I JUST GAVE BIRTH, AND I STILL CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT GEORGE FLOYD
In late May, I eagerly awaited the arrival of my second baby. As my due date—May 28th—approached, I found myself spending as much time thinking about the recent and disturbing murder of George Floyd as I spent thinking about giving birth. Unable to shake the image of his face smashed against the ground beneath an officer’s knee, and unsuccessful at distracting myself with other pursuits, I finally sat down and wrote. My fears of delivering a new life into this world poured onto the page, as did my hopes for justice and transformation. To my delight, my written reflection on birthing in the time of George Floyd was published in the HuffPost on May 31, just two days before I gave birth to my daughter Zuri.
Just as I did in the days before giving birth, I am crying again, thinking about George Floyd. But this time, I sit, bawling salty tears over my five-day-old sleeping baby. I can’t help but reflect on the contrast between what I have been doing this week—recovering in bed with my newborn—and what my community has been doing—marching in solidarity at the nightly Black Lives Matter/George Floyd memorial protests. Part of me wishes I could be a part of that number, to be another heat-generating body in this march toward justice (because I do believe we are winning). But I also know that I am exactly where I need to be, serving the exact purpose I am meant to serve in this moment. It helps me to put my thoughts into writing. I feel that, at least, although I cannot contribute my body to the nightly protest counts, I have added my voice to the choir. I have added one more breath of oxygen to the flame. And, as I watch from my bed the unfolding pandemic and uprising, I see that this world is indeed on fire.
Reading the New York Times’ recent retelling of George Floyd’s life wrings hot tears from me. I see too many family members and friends in him. I see too vividly his Third Ward home in Houston, where I have experienced the hospitality of Mama Afua’s community birth center; and his chance at a new life in Minneapolis, where I have spent so many years of my own life. He was an athlete, a lover, a brother: “He would shake your hand with both hands.” Yet, a tiny detail, something about the image of him being so very tall—it hurts me. I look down at my fresh-born baby and I feel a multitude of fears. I feel the fear of every mother everywhere, who has watched their child grow into an adult that the world will not recognize as “still my little baby.” I think of my tall Black brother and I beg the world to remember that, beneath six-plus feet of muscle and bone, he is still my mother’s little baby.
In the days after the home birth of my precious new daughter, we didn’t leave the house. When my husband eventually decided to take my four-and-a-half year-old for a walk, we discovered that, suddenly, none of her shoes fit. Only another parent can understand the battery of mixed emotions that hit me as I took in the betrayal of her six pairs of too-small shoes. While I had settled into three days of seemingly timeless post-birth bliss, cuddling with my family under a blanket of oxytocin, time had snuck into my home and pulled my oldest child further away from me. Another shoe size away, another growth spurt into a person I must eventually entrust to the world—to the people who will inevitably forget that, inside her grown-up frame, she is still my milk-sweet, fleshy baby.
With a young babe in arms, parents experience both the demanding call of the present and the nagging pull of the yet-uncharted future. We can’t help but wonder: who will this little being become? Bleary-eyed, playful musings on my children’s futures quickly grow wearisome when I am shaken back into the current moment and see my world again with clear eyes. My morning paper barely mentions yet another killing of a Black trans person. Another white man emails me to inform me of “how articulate” I am. I remember my last pre-COVID-19 Creole dinner plate, served by the cool grins of an all-white front of house staff, while the Black bussers and dishwashers sweat—tipless and unseen—in the hot kitchen. Today, my neighbors tut tut and shake their heads over the news, traveling slowly down the block like a summer afternoon flood: “Mister beat his wife again last night, tut tut.”
My four-year-old cups both her hands to my ear and whispers, “I’m going to be an enty-mologist and a ballerina dancer when I grow up, mama.” The racism, sexism, and other elaborately designed systems of social control and limitation that she will face daily stream past my mind’s eye, but I hold her face and return a smile of confidence into her trusting gaze. Is it willful ignorance or fierce hope when a Black mother chooses to hold up her children’s aspirations, untarnished in one hand while holding the limitations of our society at bay with the other hand? Pulling my one-week-old close and clinging to the already fading memory of the moment she emerged from my body, eyes wide to possibility, I know it is hope we Black mothers manifest.
For new mothers, postpartum hormones are a blessing and a curse. The tears, night sweats, adrenaline shakes, and fatigue blur into the elation, empathy, and empowerment that I feel as a new (again) mother. I remember deciding after my first birth that postpartum empathy is truly a superpower. I wrote a treatise-slash-Afro-futuristic fantasy novel in my mind about a society that bestows all political decision-making to its newly postpartum mothers, believing the world would be improved by their enhanced capacity for empathy. Imagine it: a congressional chamber with a circle of padded recliners occupied by new mothers and their nurslings, aids handing out briefing notes, mother’s milk tea, and hot water bottles, while we take on the questions our leaders are faced with today. Our council of mothers would not shy away from dismantling the police force, as our Democratic representatives wish to avoid. So fresh from wrestling our new earthlings from the precipice of life and death, we postpartum mothers would know what it means to build something new, and we would not fear the challenge. Our hormonally mediated empathy would not be shamed—as it so often is—but rather honored by our communities, and called upon in matters of justice. In George Floyd, we would, of course, see our own sons, and rage would fill our hearts. But, simultaneously, in Derek Chauvin and his three police accomplices, we would also see our children’s faces. And with compassionate sorrow, we would ask each other, “What has this world done to these men?” And then we would boldly face the painful labor of assigning just punishment for Floyd’s life taken in cruelty, and joyfully deconstructing the institutions that gave these officers the surety that their Black brother’s life was so very meaningless.
Far as we may be from my new mother’s congress, I remind myself to cherish this potent emotional experience that I have today, and not to shy away from the burden of empathizing so many mothers’ pain. I am not typically “a crier,” but I am letting the tears flow today. As they fall onto my daughter’s bare chest, she vaguely stirs in her sleep. I imagine all of the emotional energy that I am taking in from the world outside swirling through me: hope, grief, and rage being processed into the composition of my tears, and then absorbed into her innocent body, becoming her. But her early exposure to society’s suffering does not scare me. I am the tap, and she is the garden. Like all parents, I hope to give her what she needs from this world in order to not just survive, but thrive. My task is not to filter out all of the pain for her, but to walk alongside her, to help her bear it. We cannot learn to build something new if we do not know what came before us. Like the protesters, journalists, preachers, and freedom fighters outside the shelter of my bedroom walls, like the eight Minneapolis city council members willing to make history by dismantling their police department this week, maybe she will be brave enough to burn it all and grow something new from the ashes.
illustrations Victoria Allen