WHYY celebrates Black History Month with Philly.com by publishing essays for their series Black History Untold: Joy, culminating in a live event at WHYY on Tuesday, Feb. 28. Convening African American community leaders, the program features networking over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, live entertainment, and a panel discussion co-moderated by the Inquirer’s Sofiya Ballin and WHYY’s The Remix host Dr. James Peterson.
How can any parent — how can any black parent — bring a child into this world, this America?
It is a question that many people have asked themselves since the November election, as hate and intolerance, it seems, have overtaken the political discourse. And those who would divide people, scapegoat those based on race and religion, are running the government and turning their bigotry into law.
My wife Sarah and I have been reflecting on what it means to bring a child of color into a country fraught with danger, where her safety in not guaranteed. On Oct. 24, only days shy of the election, we gave birth to our daughter Eliana. She announced herself two months early. Eliana was ready and didn’t care what anyone had to say about it. She was only 2 ½ pounds at birth, but feisty, a real fighting spirit that belied her fragility. She spent two months in the hospital, and came home just in time for the holidays. Who could have asked for a better gift? Certainly not I.
When Eliana’s brother Micah was born in 2009, America was a different place — or so it seemed. The first black president was still brand new, and for many, the euphoria still hadn’t worn off. While some people proclaimed America was now a post-racial society and announced that racism was history, others knew better. Yet, one cannot deny the potent symbolism of having a black man as president, and what it meant for your child to see someone who looks like him in the White House.
Yet, how did we find ourselves with a president who serves as a role model for children of color one day, to another, quite different president who frightens said children, places them in danger, and threatens to do harm to their parents the next?
The fact of the matter is that the country never was a safe haven for those of a darker hue. African-American history has been rife with profound yet infrequently acknowledged trauma. The kidnapping, the enslavement and forced labor, the rape and lynching have been etched in our DNA, only compounded by our present-day struggles, the blatant injustices that persist alongside the more subtle, nuanced, yet equally damaging microaggressions. And struggling for progress and racial justice always was a matter of taking one step forward and two steps back.
But in spite of it all, there is joy. Joy, because we survived, we are still here, and we are not going anywhere. We find comfort in God and in community. Even in the belly of the slave ship, that floating dungeon of horrors — in that damnable journey across the Middle Passage, where half of those millions of souls never made it across the Atlantic — there was community. We never lost our humanity nor our ability to live, to help others, and to love.
Black joy has come through our protest, our decision to envision a better life for ourselves and our children, and an insistence on accepting life on our own terms.
In the midst of the Civil War, as my family oral history goes, Henry Whaley, my great-great grandfather, was an infant wrapped in his mother Clarissa’s apron and tied to her back. Clarissa and her husband Daniel fled from the plantation in Pineville, South Carolina, to Charleston, along with a band of other self-liberated slaves, swimming across the river and dredging through the swamps to escape from the slave patrols. With the catchers approaching, Henry cried out. Clarissa had to decide whether to kill her baby, as the others agreed, to avoid attracting the slave catchers. Instead, she nursed her baby from her breast to save him, and save everyone else in the process. Clarissa decided to live life and fight on her own terms.
Today, African Americans, like so many others, are navigating through uncertain times, with threats to our safety, our rights, and our very freedom. But hasn’t that always been the case? Yet, amidst the struggle there is joy in knowing we will beat this. We got this. We are doing it for our children, as we teach them how to fight against “unjust laws” as Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, and build the multicultural society we are to become. And there is no greater joy than this.