What My Mom Taught Me about What it Means to Be a Black Woman
(and How I’m Redefining It)
by Elizabeth Burton
Edited by Sarah DeSouza
TW: eating disorders, homophobia
When I was 4 or 5, I was dead set on becoming a teacher. My mom taught elementary school, and whether or not I really understood what she did, I knew that I wanted to be like her. She was the model and blueprint for everything I aspired to be. She liked pink and green, so I liked pink and green. She wore dresses, so I did too. As I have grown up and grown away from her, I have realized that her visions of Blackness, womanhood, and the world were never going to be the same as mine. In the simplest way my anxious mind knows how, I have tried (and continue to) make sense of what my mom taught me about what it means to be a Black woman and why.
1. You cannot be Black and gay
I was taught from a very young age that one of the worst things you could be was gay. It was a sin so black, it would altogether erase your Blackness– you would be cut off from your family, your church, your culture, your very being. It was something so awful that it couldn’t even be named – it was indicated by a knowing look passed around the dinner table and often accompanied by my grandma rolling her eyes and letting her wrist fall limp in mockery. The first time I tried to come out to my mom was when I was 15, and I sobbed and finally said the forbidden words, adding in “I think” before “I’m gay” because I couldn’t so boldly assert what I already knew to be true. She looked at me and said that it was okay, everything would be fine. It was a phase, she said. It was because I had all those white friends. I would come to my senses. I’m still waiting for that to happen.
2. The golden rule doesn’t apply to you –
My entire life I was taught that to be a good person, I had to be well-behaved, quiet, ladylike, honest, churchgoing, respectful of my elders, and on top of my school work. I had to follow these instructions to make my mom happy and I wanted to, but it was almost impossible to figure out what “being good” was when it was being constantly reimagined to match what my parents felt like dealing with. I can remember the many times I would cry and tell my mom that she’d hurt my feelings, and she’d tell me to stop acting like the little (white) girls I ran behind at school. I never knew what that meant. I still don’t understand why Black people use “respect your elders” as an excuse to treat their children like they aren’t allowed to think or feel. I didn’t understand why I had to treat someone any better than they treated me. I soon learned to be quiet when I was angry, and that eventually turned into being quiet whenever I felt anything.
3. Black people don’t get eating disorders, anxiety, depression, or ‘whatever they’re calling it nowadays’
I have struggled with anxiety, depression, and disordered eating since middle school. I haven’t always known these problems had names, I just knew that sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed for months at a time or that if something set me off, the world felt like it was getting smaller until I felt like I was no longer a part of it. I tried to ask my mom to see a therapist several times, but I was always told I needed to pray and take my vitamins. Black people have to be stronger than this, she said. I would tell her I was struggling, and she would tell me that my life was nothing compared to what she had seen growing up in the projects. In her mind, I had no reason to be depressed or anxious. Even harder than actually experiencing these mental health issues was feeling like I had no one who could understand what I was going through. No one would even listen to what I was going through.
4. Nothing is ever wrong, and if it is, don’t tell nobody
One of my dad’s favorite stories from my childhood is the time I was sitting in the backseat of the car, and I asked him to move the sun because it was in my eye uh s. I was too young to remember this, but in his memory, I thought he was capable of anything. The bigger point is that I thought he would find a way to do anything for me. Years later, I would find out that the person I knew for the first 13 years of my life was not really who my dad was. The man who came to every school field trip or packed my lunches had disappeared overnight, and I just had to deal with it. My family asks about our strained relationship, shake their heads, and mumble to themselves, “well, he’s still your dad.” At first, I couldn’t understand why my mom sat by and watched, or even why she dealt with their comments herself. I know now that arguing with people dead set on not believing you never works.
5. All we got in this world is each other
My mom has always said some variation of this to me. Sometimes the “we” is family, sometimes it’s Black people, sometimes it’s just Black women. She almost always says this in response to me complaining. I resented it when I was younger, angry that solidarity was only invoked when something was wrong, especially since this version of Black solidarity almost always was meant to force them, a.k.a the rest of us into silence. There was no open forum to honestly feel my feelings, let alone talk about them. I blame that on my mom, and I imagine she blames it on her mom, who blames it on hers and so on. For a while, I thought, it sure seems like the one thing connecting us to each other and the world is our silent struggle.
“My impulse is to end this on a positive note, but I am accepting that there isn’t one – yet.”
My impulse is to end this on a positive note, but I am accepting that there isn’t one – yet. In my process of unlearning, I am fighting the urge to find the bright side of trauma. That thinking isn’t even real optimism, it’s just another way of coping with and surviving everything that comes with being a Black woman. Even writing this will not suddenly create a world where I can share this writing with my own mother, but maybe it moves me a little bit closer. And maybe in that world where I can share it with her, Black girls can belong to themselves and no one else.