Above photo by Steph Solis, MassLive
This is a photo of my mother. I’d like to talk about how she helped shape my life. She and my father married in 1975. Their marriage become federally sanctioned shortly after Loving vs the state of Virginia, in 1967. I like to think this was the high point of her life. Full of hope. After all, her love with my dad led to my birth. Both families were supportive of their union, though they were advised by white friends not to procreate into such a dreadful situation. This is the context into which I was born in 1978. The legacy of slavery manifests itself in the pressure to succeed, beat the odds, defy stereotypes, to work so hard and achieve so much that we simply cannot be held down, that our existence is legitimized.
All my life I have tried to unify my identity across various people. Women. Blacks. Bi-racial folks. Lesbians. Christians, which is a scary word to some these days. Engineers, who are simply hard to get close to. I looked to my mom for certain lessons. What I saw made me feel ambivalent, because the cost seemed so high. What a privilege I had compared to her, living life with far more choices.
My white father married someone smart and beautiful, yet whom the white patriarchy deemed irrelevant. Routinely discriminated against in a marginalized ‘we don’t even see you/you don’t matter way’, which is different than the stigmatized ’we hate you’ way of discriminating against black men, and yet different again from the ‘stay in your place but I do love you’ subordination of white women way. And my black mother, married someone whom she found different, in that exciting ‘he balances me and is fun’ early love kind of way.
In college, her heart wanted to be close to the sea and study marine biology, but her head told her to play to her strengths and study teaching. She was good at what she did and advanced into leadership positions quickly, yet she wasn’t fully ready for them and felt the heavy weight of the necessity to succeed. Her father taught her that black failure was the nadir of our people, enjoyed too much by white people and unthinkable. So, she worked hard and did succeed. She never did feel a sense of belonging. She was so used to being the “only,” the “other,” the “first.” Ultimately, her sense of duty and fulfilling her father’s expectations drove her path in life. She got her PhD. She cared for her mother for the last ten years of her life. She cares for her children and step children and all the grandchildren. She worked all her life for educational equity and continues to do so in retirement. She feels responsible for all of this and she takes it all on.
I admire my mother’s life and accomplishments. But admiration seems passive and doesn’t necessarily inspire emulation. I’ve inherited her sense of duty, expectation for career success, and to lift others as I climb. And, all the costs of doing so were laid bare for me to see, in the form of her own wellbeing. I worry that I have not seen how to fulfill my responsibilities and maintain my own wellbeing.
Growing up my mother passed down the words of her father and so many other black parents, “you have to work twice as hard to gain half as much.” In many more ways I’m like my mom, only with lighter skin and the option to possibly pass. That never felt comfortable for me. I identify as black. Like her, I protect as a form of love. Like her, I provide as a form of love. Like her, I make a way for others as a form of giving back and acknowledging my privileges. Like her, I struggle to ask for help or show vulnerability. Like her, I fail to connect with people without worrying how they might take advantage of me. This picking and choosing from my mom’s life example. This selective forgetting of the past. Opening a way for my future. This is the legacy of slavery and the white supremist doctrine that justified it. This is my search for identity and honoring my past.
Joia Spooner-Fleming - August 2019