By Sarah Mantilla Griffin
Love is a verb and it is a choice. For mothers of black children in America, it is a dangerous choice. In the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, my phone, email, and Facebook feed lit up with the concerns of mothers like myself, asking: how do we keep our children safe? It is an age-old question with no easy or definite answer. In a society built on white supremacy, black people are always already imperiled. Loving each other, then, has been and continues to be, as Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved, “risky…very risky. For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love.” Loving you—who will constantly be at risk of physical and psychological injury—is perilous, but I wholeheartedly believe that it is a powerful way to enable you to be whole. To that end, the risk could not be more worthwhile.
Until white supremacy is not the bedrock of our society, you will not be safe. In that case, I have decided that the best I can do to keep you out of harm’s way is to render you free. Motherlove becomes radical when it begins to undo the societal structures that perpetuate oppression. When mothers love black children in ways that those children are not supposed or expected to be loved, under our social system, we are practicing a formative, dangerous, and radical loving.
My radical motherlove for you chooses to love your blackness as bell hooks describes, “as political resistance.” I choose to love and nurture not just your physical blackness—the beautiful nut-brown of your skin or the precious curl of your hair—but the parts of you that our world is afraid of, wants to control, wants to stamp out. I choose to love fiercely those aspects of your being that, when they interface with your physical blackness, will make you threatening to our social order. I love your sharp attitude, your creative thinking, your explosive temper, your quick reflexes, your independent streak, your outspoken nature, your fearlessness, and your intellectual curiosity. These are the parts of you that I will teach you to let shine and are also the traits that people will find most troublesome about you.
I believe that in trying to protect you by squelching any of these qualities, by teaching you to be afraid, by raising you to be the black man that our system wants you to be, would be to rob you of your self. In this loss you would also lose your ability to feel free. I am more worried about the damage this forfeiture would do than I am about the confrontations with the social order that you will have to encounter throughout your life. So I will instruct you to be whoever you are, but to make smart choices. I know that America has very little space for physically and psychically strong black men, that your margin for error will be paper thin, and that there will be moments when you will be forced to compromise. And when the day comes that your boldness hurts you, in a way big or small, I know that a piece of my soul will die.
Mothers of black children who choose to love radically sacrifice nothing less than our selves in the pursuit of a revolution that begins with our children’s mental and physical health and ends with those children transforming our country and our world. Radical loving is not just filling the holes society leaves, but overfilling them. It is creating mountains, not simply moving them, one “whole” black child at a time.
Radical love generates community; this radicalism is known among women, is passed on generationally, and is shared across racial lines. Every day, as I stroll you around, I find community with black women I don’t know, who catch my eye and smile to let me know I’m doing a good job, the right thing. I share this community with a circle of friends of all colors who actively love their black children as I love you. I remember that my black grandmother loved my white mother because she saw how my mother radically loved the blackness of her children at a time when loving blackness was even less popular than it is now. I aim to love you as radically as my mother has loved me.
Keeping you safe is not enough. I want you to be happy, fulfilled, and challenged. I want you to live in joy, light, and love. This is why I have chosen to love you radically. You are the revolution if you truly believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that you are free.
Sarah Mantilla Griffin is a mother and a cultural critic. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. with honors in American Studies from Stanford University. Her research primarily focuses on African-American literature, with special interests in women’s writing, black feminist theory, and sound theory.