I can tell you that I stand at the crossroads of queerness, motherhood biases, the expectations of my gender, Black hatred, religious intolerance, and public and mental health crises. I can tell you fifteen ways in which this America isn’t meant for me. However, what I fear most is standing as a mother of a Black child who still has the audacity to hope.
In 2004, then Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech at the DNC Convention that would end up propelling him into the White House. The title of the speech was “The Audacity of Hope.” That day, now some 13 years ago, Obama weaved Black church and jazz into a message that was needed at the time and is still needed today:
“There’s not a black America, and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
This optimistic sentiment is in itself audacious. At the heart of his message, Obama was asking us to reclaim the ideals of American inclusivity.
Today, however, those ideals are cracked, if not entirely broken. America is more divided than ever.
“To this day he never knows what doors his accent might close off. My father’s America is fundamentally different than the one politicians speak about.”
I fear that the division is a gift passed on by the forefathers of this nation. It is in our laws and in our way of thinking. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. And the pudding is orange and uses five or six superlatives in one sentence.
I have never known what a unified America looks like except within my children. They hold entire worlds within their bodies. As Black boys, they must fight and cling to the fragility of their childhoods. What does hope look like in an America where a boy’s kindness is sometimes seen as forward, as rude, or as another symptom of his blackness?
Before coming to America, my father sold water bottles in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire to save enough money for the journey west. When he finally came to this country, he worked for years as a cab driver while going to school. He eventually became a Peace Corp Volunteer, got his Master’s in Public Health, then took a job in Liberia. My father is an example of the “American Dream.”
Along the way to achieving this dream, he dealt with severe racism. To this day he never knows what doors his accent might close off. My father’s America is fundamentally different than the one politicians speak about.
The bottles my father sold was his entry fee, his penance for dreaming so large. After he and my mother divorced, I still had to collect bottles for change in order to eat at night. That was the luck of my birth. My inheritance. When I look at my son, I wonder about all the ways that he will have to buy into this America. I wonder if the hope itself will only bring about pain.
“I have to tell my son not to stand too close to anything. To not be too seen. That is my America.”
Why is so much of the American Dream suffering?
Many people tell me that my nine-year-old son is endearing. Not too long ago, a man he had just meet called him cariñoso–being full of affection, he gave the man a hug goodbye. My son likes to read books everywhere and all the time. He is a Minecraft scholar. He has developed a love for language and writes the most charming essays.
I reckon with the fact that he is in a country so rich of culture and opportunity that he is able to have access to all of these parts of himself while far too many people do not see him as a child. I once watched a woman in her 50’s talk to my son as if he were an adult, holding him to those same expectations that he should understand the complexity of her feelings and be responsible for them as well.
I felt nauseous for days because this is what might kill him. I didn’t know how to explain all the ways she posed a threat to my child. Not when she thought he was the danger. In a society that rapidly matures their Black children, my son’s intelligence and kindness can be seen as presumptuous.
If I seem paranoid, it’s because I have reason to be. I’ve watched store owners jump over crates to stand by my son just to make sure he didn’t pocket a bag of chips when all he was doing was telling me his opinion on the colors of the bag. How could he be more American? I have to tell my son not to stand too close to anything. To not be too seen. That is my America. An America full of constant fears.
As I listen to Obama’s speech, I think of its beauty and its holes. I think of how little there is to say about politicians and their words today. While I’m not sure if they are speaking to me, I’m certain they are talking about me.
The 2016 elections showed that there is a different America for everyone. I already knew my America was different when I tell my children, against my better judgment, that they have to work twice or three times as hard to maybe get on equal footing. This sentiment only robs them of their childhoods. We are asked to hope in the face of unrealistic expectations.
Why is so much of the American dream suffering? I remember Obama’s speech today because the hope I have is indeed audacious. After so many televised Black deaths, after the rise in recorded hate crimes, after seeing the school-to-prison pipeline at work, after understanding that no real change can come unless there is a change in our laws–I still ask my son to be a child.
13 years later, in all his sincerity and faults, the political rhetoric is that President Obama is still to blame for our troubles. His kindness was and is questioned. He became suspect the moment he went up on that stage. He stood in for all those minute ways America hates Blackness.
What Obama taught me with that speech was not to hope in America and its politicians or laws, as he may have wanted, but in my children and all the ways they are human.
Black boys, like that Black man: It is audacious, it is bold, and it is American to remain good in a society that vilifies you.