To be a black child, oftentimes, is to be burdened with the past as preparation for the future. To be a black parent, oftentimes, is to decide when to begin preparing your precious baby for a lifetime of war.
I don’t remember learning about slavery, perhaps because I was taught before I ever picked up a textbook. Now, at 27, I sit with my 7-month-old daughter on our living room carpet. We play with her stuffed elephant, growl until we laugh (because she cannot talk) and admire each other’s curls. In this moment, our blackness is beautiful and completely irrelevant. I wrap myself in moments like this, relishing the glow of her two-toothed smiles, trying to formulate ways I can protect her innocence when she is 7 years old.
As she army crawls around our apartment, I watch videos of a 7-year-old black girl marching in the streets, protesting the murder of men who look like they could be her father. Of men who look like me, murdered by the people a first-grade teacher will try to convince my own daughter work to protect people.
In the moments before leaving home without my own daughter, I imagine my family, years down the line, gathered around a table. My wife and I sit our now 7-year-old down and open up a lifelong conversation about the man she saw die on the news. I holster the fear in my throat so she doesn’t hear my voice quiver as I share how I, too, may leave home and return to her as a headline. How her grandfathers and uncles may become dumping grounds for a stranger’s hatred and gunfire.
When my daughter learns a new skill (for instance, how to make a clicking noise with her tongue), I watch her eyes spark into a bonfire. Every day I whisper truths to her, tell her how strong she is, how kind and clever. I read to her, and when mischief dances across her face, I imagine picking her up from the principal’s office. Perhaps because she spoke out of turn to correct her teacher on history. Or embarrassed a racist classmate by starting a protest during recess. I picture this part of the day with a chuckle and not a grimace, pride flushing my brown cheeks as I sign her out. I let her see my smile, refusing to let her feel she will be punished for upholding her dignity in an institution inundating her with watered-down history, while attempting to criminalize her.
A black father knows the ways in which the world lies to break down the spirit of little black girls, mostly because he watched it happen to his peers. I refuse to police the freedom out of her, even at this early age. I speak to her gently, even in my frustration, as she flips away from diaper changes or yanks baby handfuls of hair from my quarantine beard.
A black father to a black daughter also means managing my male privilege and teaching her to define her own femininity. To keep her ignorant to the realities of misogynoir would be a death wish. I will not teach my daughter to view men, not even black men, as a safe place without proof. She will know what love (familial, romantic and platonic) looks like whenever she remembers me. It will be the respect of her opinion as a black woman. Upholding her dignity as a black woman. Offering protection without ulterior motive and service without expense. She will not be taught to mind her tone to placate others, and when she is spoken out against, she will not be told she is being aggressive. She will have space in her relationships to be vulnerable, because her people will not expect her to be strong for them. Her life will not be marred by unrequited emotional labor.
To be a black child, oftentimes, means your imagination is crushed before it has a chance to expand. My beautiful black girl is fortunate that her father is a poet. I am pouring my whole life into teaching her about her limitless potential. Someday soon, being her father will mean a lifetime of preparing her to love her blackness in spite of the world, and I will be honored. For now, however, it means lifting Daddy’s girl onto my shoulders and letting her tug my hair as we march to our next adventure.