I think Black girls are magic. I ride for Rachel. I am a SOLHOT “Stan” (see why). My dream job is an artist’s residency at Spelman College. I’m writing a dissertation about Black girls in contemporary literature and if anyone should ask me who my favorite character is, I’d say Hazel. Hands down. Toni Cade Bambara’s early collection of stories, Gorilla My Love, is a slept-on masterpiece. The first person narrator of most of the stories is a brilliant, back-talking, self-assured Black girl who won’t be fooled. Hazel is her name and she won’t let you forget it. I love seeing life through Hazel’s eyes, and I especially appreciate her sense of justice, backed up by a fearlessness that I can’t muster in my thirties. I love reading Hazel; I’m just having a little trouble raising her.
My love for Hazel is a thin line between awe and envy. If I’d only been more like Hazel, I sometimes reason, I would have made it through girlhood with smaller wounds. If I had Hazel’s confidence, I’d be less cautious and more outgoing. I’d spot a liar before my heart was broken. I’d only cry when I was angry. I’d beat back depression as if it was a bully and I was carrying a big stick. I’d finish my dissertation. Three things are clear. First: I am not Hazel. Second: My daughter is. Third: Little Miss Hazel probably had to practice her sassiness at home.
My toddler is practicing for sure. A Scorpio child, confident and driven. She stopped looking at her feet the day after she learned to walk. She strikes up conversations with strangers and pretends she can’t speak when adults are too earnest. She walks into her classroom and goes straight to her favorite toy. In her last few class photos, she is the girl with her arms crossed, frowning because she thinks it folly to stop playing just to stare at a camera—she does not smile on demand. She has never run to me to report a toy theft; she’d rather put her energy into retrieving the toy by any means necessary. She stares at people when they gush about her beauty as if she knows that pretty won’t save you from the dragons that tend to show up around bedtime. One day, her people will describe her with an adjective we only reserve for the fiercest: “that’s a baaaaaaaaaad…” and a noun that will be chosen based on their politics and the curse words they grew up hearing. And they’ll be right. But the people who look at her today and take away all but one “a” are wrong.
My daughter’s temperament is her own, either by blood or spirit, so I feel called to protect and respect her confidence. But it’s hard—especially in public. She’d rather help me push the cart than sit in it. People behind me smirk when I let her. She rolls around on concrete when it’s time to leave the zoo (to be fair, it was half-past naptime). She is brilliant enough to trust herself and test her limits.
I know what she’s doing. More importantly, I know what I’m doing. Janet Lansbury is one of my “go-to” childcare experts. An advocate of respectful parenting, she advises caregivers to consider childrens’ processes even when they don’t seem to follow directions. Respectful, firm limits are the keys to a centered parenting, a style that is neither overly authoritative nor overly permissive. When I’m starting to feel challenged by toddler behavior, Lansbury would more than likely encourage me to reconsider my parenting goals. I have. I want a safe child who respects her own boundaries and the boundaries of others. I’m not so invested in obedience. I was trained in it. So were my parents. So were many of my peers. I know what it does. The reality is, however, that for Black girls (and otherwise marginalized children whose specific needs are ignored by most parenting experts) willfulness (read disobedience) has dire consequences that leave me with unanswered questions.
Should I raise my daughter for the world that is or the world that I imagine? At what point will her spiritedness be read as badness by teachers with training in racist stereotypes and control of the tracking system. Is it even safe for Black girls to be this free? What can I say to all of the people who witness my gentle parenting and judge me as an unfit, young mom? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I know one thing for sure. If my daughter were my Mama, she wouldn’t give a damn about what others thought of her parenting. So I’m not the only one in this relationship with lessons to teach.
Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta.
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