“Let’s raise children who won’t have to recover from their childhoods.”
So this one late afternoon, I had come back home from doing some shopping downtown and having catch-up drinks with a friend. As my ritual, I went into my grandmother’s bedroom to greet her and make her aware of my return. As I stood next to her bed, she notices, for the first time, my faux sparkling, silver diamond ring on my left ring finger—which I wear to attempt to deter men from approaching or harassing me on the street.
“Hao Katli, did they engage you this afternoon?” she enquires in a startled voice.
I reply, “Aowo, mara Koko. You would probably know beforehand before I even get engaged that there is someone in my life.”
But in an ideal world right? Because truth is, if you are a “black kid”—whether you are as young as 18 or as grown-up and old as 28, these sort of topics give us ‘ama high-high’ when we have to bring them to the table with our parents.
The scenario with my granny really got me thinking, like, “Oh snap! What will I actually do when I meet a potential suitor, and we are talking about marriage? Or if I fall pregnant?”. I mean, I’m at that age that either could happen (well, maybe not the having babies part though). Do I gather the whole family and be like this is what is popping while my entire body is in knots and crosses, heart failure imminent from the rapid beats? I really need a manual on how to approach elders concerning serious and sensitive matters because I am 24 but I still find myself sweating when I need to tell my mom or granny something of a serious nature.
That, for me, is all that is wrong with black parenthood. So many of us fear our parents because things like communication without consequence are so unfamiliar with the way we relate to them. We try our level best to make things palatable for them so as not to offend them or be “disrespectful.”
How many times have we, as black children, had to pace up and down our rooms, trying to come up with the most agreeable way to bring up a hard matter or request before our parents? Changing words and phrases, practising the “humble and innocent look” before the mirror to at least lure in our parents to be a bit more attentive to us? How many times?
Fact is, we all know that black parents and listening are most certainly NOT in the same WhatsApp group. Barely five words through what you want to say, your mom or dad is already giving a long lecture that often is completely off-context to what you really wanted to say. This is why there will always be this barrier between black parents and their children. Our parents will never really get to know our deepest desires and the actual contents of our hearts because if something does not make sense to them, it is automatically ruled-out as wrong, and you dare not bring it up again.
And the problem lies with the hierarchies within our black families. Children are seen as the lowest and most inferior individuals, and then we wonder why as children and young people all our thoughts, emotions and feelings have almost always been invalidated, silenced and vilified because “you are just a child here.” And you see, every child wants to be heard, they want the assurance that: first and foremost they are seen, and they matter to their parents—and sadly so many of us have been deprived of that.
It is, for this reason, why I believe overcoming the hierarchical barrier between black parents and children is a necessary element of redefining black parenthood because many of us in black households grew up being told that parents are not our friends. And that for me, I believe has closed so many doors for parents and their daughters or sons to have completely open lines of honest, frank, sincere and authentic conversations. I know that so many of us wish if only our parents could be a little bit more open-minded and understanding so that we can open ourselves up to them a bit more—without fear.
I remember when I was a teenager I greatly envied my peers who had the liberty to openly share their tumultuous experiences with their parents while most of us if we dared try to do the same, we would be scolded and told: “You are too young to be thinking about such.” Or the peers whose parents allowed them to go to parties and even put it on themselves to drop them off or pick them up if the events ended late at night. While some of us the only way we could even ever enjoy such a teen luxury is if we sneak out of the house or fabricate some story about having to sleepover at a friend’s house to do a “project.” And it’s no wonder that it’s when I was a teenager that I felt the most alone and estranged from my own parents. Here I was, as a 16 or 19-year-old going through the most life-changing experiences and yet I could not share them with the people who are my first point of contact in this world because “your mom is not your friend.”
You know, this hierarchical barrier starts being tricky when you are an adult. You grow up, and suddenly one party (usually the parent) expects the other to be completely open when the relationship has been heavy-laden with so much censorship and secrecy for decades. I find it difficult how that would work when years on end, as the son or daughter, you had been scolded for bringing up uncomfortable topics.
How can we then heal as the black community, when the most fundamentally crucial aspect of any society, i.e., family, is the site of oppressive silencing in our community? Often the topics that are considered the most taboo are the ones which so many of us are dying from. But our screams and cries are often invalidated and seen as an inconvenience.
And I wish as black kids we would experience the sort of relationship with our parents that never requires us to ever censor ourselves in fear of consequences. Imagine if conversations around sex and sexuality were not met with discomforting vagueness? Or being able to have intimate exchanges with our parents, where they know us deeply, and we know them, too? I long for that, quite intently.
At some point, we also need to talk about how within a black family context, we have for the longest time, valorized “strict parenting.” But how strict parenting has often been synonymous with controlling and violent parenting (yes, I said it, black parenting is downright violent). Words and phrases like “tough love” have always been used to mask the emotional, mental and even physical abuse that our parents often inflict on us. And our parents tell us that it is how they were raised. “Look how we turned out,” they say to try and okay the abuse they endured from their parents and elders; insinuating that they turned out fine. But they are not fine. We sit down with our uncles and aunts whom our grandfathers would beat until they bled, and you realise that they are far from being fine, they are silently traumatised. And that’s when we understand that their traumas are passed down to us, they re-enact the abuse that they endured, but in different ways.
With all of this, I feel that I have only touched the surface of the toxicity of black parenting that so many of us have experienced. There are so many things that we have taken and bore through from our parents that we wouldn’t dare tolerate if we experienced them in any of our other significant relationships. That, therefore, points to us the profoundly toxic nature that black parenthood tends to exude. It is, thus, so important that we all do the work of conversing and reimagining ways that we can start emulating a different and healthier form of black parenting. I believe that when we resolve ourselves to heal the black family and its parenthood, it is only then that we can start going through the journey of breeding a healthier black nation.
And being at a place in my life where, a few years from now, I’ll have children of my own, it has also forced me to look at the ways that I’ve related to my own parents and how they’ve related to me. With that, I am putting it on my own shoulders to do the hard emotional and mental work of modelling to my kids a different kind of black parenting. The kind of parenting that does not insist on them being less inferior or less important to me. But the kind of parenting that assures them, in every way and always, that their voices are valid, their experiences are valid. That as their mother, I’m not there to be a dictator or police their every thought, action and choice, but to be a loving guide. That is how I hope to contribute to redefining the experience of black parenthood, at least for my children and every young person who will ever look to me as their mother, parent or guardian. And I say it is a hard emotional and mental work because I am not naive at the reality of displaying something that one has never witnessed. But I firmly believe that it is possible, it is possible for us to work on emulating a new kind of black parenthood collectively.