. And of course the analogy only goes so far, because it was another Black man, it was another Wakandan who was doing this. But the point is, is that he was able to resist. I think it’s funny too that the Jabari, that they painted themselves white in that scene; and that telling him who he was, you’re saying that to a person who painted themselves white. (But anyway, I might be digging a little too deep there, fam.)
I think that that is what we have to be able to do for our children: that as Black mothers, we’ve got to be like Queen Ramonda. We’ve got to be like, “Tell them who you are!” That doesn’t mean that we present our Blackness all in the same way. That doesn’t mean Blackness – y’all should know, we ain’t a monolith. Black Southern culture is different than Black Northern culture. I’m a Midwesterner. I am somebody who grew up in a rural context. And so my culture, my Blackness, my slang, my whatever, is different than some of the people that I know who are in the South, or some people that I know who are from the East, or from further up north. We have all these beautiful cultures within Blackness. So whatever your Black culture is, whatever your Blackness looks like – for me, it’s not about saying that we’ve got to churn out Black children that all think the same, all talk the same, all wear the same clothing, all have all of the same cultural touchpoints.
But I think that our culture is so beautiful, and our culture is so important to not just who we are, but is so important to this nation; that the best piece of resistance, the best act of resistance, that we can do – as Black mothers, as Black parents, as Black people who are in a Black community, who are raising children who identify as Black, whether in whole or in part – one of the best legacies that we can give our children is our history and our culture, and helping them to understand our ways of being; and for them to have a joy in their Blackness. Because that’s what’s gotten us through. I mean, if you think about it, all that stuff that we’ve had to endure over the centuries, just for looking the way that we do? There has to be a joy. There IS a joy. There has to be something that was preserving us. It just didn’t keep all of us from being, “You know what, we’re just all going to jump off this boat; we’re just all going to hang ourselves. We just don’t even want to be here.” There’s just something to being Black. There’s something to our culture and who we are as a people.
And so I think that one of the ways that we stand up as a people is to teach our children our culture. And I firmly believe that resistance protects our existence.
“Combing the Roots” is powered by The Witness – A Black Christian Collective. Special thanks to executive producers Tyler Burn and Beau York. Catch up with what I’m doing on these internet streets by visiting allyhenny.com. There you’ll be able to connect to my Twitter feed, my Instagram, and my Facebook writer’s page. I’m your host, Ally Henny. Peace.
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]