We are hung up in giving what we wish to be given ourselves.
– Audre Lorde
The morning is moonless. I’m still asleep but my body decides to move without me.
Bound in blackness, my room has become an obstacle course of fuzzy shapes and shadows. Memory maneuvers me across the room to my dresser. I catwalk along the carpet, careful not to wake Nick. I wish I was him.
A misplaced ribbon of light creeps in. I follow it to the living room couch that has become my very public, very polyester dressing room.
Mama is at the table, keeping company with Folgers. It looks like bean water and smells like hot dirt. How does she drink that?
My legs tunnel into the patched-up pants Davion has outgrown. Like my early wake-up call, wearing Wranglers is not my decision. Stupid Spencer with the goofy haircut called them cowboy jeans last week. It’s time to step up my fashion so I cloak myself in a Michael Jordan T-shirt, also inherited.
Pale faces, weather predictions and traffic patterns drift in from the morning news to mama’s bifocals. The anchor sounds like a cheerleader.
NASA is sending five guys who all look alike – Mike, Dave, George, Richard and Fred – up to the moon I still can’t see. This is the first shuttle launch since the Challenger explosion. This is our opportunity for rebirth.
Iran is still mad at the United States. We mistakenly killed 290 people on a commercial airplane in the Persian Gulf while protecting our oil.
Crack cocaine is living up to its name and President Reagan promises to do something about it. We must save our country.
White officers in wool, dark blue uniforms put metal cuffs on herds of Black bodies in Los Angeles. The reporter wonders why the Black community doesn’t do more to protect their children.
“Adrian, you need to eat before you leave,” mama reminds. I smell the mixture of maple and brown sugar waiting on me.
“I’m just putting my shoes on,” I answer, imagining there is an alternate version of my day where I get to sleep in and be normal. I don’t feel special or gifted or talented. I feel like a burden.
This redeye routine seems like lots of trouble to sit in a classroom in a brick building in a school 5 miles away. What’s wrong with the one down the street?
But since I scored high on a test I don’t remember taking; and since Mrs. Johnson is tired of writing red 100s on my quizzes; and since I got really good at drawing dragons while she was still teaching everyone else; and since Mrs. Johnson lobbied for me to leave Hubbard Heights Elementary; and since I am gifted and talented; I will now be afforded the privilege of harder homework, stricter rules, whiter teachers and smarter classmates.
It’s called a magnet school. In the 1960s someone decided that desegregation was taking too long and needed a diuretic. Enter special public schools with bigger budgets to attract students from broader boundaries. Black kids went to white schools, white kids to black schools, smart kids to struggling schools and rich kids to poor ones. The mixture of academic rigor and racial diversity was meant to fulfill the educational promises of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, in acts of pure white genius, middle-class Americans accelerated private “Christian” schools, redrew districts and used lopsided policies to protect their advantage.
But I had earned the right to taste the advantage. My very own academic appetizer. I was an exceptional exception, one of the chosen few being ranked, rewarded and prepared to occupy someone’s org chart in 15 years.
What about the unranked? The rest of the students were called regular. Regular books, regular teachers and regular expectations. I wanted to be regular but Mrs. Johnson, mama and fate disagreed so going to Morningside Magnet School was my preparation for liftoff. I will be more like Mike, Dave, George, Richard and Fred, headed to space. I will be less like the herds of Black boys headed to jail.
I will go beyond.
So, in the still white house next to the train tracks, while Davion, Nick, Erica and Rachel lay in bed, I lace up my Payless high-tops. They look like real British Knights if I squint.
I still can’t see the moon.
No one really knows the place where one Black woman ends and the next one begins. What first appears to be a loan queen is actually a quilt of women woven together by birthright. They call this many names – sisterhood, sister-friend, line sister, girlfriend, church moms and deaconesses. It’s supposed to be a community, a village, but it’s more like a posse of parole officers constantly watching my movements.
These sisters are formally trained and licensed at Bet’Not University. You bet’not misbehave. You bet’not act up. You bet’not bring no babies home. Bet’not let me hear you got in trouble again.
When I start “misbehaving and smelling myself” in second grade, Mrs. Johnson whacks me with a yardstick. Instead of tests for behavioral problems she tests for academic potential.
When Davion’s fists are my frequent Goliath, Marie Taylor jousts across the bedroom with a belt to even the odds. The first time I see a person stand up to a bully it was my 67-year-old grandmother beating my older brother’s butt.
When I read from my weird, red Bible with the strange words, kids at church snicker. At this new church, King James is the only acceptable translation for serious disciples. But my Bible is a gift from Sister Stephens, my very first Sunday school teacher and for one day every week I know I am special.
