Parenting Black children during quarantine is a different kinda thing

black family with baby

Where do I begin?

I am a Black, queer, feminist, woman who grew up in Oakland, California in the nineteen nineties. I didn’t grow up having much but I had a very loving family. While we had our share of struggles financially and emotionally, we carved out a way to love one another despite the conditions facing Black working class people in the Bay Area. My children, on the other hand, have a very different upbringing than me. While, at times, I feel immensely guilty about their privilege, this quarantine has taught me so many beautiful things about what it means mother Black children in such moments of crises.

Let me start at the beginning.

My partner and I have been together for seventeen years this month, married for fourteen of those years. We met during the first few days of college at the University of Southern California back in 2002. We became fast friends, then video game partners, then close confidants, then we fell in love. It was mushy, and corny, and gross, and all those things. And, with me being both queer and non-monogamous, it was a complicated journey. He was straight and monogamous, had grown up solidly middle-class, and had never had a girlfriend before. Like him, I had never had a serious relationship, just fleeting crushes here and there. My connections to other girls had always been closeted because I wasn’t out. So, our courtship wasn’t welcomed initially. Over time, though, we forged a relationship that made space for both of our sexualities and our complex Black identities.

When we got married and started a family, we talked at length about how to raise our children. We talked about how to keep them rooted in their Blackness despite the ways the world would encourage them to assimilate. We begrudged the reality that they, like my partner, would frequently be the only or one of few Black children in their school and classrooms. Living in southern California when they were born meant that we were lucky enough to experience the racial, religious, and gender diversity we desired for our children. It also meant we were confronted with continuous reminders that everything that glitters in the Golden State isn’t gold. In fact, some of the most brutal and enduring racism we experienced was in southern California.

Now, before anyone starts to turn their nose up at this reflection, thinking, “well, whose fault is that? why not live somewhere where you can be with more Black people? why not put them in public schools? etc,” I will state in plain terms that I am unapologetic about my choices to live in and raise my children in communities that allowed me to heal from the trauma of my childhood. I rebuke the idea that Black people are required to live in underserved and under-resourced communities if they have the means to live elsewhere. More importantly, for Black parents, whose choice to raise children is already mired in the complex challenge of knowing that this world does not want them to survive, deciding to raise them in a community that reduces the likelihood that they will face unnecessary and unrelenting discrimination and hardship is not a choice of judgement or privilege. It is a matter of survival. I want my kids to survive. And, if possible, thrive.

These experiences have meant that our parenting involves both learning and unlearning. While everyday is about accumulating lessons about who they are, what they need, how they are developing, and how we can best support them in becoming decent human adults, we also spend an inordinate amount of time unlearning so many of the things we learned about raising Black children in our own adolescence. We, and by ‘we’ I mean all of us, learned that Black children were unruly, angry, less focused, and cruel. We learned that Black children require a tough hand and a sharp tongue lest they step further out of line. We learned that Black children are not human beings. Rather, that they are little animals to be controlled and domesticated until they figure out how to play well with others.

We learned how to hate Black children.

Stepping into quarantine, I will admit, I was afraid. I work constantly. I travel all the time.

During the week, I spend a lot of time with my partner and children. However, I am privileged in that I am able to carve out time away whether it be for conferences or other academic engagements. I also travel to see partners who live long distance. Quarantine meant all of that was coming to an end. Not only that, I would be mommy, teacher, partner, professor, daughter, and community organizer all at the same time. But, the role that is most important, the one I am most concerned about, is the one that shapes these three Black lives. These lives are our future.

In these two months, my children have shown me the most beautiful world. They have drawn pictures, told stories, made jokes, danced in bubbles as if tomorrow does not exist. I have witnessed their joy and poise in a moment where the world feels as though it is on fire. Their lives breathe cool air into mine.

It took about a week for me to fully grasp this gift. The gift of having each day to spend with these lives that simultaneously honor and challenge mine. No school buses. No rushing to concerts. No doctor’s appointments. No interruptions. Our family is on reset. Our family is fully present in a way I don’t think we’ve been since before having children.

Two nights ago, my twelve year old held a book up to me while sitting on the floor of his bedroom. “I finished reading Beloved,” he said to me.

“That book is Sula, baby,” I told him.

“I know, I’m reading this one now.”

He’s tearing through a pile of books I suggested. He’s reading Morrison. And, as I stood in his doorway, talking to him about why Sethe was struggling to eat in the novel and what the ghosts in the story meant, I smiled at him for his gift. I smiled because he allowed me to be his mother. I smiled because he read a book by a brilliant Black woman, a book that means more to me than most things I’ve ever written. He’s read many books in his twelve years but he knows that these weeks have been dark. He knows that Morrison is a light in my life.

While we are losing so much in the world, I’m grateful for his survival.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.