When I opened Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, it was already months after most media outlets had reviewed it. I perused some of the hot-takes and saved others to read later. I’m late for everything these days. And sometime around the day I delved into Coates’ love letter to his son, I discovered my period was late.
I read the book in my own sweet time (because tired, pregnant, and relocating), let the words grow and take root in me like my nascent little Button. As my husband expressed his excitement over the possibility of having a son, I eavesdropped on Coates’ conversation with his own.
It felt like eavesdropping because, as many Black women noted, Between the World and Me explores the concurrent limits and boundlessness of Black masculinity in the context of racist America. Women are very much at the periphery of Coates’ dialogue. I am okay with this relative absence primarily because I understand Black women are still there, literally in flesh as well as spirit, even if we do not appear on every page.
To be honest, this is how I have seen myself as a Black woman in most Black men’s lives–present without being primary.
In about two weeks I find out whether I will become the mother of a son. If I have a boy, I will be the first Black woman he knows. It cannot get much more primary than this. More than just awaiting another bundle of joy, the implications of mothering a Black boy have weighed heavily on me in ways having a daughter does not.
The crux of Between the World and Me is a Black father realizing his limited time left to make intimate impressions on his son and deciding how to encapsulate what Blackness can mean to the boy. I’ve decided to engage the points he raises in the book and share my favorite parts with you all here, as I reflect on what is Black womanhood’s contribution to Black manhood. I read the book, then, with a parallel question in my mind:
What wisdom would I impart to my little Black son, should I have one?
Our children begin as but ideas in our head; time and touch shape them into people we call by name and know by heart. I love the way Coates pictured his son Samori’s growth into manhood as part of a galactic orchestration.
All this time you were growing into words and feelings; my beautiful brown boy, who would soon comprehend the edicts of his galaxy, and all the extinction-level events that regarded you with a singular and discriminating interest.
It meant worlds to me that a Black man would find and write beauty into the form of his male child–not just envision him as virile or handsome, but beautiful. In that vein, I wrote to the small, already loved being in my womb at 8 weeks into our journey together:
[Boy child or girl child? I wonder who this is in my belly. This precious time, when you are quite nearly formless, perhaps genderless, when you have no other name but the possibility of existence–I cherish this. Later, I pray, we will have time for hard minutiae. I will catalog the wrinkles of your little body with the tip of my finger. I picture your body, now an excited bundle of cells growing more rapidly than I can count. You are but kernel waiting to explode into being.]
Coates spent much time focusing on the sanctity of the body, his own and his son Samori’s. For him, the black male body is a subject of great preoccupation: its safety, its position in the American mythology, its morphing strictures.
But you are a Black boy, and must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you.
As a Black woman always instructed to guard her female body in ways Black men are not, I viewed this quote possibly through a lens Coates did not intend.
[Little brown man-child, when I think about ways a Black boy must be physically self-aware, I cannot help but think of women. Forgive my self-absorption. What does it mean to tell my Black daughter to guard herself from Black boys if I am raising a Black boy? I want to raise you, a son, to be responsible for your own body but considerate of others’. Understand that no body–save your own– is for your possession. But your self-ownership is paramount.]
Coates’ son, in the home stretch of adolescence, is no doubt growing through the rangy awkwardness of teen bodies and emotions. I particularly appreciated him telling Samori that his feelings are not an occasion for apology.
I am speaking to you as I always have–as the sober and serious man I have always wanted you to be, who does not apologize for his human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. My wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.
Recently, I was discussing the humanity of feelings and how we often deny men the range of emotions we ascribe to women. What we do not often say about men is this: their physical presence–height, long arms, unbridled smile–is often more tolerated than their emotional presence.
[Little brown man-child, let no one neuter your emotions. Let no one dictate what boundaries over which your feelings are too messy to spill. People–men and women alike–fear a man who does not apologize for the honest spectrum of his humanity. So be angry. They will expect this of you. But allow yourself the dignity of hurt. Experience joy. Above all, like the best men I have known, show kindness. Never offer excuse for your capacity to love, because it will be the first lesson I aim to teach you.]
I don’t know any parent who sets out to raise a child and does so without any errant regrets. Coates names a poignant wish, in retrospect, for his son’s development:
We are entering our last years together, and I wish I had been softer with you.
If Coates had trouble being soft with his son, perhaps my struggle will be softness in moderation. I am pillowing bosom and squishy tummy. I rock tears dry and rain kisses on invisible boo-boos. But if I am helping to raise a man, what would he need from me?
[Little brown man-child, I need you to know that you can value softness as much as strength. I will be iron for you where it counts most: in the school system, when you warrant correction, when others encroach upon your body in ways you do not accept. If you fall, I will give you room to learn to pull yourself up. But I will not tell you to “man-up” while you are yet child. The world will do that for me.]
There was a time when I feared having a son more than having a daughter. But Between the World and Me felt more like an ode to Black fatherhood than a racial instruction book. If the answer of “how to mother a Black boy?” is teaching him love and self-determination, growing with him as he learns to live free in his Black body, then I fear I will never be fully ready. But are any of us?
Stay tuned to see if Button is a boy or a girl!