Mrs. Wagner makes me enunciate. Ms. Williams puts me in poetry competitions. Mrs. Stripling walks me through long division. At every turn, these kinswomen conspire with mama to keep my black ass in line. They invest meager rations of influence to open off-limits opportunities for the rest of us.
Their protest is less about signs and slogans, and more about working within the system. They made sure it worked. They made sure it didn’t. The sisters fight with fine print, using policies born of prejudice to prevent it.
Their invisible weapons of war? Tattered, holy Bibles with highlighter marks, indestructible prayers and ancient verses.
But, as I shuffle into the kitchen for instant oatmeal, I don’t know this. I don’t know mama is more than a mother.
I don’t know she is a silent star, looking after me and out for me. I don’t know this is not my country. Black mothers carry us in bodies built for love, shaped by loss. Our mothers are heavy with hope on one continent, only to be hollowed of it on the next.
I don’t know she is a sunken treasure, wading through worst-case scenarios words will never unearth. Every Black mother I will ever know has tasted tragedy and trauma. But she keeps working. Working to mold sons who will love better. Working to raise daughters who will know better.
I don’t know I am a moon, reflecting the light of her sun. Every Black son I know is the product of programs. I am the product of people who, individually or collectively, gave a shit about more than themselves.
I don’t know she would do anything to keep us from being cuffed by police and corralled into pens like livestock.
I don’t know that legacy is more than what you leave behind. It connects us to what happens next.
I don’t know any of this.
Blowing a spoonful of too-hot oats, I only know three things. I am tired, and different and don’t want to go back to that school.
Our answer to systemic hate is systemic hope. What Mrs. Johnson recognizes as potential, Ms. Rosenbohm sees as a problem. What Ms. Thompson gives me a failing grade for, Ms. Williams encourages me to write about.
At every turn, I have an interrupter, someone serving as friction against a system where many kids like me aren’t predicted to win. They are often, but not exclusively, Black women. Mostly empathetic, patient and caring, yet never compromising. They expect excellence and refuse to remove requirements for success since the world won’t either. They are just as hard on me as the white teachers are. But unlike Rosenbohm and Strom, they are also mothers, sisters, aunties and neighbors of other Black children.
None of these interruptions is the result of parental connections, networking, family status or social access. It all seems like serendipity – that fancy word for when God does what he’s going to do anyway. They aren’t always gatekeepers but they tend the trails in between, depositing trace amounts of wisdom to guide us around snares.
So when the system says “Adrian doesn’t belong here,” mama says, “Yes he does.”
When Rosenbohm says “He’s not ready,” Ms. Stripling says, “He is.”
This clergy of Blackness causes friction against seemingly natural forces. Not because they see what I could be, like talent scouts, but because they see what should be. They believe hard-headed, big-mouthed, know-it-all Adrian should have the same opportunities and consequences as all the other hard-headed, big-mouthed, know-it-all 3rd graders.
They believe being different is no reason to be treated unfairly.
So what does daddy mean when he says, “Life isn’t fair”?
I hear it every morning. The Hyatt Hotels TV commercial swivels my head to the TV when I should be scraping my bowl.
Lush vocals declare “You’ve got the magic touch.” I see a boy lounging by a miraculously blue pool. Next, he and his sister feast on perfect stacks of strawberry pancakes and trampoline on a giant hotel bed without remorse. Then, mom, dad and a gleaming glass elevator, treat them to grand views of the hotel lobby. The picture cuts to a shot of all four of them jumping, hand-in-hand, into sunlit water. Finally, a voice invites parents to Camp Hyatt this summer, “because kids have fantasies too.”
They are happy and smiling and white. They jump on beds without getting a whooping. They probably always order more food than they can eat without being lectured on the state of starving kids in Africa.
Armed with a backpack and a bad attitude, I climb into the woodgrain station wagon. Mama asks if I’m buckled in. I nod. The crunching gravel underneath announces our departure from the street where all the lucky kids are still dreaming.
Houses, then buildings, then bridges and other cars parade past my window. Outside is dark and uncertain and cold. Inside, boulders rumble in my belly. I want to turn around.
Mama bops her head to a goofy Bobby McFerrin song on the radio.
In every life we have some trouble.
But when you worry you make it double.
She is incandescent. Her words are warm and sunny like the lyrics she sings. She is joy. For 5 miles I am, too.
Don’t worry, be happy.
Don’t worry, be happy now.
What is she so happy about? I wonder who Delois Marie Taylor was before she was Mama Parker. Did the girl born to Lloyd and Marie on March 3, 1952, in Amarillo, Texas know she would wake up before the sun to shuttle one of her five kids to school?
