By Dr. Kaye Whitehead
As a Black mother and recent empty-nester, I am in a difficult place at this moment. Both of my sons are dealing with the challenges that come with attending a persistently White university. When they were growing up, I was the shield that protected them from the world. My back was the bridge that they walked over, and my tears were mixed with the water that nurtured our backyard soil where they ran and felt free and safe. They are becoming the men that I have always wanted them to be, even if it is happening too soon for me. I have spent the past two weekends visiting both of them, just to lay my eyes on them, to hug them and hold them and remind them that they are loved. I wanted to be in their space to tell them (again) that they were important and needed, that they were brilliant and genius in motion. I needed to make sure that they knew that they were carrying our family’s hopes and dreams every time they moved around their campus.
Given that both of my sons have always attended predominantly White private schools, they learned early on that the burden that they have to carry is heavier. The challenges they face are not new, and as my oldest has reminded me, they were not ready when it happened to them in elementary school. But, they are ready now. They are ready to push back. They are ready to speak up. They are ready to demand accountability and push for change. They are ready. I have to keep telling myself that they are ready.
I also have to forgive myself because the world I had been working for, the one I dreamed about and wanted them to live in, had not yet been established. When my sons were younger, I spent hours working and dreaming, praying and marching, trying to do everything I could to make the world better for them. And I tried, and in so many ways, I failed. My generation failed. As I got ready to drive away from campus (after sitting and holding space as my youngest shared how college had already challenged and changed him), I gave my son a poem that I once wrote, Songs in the Key Called Baltimore, and told him to read it whenever he needed to be reminded that he is loved and that he is one of the ones that we have been waiting for:`
I have always wanted to teach you about peace even though I raised you in a city where peace has never been the norm/where peace was not taught on the playground/nor practiced in the school/nor modeled on the street corner.
I try to hide my frustration because in the aftermath of the Uprising/a time when black and white people named their pain/life quickly settled back down to the familiar/to a time where black bodies were once again in danger, black life was once again criminalized, and black spaces existed, once again, on the edges of both the city and our minds.
There were days when being black in America overwhelmed me and made me want to spend the day in bed/and times when being the black mother of black boys in Baltimore City made me wish I had enough money to move you somewhere where I could keep you safe. Safe from them—the ones who saw your life as expendable and unnecessary/and safe from us—those who looked at you without realizing that you were only a mirror that reflected all of who we were/are supposed to be.
We come from a people who experienced this daily and still chose to survive.
Survival is our legacy.
And since we survived the Middle Passage as involuntary passengers on a trip that sealed our fate/ And we survived slavery, whips, and latches by learning how to give way and stay small/ And we survived the Civil War by claiming freedom at the hands of those who looked like our oppressors/ And we survived Jim Crow by teaching our children the unwritten rules that were marked by our blood/And though there are times when we are like strangers in a foreign land/We look around and wonder how we got here/We take stock and realize how little we actually have/We wonder how long we will continue to suffer and die at the hands of both the oppressor and of the oppressed—and despite all of this, we survive anyway.
You are part of our legacy, and you will survive….all of this. Survival is our legacy and surviving every day—in this unjust system—is our goal.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the Founding Director of The Karson Institute for Race, Peace, and Social Justice and an associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is also the award-winning host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM. A newly minted empty nester, she lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their dog, BellaReds. Portions of this essay are from the poem, Songs in the Key Called Baltimore.
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