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The Joys and Perils of Black Parenthood

Updated: May 13, 2023

Professor Pamela Fox comments on the Danté Stewart's piece in The Washington Post and the distinct task of Black parents to teach their children their history.

 

A dazzling Washington Post opinion piece, by a Black father who writes about taking his children to Black museums, has stirred my thinking on several fronts. Danté Stewart’s first sentence–”The history of Black people is also the history of Black parents refusing to allow the world to erase our stories”--extends the teaching of Black history via generational story-telling both within and outside of Black households (he is also a theologian and cultural critic). But what I lingered on was the phrase “Black parents.” How often do we see that term when mainstream media pieces about Black women and men are published? They’re typically treated separately, as if very few Black couples stay together (particularly cis gendered).


Stewart dials that waaay back. On the one hand, his column is a loving homage to his mother, who began that tradition of museum visits when her children were small and living in South Carolina, to help them understand that “Black is brilliance.” Stewart writes, “To be honest, back then, I probably would have preferred to go to a mall. But to my mama, these trips were more than trips. They were time travel. She knew that the past is never past, and that even though she couldn’t protect her Black children from the ways racism would dehumanize us, she could disrupt its force by making sure we knew our people’s art and history — by passing on knowledge about the power of our Blackness.” His “mama” is a beacon, like so many other Black women who defied White supremacists in action if not in name.


But I also admire Stewart’s casual references to “Black parenthood.” Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins coined the term “motherwork” in the 1990s, arguing that female relatives, friends, neighbors can all be seen doing this essential work for each other and their children. Our website often cites Collins and others who foreground communal forms of mothering. Yet “fatherwork”--or “parentwork”-- has not emerged as an equivalent moniker, some thirty years later. In our course “Reading Motherhood,” Elizabeth and I ask this question on the first day of class, and we receive both predictable and refreshing responses from our students. However, none of us can conceive of “parentwork” becoming a common term and everyday practice. Yet this particular author embraces that vocation.


Heeding his mother, Stewart notes that “A good Black museum is more than a building that houses historical artifacts. It is a portal, a world, a witness to Black grief and joy, a place that reminds us that no bit of American soil has not been touched by Black blood or Black brilliance.” He and his wife thus take their children to the Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama. While it can be harrowing to view the exhibits, Stewart realizes, “I am no stranger to these sorts of spaces. But nothing, and I mean nothing, could have prepared me for the way I would feel as we moved inside — a jolt of anxiety and a quiet warmth at the sheer fact of my Black parenthood, of what we as a Black family had come from.” The “sheer fact” of his Black family–his Black parenthood–in itself relieves some of the agony of Black suffering.


After meditating on a particular room within the museum, he both teaches and fails to answer his four year old son’s questions. Yet he continues to challenge himself and other Americans:


“As a Black parent, I have my questions, too: What story are we telling of ourselves? What is America? What story are we giving the children of this nation? Will they know how precious and sacred it is to be Black? How will they know we have loved them, with what we have given them? Whose pain will they work to heal and repair?”


Dante Stewart is just one of many Black fathers who have the potential to make “black parenthood” an everyday appellation in the politics of raising children.

 

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