Who was her first crush? Who caused her first heart-break? What did my dad say the day they met? Who really plans to have 5 – soon to be 6 – kids on purpose?
Somewhere, between being a daughter and a mother, she must have learned the shorthand symbols she uses to encrypt our names on Christmas presents. At some point, she worked at the Pantex plant where they make bombs, artillery shells and nuclear weapons. I wonder where the missile was made that killed the 60 Iranian kids on that plane?
What would happen if someone shot down an American plane?
Why are we always in a war?
This one question has become an obsession. Ostensibly, if you know your Why, you will know what to do. If you answer your Why, the rest will follow. Why is a truth fairy leaving purpose and passion under the pillows of well-meaning workaholics.
Why is not an unimportant question, but answering it, or rather, thinking you know the answer – is no master key to confident living.
Why doesn’t everyone know their Why? Because it requires a degree of certainty and reason in a world that is unreasonably uncertain. Why needs an answer.
What’s better than Why?
Because is a statement, not a question. A telling of the truth not merely a trivia answer. Because comes from a source beyond our consciousness. Beyond control.
Mothers show us our Because by giving us theirs.
Because I love you. Because I’m here. Because you are enough. Because of who you are.
I still don’t know my Why. But mama made sure I knew my Because.
Because in 1979 Delois Parker prayed over the beeping machine incubating a 4-pound baby who showed up 2 months too early.
Because in 1987 she crammed our little lives into that woodgrain wagon that would carry us from Amarillo to Fort Worth without knowing of the potholes ahead.
Because in 1988 she dashed down the hill, chasing the driverless car holding three helpless passengers.
Because in 1989 mama raced over to the crowded pool before my lungs emptied of air.
Because in 1990 she was shelter when Gary Jackson’s brother tried to beat me up.
Because in 1991 we moved to that side of town and our white friends stopped visiting, but she never complained.
Because she pushed and drove and washed and worked and cleaned and cared.
Because she saw seeds in us that have yet to flower
Because she was the one that went without.
Because I went years without knowing we were poor.
Because we were never asked to be causalities of our skin color.
Because we knew more about college scholarships than Crip signs.
On my way to the school that doesn’t yet feel like home, I don’t know it yet, but it’s because of her that I too will pray, and cram, and dash, and race, and shelter three kids of my own.
Pulling up to Morningside Elementary, I don’t know that 18 years from this day I will be sitting alone in an empty apartment 1,600 miles away when she calls to say what I’ve always been too busy to hear. “We love you because of who you are. Not for what you do.”
Manhood needs more womanhood. Though her accomplishments made an entire family tree flourish, she is not the forest. She is the earth. I am inspired by her endurance but I dare not forget to admire her blooming beauty and stand in her shade. To see women outside of motherhood forces me to see women outside of roles, bodies, tasks and routines. To see my daughters, not as saplings to nourish, but as indescribable gods beyond belief. To protect their hereafter by celebrating what their Creator intended, instead of harvesting it with my dull, outdated plow.
Mothers point us to ourselves. Mothers are constant. If my father was the hand of God, mama was his heart. The most courageous creation known to mankind is a mother. To brave sickness, discomfort and pain, birthing gifts that would inevitably forget she is made for more than giving.
Mothers are storytellers, narrators of who we are, how we’re loved and why. Motherhood is a literal gospel, not simply a metaphor for what God might be like. More than a birth canal, she is a beautiful, whole self.
When I misunderstand women I misunderstand myself. A man who fails to see his mother as independently, uniquely, and unconditionally significant, will blindfold his own ability to love wholeheartedly.
Mothers point us to one other. How else can I find my footing in a world designed for failure?
There is decency in commemorating the sacrifice of all mothers – especially Black women, but the higher honor is in constructing a world where it is no longer necessary for survival. The wilderness was a place to survive, not celebrate.
When I think of love, I look back and see a procession of Black women who defended my future by bending the rigid branches of bigotry just enough so I could crawl through what they ran from.
My mother is so much more than a sanctuary for my success. She is the temple. She is holy ground. She is beloved. She is not a relic enshrined in someone else’s story, she is majesty made manifest.
By honoring Delois Parker as a woman, not just a mother, I celebrate what truly makes her beautiful. And maybe, perhaps, I gain a glimpse of how God sees her. How he might see me.
The front of Morningside Elementary greets me. The skyline has finally surrendered to the sun, painting purple-orange strokes in the distance. I unbuckle, grab my bag and open the car door.
She beams, “Have a good day, baby. Love you!”
“Okay,” I reply, counting down until the station wagon returns me to the only place I feel safe.
Treading to the front door, preparing for liftoff, I whisper two words as if they are true, hoping they will be.
There are millions of stories about billions of mothers. I’ve told you one.