The Masks We Wear: Finding Ourselves Between Self-Respect and Respectability
Words: Nuola Akinde
A mom reflects on the respectability politics she was raised on, and the self-respect she wants to foster in her children.
“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties…”
“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
My mother reminds me that we never leave the house without washing our faces, neatly combed hair, putting on lotion and clean, ironed clothing. Even just to go to the grocery store, or play with friends. Especially when we are going to school. Further still, ladies use their inside voices and their table manners at all times—even in the school cafeteria. Especially when the other children are running around like they don’t have home training. I rub cocoa butter lotion all over my knobby knees and elbows. My prepubescent body still straight as a palm tree, but ripe with questions. This is the beginning of learning we do not belong just to ourselves. I am my ancestors wildest dreams. I must behave accordingly.
My Black Studies professor chastises me for walking around campus babywearing the white children whom I babysit. He wants to be sure I’m getting paid for my time, and can’t understand why I insist on “acting like these babies are mine.” While we’re already speaking, he reminds me that I’m not “like these kids” and it's important that I don’t come to class with the ripped jeans and day old t-shirts that I’ve taken to wearing, the unofficial uniform of our liberal arts campus. There’s no need to ask which kids he’s talking about, though I’m tempted to out of spite. I flush with anger and disappointment. Embarrassed and outraged that I have been misread. Fearful that, perhaps, he has seen me too clearly.
My oldest is dressing for Kindergarten. Unlike his nature preschool where I am a well-known and respected staff member, his private school is prestigious, for “gifted” children. I try to remind him the rules of going to a school where he is one of a half-dozen black children: wash your face, wear nice clothes, follow directions. These conflict with the other lessons he’s learned from me: dress for the weather, think for yourself, be prepared to get dirty. The duality repeats every time we go to the doctor, or he plays at my side during a meeting: Sit still. Go run. Be quiet. Be bold. Cooperate. Assert yourself. I feel it myself, when I bite my tongue in meetings while working in a “feminist” organization; or when I present to new educators the importance of anti-bias and inclusive practices, setting aside the knowledge that I am a token myself.
The (white) conscious parenting community encourages us to respect and support children‘s autonomy, often above all else. Let them wear pajamas to school and do cartwheels in libraries. What’s the harm? Leave them to their innocence and the natural consequences of their folly, for that is the right of the child. America tells us that Black children are dangerous, uncouth and fearsome. In private, parents of Black and brown children discuss the chasm between the way we’d like to parent, and the skills our children need to survive. The consequences for our children are different. I ask sister-friends in an online group how we reconcile and bridge the chasm. There are no answers, only echoes of my pleading refrain.
This country is both circus and war zone. I two step across the tightrope of motherhood, teetering with each step between preparation and protection. I beat the drum and ready myself for battle, locs tied in a heavy knot atop my head, red polish on my toenails, pen in hand, baby at breast. We are at war. Not the race riots of yesterday and yesteryear, but the battle for the hearts of our children, the blessedness of their childhoods, the everpresent tug between Freedom and Fear. Grasping for answers, I look to the breadcrumbs laid before me by my ancestors. I am both bridge and carriage, guarding the next generation through the wilderness. My map is incomplete, but I repeat these tactics as needed, hoping to chart a new way alongside my brave ones:
Respect play as their most important work. I try to make sure that my children have long, uninterrupted spans of free play every single day, especially outdoors. Since we started our homeschooling journey this has become significantly easier, but even when I was working a minimum of 60 hours a week and shuffling children to three different schools, I still made sure they had time to play.
The cognitive and social-emotional benefits are innumerable. There will be many times in their lives when they have to grow up too soon. Respecting and preserving their childhood is one of my most cherished forms of activism.
Speak honestly, but do not burden. When heading into spaces where the white gaze or the State is heavily present, I tell my children that in the space we are heading, people will likely judge you by what you look like and how you speak. Some people believe that if you dress, behave, or pronounce your words a certain way you are more honest, smart, and kind.
Sometimes we fight against this idea, and other times we use the tools that we have to get what we need. For example, at the library we use quiet voices and walking feet to show respect for the space, that we understand that rules, and that we are able to manage ourselves just fine. I have these conversations sparingly, and intermixed with sufficient time for the aforementioned free play.
Fill them up. My childhood was filled with images, texts, plays, dances, spices, and spirits of Africa and the Diaspora. It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized how incredibly fortunate I was to have a home space that was curated for fostering a positive racial and cultural identity.
Show your children that there are so many ways to honor themselves and their ancestors. Fill them up with the knowledge of how beautifully and cosmically black they are. Tell them of the Yoruba empire and the reign of Shango before you teach them the tenacity of Nat Turner. Show them the statue of Queen Moremi before you read them the story of Harriet Tubman.
We are royal. We are rebellious. We are everything there has ever been. This will root them in the storms of life, and they will carry that knowledge through the injustices of tomorrow.
My children are plaiting a tapestry of loved ones, with brighter colors and tighter bonds, in a decolonized space and time. Perhaps they are raising small humans as well, perhaps not. Whatever their paths, they have been traveled well, with light feet and open hearts.
More than any other aspect of life, mothering has taught me there are few certainties, fewer still are the things within our control. I step into longing for what may be the most essential, primordial desire of all. For my children to have more, to be better, to heal the world and themselves. For today, I’ll lean into my tenderness, rather than my terror, place simplicity over shame, and walk hand in hand with my children through this wilderness. Remembering all the while to stop and delight in the small wonders. No matter the circumstance, there is no greater gift that we can give our children and ourselves.