Question

The Vessel and the Water

2,166 total words    

9 minutes of reading

While the whispers of this piece began to run through me, I happened across “Report: Recommendations For Us Right Now From A Future” by adrienne maree brown in which she details out three tasks:[1] 

  1. Be revolutionary
  2. Become scholars of belonging
  3. Care for ourselves and each other as a revolutionary practice 

Although each of these points are vital readings, the rest of this piece was written in conversation with item two.

My two year old emphatically pats his chest repeating the words, “Mama mine!?”, “Mama mine!?” When I respond, “Yes, I am your Mama,” he dissolves into laughter, half from excitement and half from trying to understand the idea that I could belong to him.

“I am your Mama.” 

I was sitting on our couch when I heard him say “Mama” for the first time, his just waking voice ringing out across the living room to reach me. I was startled that my child now had the language to ask for me, cementing into my psyche this simultaneously new and ancient forever identity. I marveled over how specific this word sounded in his exact pitch of voice regardless of the many billions of other parents who also respond to this call from their children. When I walked over to him he was sitting straight up in our bed, wide-eyed and anticipatory of the motion of me bringing his small body to meet mine. “Baby”, I replied, “I am your Mama.”

Belonging, I am learning through relating to my child, is biologically inherent. Transcendent of ideas of ownership, classification or right assignment, belonging makes me think of being embedded within and so naturally a part of something that distinction becomes lost upon us. I cannot help but think of when my child was once enclosed within my own blood and bones. In those nine full months, my womb was neither fully mine nor his, our bodies blurred so completely that even when he finally came through and out of me our delineation of self remained soft and unfocused, a horizon line of hazy blue touching the forever expanse of the sky, indistinct in color or shape. I was the vessel that held the waters in which he grew. Sometimes I forgot of his presence in those early days when he laid in my arms, accustomed so completely to our time as one that even in his own physical form it was hard to distinguish him from my limbs. I wanted to keep him there forever, tucked away within the soft bounds of my fortress. Here within our own home or covered by a blanket while strapped to my chest there could be no outside questions. These precious and fleeting moments would be our only time before the world would meet us with its unflinching gaze and hard questions of ownership and trespass.

“Need: Separation weakens. It is the main way we are kept (and keep each other) in conditions of oppression.” –adrienne maree brown

June 2020: revolution, racial reckoning, and emotional whiplash. Even though I am Black, even though I am Native, even though I am a Mother, it still caught me by surprise, stole my breath away. My neck went out for a week, and I went to the doctor and then the ER for multiple EKGs because my heart in all of the grief, pain, and excitement was struggling to remember how to beat in its usual consistent rhythm. I was literally off beat, straining under the weight of my own thoughts, exhausted by the feeling that something within me was being violently dislodged, like a wet sheet shaken smooth of its deep creases before being hung to dry. June reminded me that within each of my own deep folds lay stories of survival and prejudice. Ugly stories that were suddenly cast up and out of me to be set free to the wind. Some stories are easier than others, many are still gaping and raw.

“Truth: Belonging doesn’t begin with other people accepting us. It begins with our acceptance of ourselves. Of the particular life and skin each of us was born into, and the work that that particular birth entails.” –adrienne maree brown

I was depressed throughout my pregnancy. There were glimmers of happiness and good days, but when I think back, I never wish myself into that period of waiting and not knowing. We chose not to find out the sex of our child as I felt clear that upon arrival this person would spend the rest of life feeling the weight of projections onto their gender. My partner and I wanted to provide all the space we could for our child to develop, unhindered by expectation or ideology. It was the same with their name in that we waited seven weeks after their arrival to gift them a first name. We couldn’t do anything about skin color though as here there was no decision to be made, no reveal party in which we found out, “They’re passing!” or “They’re brown!” I felt dissatisfied and unsure with either option though, a thought so hideous that I never uttered it aloud.

The task of my child’s belonging weighed heavily on me before he entered the world. I felt in those months the weight of my lineage and the careful racist decisions that have led to my own particular shade of brown skin. I am not white passing but I am also not dark. I exist somewhere in the middle and am often thought to be ethnically ambiguous by those who have not been trained to carefully read every nuance of skin tone, hair texture, and nose shape. In this way I am passing, and in this way I am fitting of some dream of ancestors past who so clearly desired the distinction between “creole” and “negro.” But my partner is white, and this simple truth cast uncertainty and mystery into the color of our child’s skin.

For brown or Black parents, your child’s skin color is a serious matter; one to ponder late into the night and on a daily basis, in which I went through every possible variation of matching sex to skin tone. Girl child born brown. Boy child born brown. Girl child born passing. Boy child born passing. I was always careful to never use the word white when thinking of my child because to assign whiteness would be to create one more barrier between them and their birthright to culture and other ways of being. To assign whiteness would be to knowingly obliterate my own life and my mothers and grandmothers in the story of their lineage.

