Baldwin & Baguettes: A Mother’s Burden at a Distance

The worn cotton fibers of Emmanuel’s hoodie rubbed gently against my cheek when he went in for a final hug.

“I love you, Mom”.

“I love you too, Boo. I’m so glad I got to see you.”

I marveled at the immensity of his shoulders and chest as he enveloped me in his arms. My baby boy had grown so big. Those moments —  his tender little arms wrapped around my neck and later, my legs — were long behind us.

After a flurry of goodbyes between me and Emmanuel’s father, Raliegh, I stepped out into the brisk San Francisco air. This was my first official visit to their cozy little home, back in February, and I left with the reassurance that all was okay. 

A year and a half prior, I had officially handed Emmanuel off to Raliegh. We decided it was his turn to do the heavy lifting of parenting while I made a life for myself in Paris — a move I made from Brooklyn. It was a major transition for all of us and we affectionately termed it my Mombbatical, which became the platform for my blog, My Year on Mombbatical, where I chronicle my life and perspectives free from the daily demands of parenting.   

My parenting shift had run from birth through the turbulent middle school years — years strained not by Emmanuel’s temperament for he was an easy-going kid, but by his first confrontations with racism and hate. He had been called the n-word twice in as many years at his progressive, Quaker school in the heart of downtown Brooklyn.  It seemed no amount of diversity conversations or “How to Be an Ally” workshops could spare my Emmanuel from the sinister leanings of a couple of rich, white kids.

After turning him over to his father in the foggy Bay Area three months after his middle school graduation, Emmanuel had comfortably nestled into his Berkeley high school, the proud alma mater of the Black Panther mastermind, Ryan Coogler.  The memory of his middle school experience lingering for both of us, Emmanuel sought to reassure me. 

“Mom, about a third of the kids are Black. It’s pretty even among all of the races.”

With this official visit to Raliegh and Emmanuel’s home behind me, I journeyed back to Paris filled with reflections of giddiness and pride. I was proud of Raliegh and Emmanuel and the life they had created together. Proud of the way Emmanuel held on to the lessons and love that I had given to him and proud of Raliegh’s drive to bring new teachings to the parenting table, while honoring the “momma” imprint that would carry and comfort Emmanuel for the rest of his life.

A selfie in Paris. Tara and her son Emmanuel (Photo: Tara Phillips)

Yet, life hardly returned to normal as the coronavirus soon became a looming presence in my glorious French city. Under the weight of le confinement, the Parisian sun rose and set as bookends to days filled with loneliness and boredom. My daily Zen came through the same Groundhog Day routine as I stayed in touch with all that was happening in the United States.

Breakfast serenaded by the comforting timbre of Judy Woodruff’s voice on PBS Newshour.

Zoom calls with any collection of friends.

A daily chat with Mom.

CrossFit workout in front of a very fat, curious cat completely indifferent to the ominous state of the world.

Governor Cuomo’s immaculate PowerPoint presentations to usher me into the evening.

I began obsessively tracking days and data and by the close of April, a light at the end of the tunnel brightened as the world started to emerge from its forced hibernation.

But then my morning ritual watching Judy on PBS came with shock. I could feel my heartbeat quicken as I watched Ahmaud dodge right and left, hunted and slaughtered under the Georgia trees.

Judy did not stop there. Next, she queued up Joe Biden, our designated “representative”, spewing, ignorant, over-confident nonsense about who gets to be Black. Then, Amy Cooper entered the scene, weaponizing her race against a gentle, nerdy birdwatcher with Harvard bona fides, providing a twisted omen to the horror of George Floyd’s life being pressed out of him with evil and intent.

As I watched from Paris, these moments unfolded one by one on my screen.  James Baldwin’s writing had become my only comfort, articulating all the rage and intellectual fearlessness that pulsed through my body. He had already paved my way as a fellow writer and Black expat in Paris. I am certain that I had James’s blessing as I was on fire, taking up my own pen and scrawling my testimony to the viciousness and unrelenting cruelty of unchecked whiteness. My blog became my battlefield as I penned, Still on the Plantation?, letting it be known that we are hot with anger and ready to tell it like it is.

We put the burden on Black people to fix the damaged and poisonous roots of this nation. Upon force, we built it, we maintained it, we have kept its feeble, greedy heart beating, knowing all along that it was hobbled from the start and whiteness stakes its claim to it all with mealy-mouthed apologies and little gratitude.”

But the fire of my righteous rage did not burn long. Images of further police aggression on united and determined protestors sent me into a quick descent of despair and sadness because no matter how hard we fight; whiteness and its institutions will always insist on its dominance.

I lost myself in the local comforts. A baguette to my left and wine to my right, I burrowed my way to the bottom of a jar of Nutella, escaping to a binge-watching Netflix stupor.

I am just so tired.

“Taking Emmanuel to a protest today… pray for us. We will be safe.”

Raliegh’s email found me in my own bunker of blankets and the echoes of George Floyd’s final cry for his Mama reverberated in my ears forcing me to continue the fight. I peeled myself out of the protective cocoon of my bed and thought only of Emmanuel, wrapped in his Lord of the Rings hoodie, and taking to the streets.   

So, I continue the fight, fielding the late-night calls from white friends who are reeling in this moment with no sense of what to do or how to be. I face my computer screen, knowing I must keep writing and telling the truth.  I painfully write that email to my baby boy, reminding him to remain alert, to consider keeping his hood down, and to understand that his white friends can push the boundaries of goofiness further than he can. And I whisper my prayer to the wind and our familial angels to “Keep him safe” as they watch from above.

We all continue the fight for our sons and our daughters and for their sons and daughters, just as our mothers and fathers did for us.  We continue, clinging to our last strands of faith, handing our white allies the baton, knowing this fight is really theirs to own for their sons and daughters as well.

(Top photo by Tara Phillips)

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One Response

  1. Donna

    Tara, Joan’s daughter wrote this


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