by Glory Iri
Whenever my daughter asks me something, I give it to her straight. I need her to know that I will never tell her pretty lies or withhold the truth she’s really looking for. I want her to trust me, so that when she needs truthful answers, she will come to me.
She is still innocent. She knows the Christmas presents her parents have paid for aren’t delivered by some jolly old elf, and that babies come from mommies and daddies loving each other. But she doesn’t understand the price we pay in lost time and joy to be able to afford those presents. She doesn’t know the mechanics of how loving fertilizes eggs. She knows enough to satisfy her understanding of the world. Just enough to stop asking more questions and go back to cartoons or the princess chapter books she’s just started reading.
She knows just enough about being black in America to know that some people won’t like her because they believe a lie they were told about her not being as good as them. I’ve told her just enough about it to make sure she knows that if someone doesn’t like her because of her brown skin or cornrowed hair, it’s their problem.
You’d think it would be hard, telling just enough of the truth. It’s not. I’ve gotten good at it. You kinda adjust the way your eyes are looking at the truth, like when you stop looking at the details in front of your face, and focus on what’s beyond that – hello, forest full of trees.
Of course. There’s the matter of the rest of the truth. She watches fairy tales. I watch for a change in the light in her eyes. She trusts me. I distrust the world. We cannot stand among these truths without fully acknowledging them. In time, the very presence of these truths will demand focus and answers. All these partial truths risk my status in her life as her champion of truth.
Every time I try to cultivate the character and integrity that she will need to be her best self as she grows, I risk imparting the idea that others will reciprocate her efforts. When I tell her that we treat people with kindness and respect, no matter who they are, I can also tell her that treating people well will not protect her from some others’ disdain. But there’s no knowledge like earned knowledge, and one day someone will show her, better than I can tell her, that kindness and respectability cannot save her from bigotry.
Every time I try to mold her into being a critical thinker by explaining that there is more than one perspective on every issue, I risk her becoming a victim of people who would one day tell her that she’s being too sensitive about being black. Someone will show her, better than I can tell her, that plausible deniability of white supremacy is so reflexive, people don’t even know they’ve been breathing it in, though they’ll exhale it all over her perceptions, her feelings, and her intuition.
Every time I try to empower her by affirming her ability to achieve her goals and excel at things our society has traditionally deemed masculine, I risk her taking for granted that others will accept her sense of entitlement to pursue any dream. Surely someone will show her, better than I can tell her, that her legitimacy as an achiever and as a woman will constantly be debated by others, and she will constantly have to choose her battles.
Every time I try to encourage her to live her life freely, expressing her artistic gifts according to the song inside of her, I risk her losing her freedom. If her heart tells her that oppression is wrong, if it tells her to fight against injustice, if it tells her to use her voice and agency to push against evil, someone inevitably will show her, better than I can tell her, that a complacent black girl is the kind they like the most.
When she comes to me, disappointment in her eyes, anguish in her heart, searching for the truth of why these things must be, I will not have the answer she wants. I can tell her that it’s not true that these things must be. I can tell her that she can fight to change the dehumanizing effects of racism and misogyny. But I cannot protect her from the ideas and social constructs that devalue her life. I cannot promise her that she will be loved and respected for who she is, instead of who people perceive her to be. I cannot guarantee her that she will change this world. I cannot create a truth for her that will give her the fairy tale endings that inspire her.
While just enough truth will get us through these tender years, the time will come when all the truth I have to give her just won’t be enough for her, or for me. I can only hope she’ll know how hard I tried to give the her the truth – to give her everything she’d need – and how impossible it was to provide her with enough.
Glory Iri is a writer and poet shaped by a family tradition of talking too much. She is a devoted fan of African diasporic fiction. Glory shares her writing at her blog, outheresayin.com.