What kind of parent I would need to be, and the way in which I would parent, would depend intensively on which combination of visual identity and gender identity my child would at least initially choose to inhabit. To birth a brown child would be to share with my child an intimate and familiar way of navigating the world. It would provide them entry into the spaces in which I belong. They would be like me, a Black Indigenous Person of Color, and like me they would be molded into belonging through the oppression we face. I hated this truth as much as I hated the idea that to birth a passing child would force me to prove this child’s belonging in my spaces, even though they would be safer and more provided for as they moved through white society. My pregnancy highlighted that all options of belonging came with a burden. I hated that I had learned belonging through injustice.

“Mantra: Where we are born into privilege, we are charged with dismantling any myth of supremacy. Where we are born into struggle, we are charged with claiming our dignity, joy and liberation.” –adrienne maree brown 

I told the midwives and my partner that I did not want the first words heard by our child’s ears to be about their sex. No exclamation was to be uttered here, as I wanted them to be received without idea. I wanted this last moment of total freedom, the beginning of their life, to belong wholly to them. My partner stood behind me and supported the full weight of my body while I squatted so that gravity could assist in drawing our child through me. The midwives hands helped them softly land between my legs, the umbilical cord stretched between our bodies was quickly unwrapped from around their neck. The midwife leaned down and gave them a tiny kiss of air from their own mouth allowing them their first breath and then wail. This happened seconds after I had uttered the first words I had forbade as I gazed down at their splayed and open legs. “It’s a boy,” I said, unable to not name, unable to not classify and assign. His little body was fresh and red, but I already knew he was passing as well. I had birthed a white passing boy child, and I would need to assign him a place before the gaze of others attempted to assimilate and dissect him otherwise.

Sometimes I am haunted by the words, “no white tears are welcome here.” “What about passing tears?” I want to ask. “What about my child’s tears?” But I know these are not the right questions and that answers can only be rooted in action. Hopefully one day his own actions, because the assignment I have deemed for him is to create more space for others. His tears will have a forever home within my arms, this I have vowed, and for now, this will have to be enough.

“Possibility: From that deep place of belonging to ourselves, we can understand that we are inherently worthy of each other. Even when we make mistakes, harm each other, lose our way, we are worthy.” –adrienne maree brown

A prayer: May my child’s body be seen as worthy, despite his ties to my womb. May his body know its worth on its own account. May my child see no others as disposable. May he find worthiness in all living beings, human and other-than-human.

“Practice: Learn to apologize. A proper apology is rooted in this worthiness—‘I was at my worst. Even at my worst, I am worthy, so I will grow.’” –adrienne maree brown

Child, I am sorry that I assigned you so quickly. Please know that my actions always come from a place of wanting to protect you. Understand that as a mother I am inherently at my worst as an act of ensuring your survival.

“Practice: Move towards spaces that value us, let ourselves belong to those communities that know they want us, know they need us, know we have worth, know we deserve more than transactional care.” –adrienne maree brown

I am learning how to care for and prepare acorn flour. I am seven months into this process in which time is a key ingredient. The acorns were finally dried and ready to crack when we went into shelter-in-place. When I picked them up and shook them in their thick husks, I could hear the sure sign of their readiness by the sound they made rattling within. I sit on FaceTime with my teacher who talks me through the process, and my hands delight in the opportunity to silence the stress and chatter within my mind. I am astonished to find as I release those first acorns that they are the exact shades of my own skin. Our skin although quickly boxed and categorized alongside others are flecked with our own subtle variances. I have no family members who I share the same coloring with, but here within the acorns, I find belonging and surprising kinship.

Could it be that some questions and some longings cannot be answered in human form?

This question lodges itself in my heart as my hands go through the steady motion of cracking and peeling and cracking and peeling. 

Is it possible for us to relinquish ideas of belonging that are dependent upon superiority and inferiority? 

Some days I think it could be, but on hard days, days when I am submerged in my own conditioning and prejudices, I feel less certain.

Thinking back to before my child’s physical form was known, when I would lay awake at night matching skin to sex, I understood that the task at hand would be to re-learn how to create belonging where acts of othering had taken up residence. Yet in those first moments of my child’s life I could still not help but assign him a place. The practice of unconditional belonging even with our best intentions is as ephemeral as the memory of when we grew within waters, still contained by our parent’s vessel. A flash of quiet clarity that leaves us always reaching towards liberation.

[1] brown, a. m. (2018, March 12). Report [Web log post]. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from http://adriennemareebrown.net/2018/03/12/excerpt-from-sublevel-report/

Image Credit

Photograph by Koa Kalish, used with the permission of Kailea Frederick.

  • Kailea Frederick

    Kailea Frederick is a mother of Tahltan, Kaska, and Black ancestry whose work sits at the intersections of climate justice, spiritual ecology and resilience thinking. She is dedicated to supporting individuals of all cultures in remembering their ties to the earth.

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