Culture & Conversation Family

For My Son When Love Is Not Enough

Shantae Johnson

I have learned about my shortcomings, strength, and resilience while being your mama.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

I was a 22-year-old carefree Black girl going to school at a local community college and working part-time at a sports arena called the Rose Garden.

I have never looked at life through rose-colored glasses, but always enjoyed the ride of self-evolution.

On one of my nightclub adventures, I met a man at a downtown club on reggae night. Tall, Colombian and Nicaraguan, street-savvy and swag-rich, it was no wonder his nickname was Goldy. Little did I know a few months into our relationship we would create you, my Aztec-African warrior. The same day I found your imprint in my womb, your father got entangled in the criminal justice system, and his life and ours got wrapped up in it.

I was distraught and shocked that I was going to be a mother, and a Black single one at that. This was not a part of my destiny, I thought. But here I was with a sweet prince to care for.

I have known no greater love than the one I have for you and the strength I have received from being a mama to you. Lately, I’ve noticed that you are longing for your days of adulting. Trust me: It is not all that it is cracked up to be. Yes, at 16, ​you are learning more about what you want to do and making that known. I want you to know that I have had to fight tooth and nail for everything I have. Nothing was just given freely. Yet I’m free!

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It was when you were new to the world and me that I learned how strong I really am. As the days turned to months of weekly letters and visits to your dad in dirty visiting rooms, I learned of your other siblings. Still, I held my crown straight.

Although I was categorized as a single mother, I had a community that poured into me and sustained me.

Grandparents from maternal and paternal sides of the family showered you with so much love, affectionate embraces, toys, and praise, overcompensating so you wouldn’t notice the loss of your father in physical form and presence. Your yearning for a daddy has always been there. It took me 16 years to really see and feel the impacts.

All children need to be nurtured with affirmations of their pure goodness, and I worked hard to root those affirmations in Blackness and what it means to have community. As abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”

During school days, the secrecy of having a father in jail was hard. Your unconditional love for him helped you to push past the stigma of having a father who was not present. Bright-eyed, you embraced where we had arrived. I also came to terms with my shackles of secrecy. Here I was a woman with a son whose father was incarcerated for many years and could not contribute financially to his family, be a part of parent-teacher conferences, football games, drum lessons, and disciplining.

Today, my fear of institutionalized racism propelling you into the whirlwind of the school-to-prison pipeline or toward death causes me many sleepless nights.

A 2015 New York Times investigation found, “African-American men have long been more likely to be locked up and more likely to die young, but the scale of the combined toll is nonetheless jarring. It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men—disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police—and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands.”

The odds are not in your favor, son. This world is not colorblind, and race is a social construct that shapes the quality of one’s life. Not being able to protect you is a Black mother’s greatest fear.

When your second father, Papa aka Grandpa Floyd, passed away, you lost not only a guardian but also a life coach, protector, friend, and cheerleader. I as a mother could not protect you—again. Our lives were turned upside down by cancer, having to move and losing some of our familiar community. The day Papa died, a little bit of you died with him. You were heartbroken, and I didn’t know how to stop my own bleeding heart—let alone how to handle yours with care.

I woke up from the daze of heartache only to feel fucking excruciating pain.

I used to be able to anticipate your needs as my baby boy. Offer a sweet treat, a hug, and a dance party to heal wounds. But this new young man that stands before me is hard to read. My influence lessens as outside influences get louder.

I’m learning to embrace you just as you are, but still have a long way to go. I love when you share a new song and a smile. I learn about your journey through listening.

Being a young man of color in this world is hard and something I will never know. I know that you want the freedom to be an individual who doesn’t always have to be conscious of how the world sees you, just like A$AP Rocky said in a recent interview:

They’re not forcing me to do shit. I’m just gonna stay black and die. Why, because I’m black? So every time something happens because I’m black I gotta stand up? What the fuck am I, Al Sharpton now? I’m A$AP Rocky. I did not sign up to be no political activist. I wanna talk about my motherfuckin’ lean, my best friend dying, the girls that come in and out of my life, the jiggy fashion that I wear, my new inspirations in drugs! I don’t wanna talk about no fucking Ferguson and shit because I don’t live over there! I live in fucking Soho and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate. I’m in the studio; I’m in these fashion studios; I’m in these bitches’ drawers. I’m not doing anything outside of that. That’s my life.

Your life, however, is not a BET video.

My vision of you as a 25-year-old includes a traveled, thoughtful, and responsible young man. One who is fearless and fun-loving. A man who can be a better parent than your father and I were.

You are my sun, moon, and stars. You are an empathetic, soulful, saucy, and not to mention handsome young man. I have learned about my shortcomings, strength, and resilience while being your mama. I need you, son, just as much as you need me.

Life will sometimes knock the wind out of you. I choose to practice radical resistance through my love for you. I will fight tirelessly to show you that I love you bend, break, and sacrifice, and will celebrate our unconditional love by working through our problems by any means necessary. Let us be the Black love bucking the system.

“There is nothing worse than being an entitled Black man in this world,” your grandpa would say.

Life humbles and breaks you at times and forces you to fight your way through the hurricane of oppression as a person of color. We live in a world of terrorism on Black people, where at any moment your sweet face and long, lanky body can be taken from this earth by police violence.

You will have to navigate the sludge and harshness of racism and sometimes wear open wounds. I can’t always protect you, my son; you will have to choose your journey.

It’s time to pick up your melanated crown of Love Supreme. Let’s get free!

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