Dear Naomi (& Black girls everywhere)

I wore a pink hoodie that day. Trayvon Martin’s image was on the TV nearby. I was 3 months pregnant and in the airport.

There was a dog barking behind me in a fashionable purse carried by an old white woman. My carry-on bag beeped during the security scan. It was the powder in my makeup compact, they said. “Throw it away."

There wasn’t much left. The silver bottom of the compact had started to show. I brought just enough for a sudden flight home for your aunt’s brain surgery.

“I’m pregnant. “I don’t want you touching me.”

"i knew one day it would be my body called into question/ i knew the laying on of hands would come" (from: "Hands Up" poem)

“Ma’am, we must search you for any possible threat."

The barking behind me became louder and louder as they took me to a corner with a narrow partition. I remember the sound of the TSA agent rolling blue gloves on her hands. There was a rubber band-pop sound when the gloves were fully on. I started shaking. I could feel the latex on my neck as my locs were lifted, then parted in various places.

black body burden in continuous loop... (poem: Hands Up)

When I held out my arms, the hands continued down my back making stops at my bottom, inside my thighs and at my ankles. Then from my ankles, to my legs to my hips, waist, stomach and what you call my “buppies.” I held my mouth in a tight line while tears drizzled from the corner of my eyes.

“I feel a wire,” the searcher said.

My voice cracked. “It’s my bra. Underwire.”

A few more minutes and then they said they were done.

“You can go now.”

I could barely walk. My fingers could barely manage to call your father.

“Hello? Did you miss your flight?” he said.

“They touched me all over,” I said, bursting into tears.

“They? Who? Are you OK?”

“Yes. No.”

“What happened?”

“They searched me.”

“Where are you?”

“Akron/Canton. The airport. They are boarding now, but I can’t. I can’t move.”

“I know you are upset. Can you get on the plane?”

“I can’t move.”

“Kelly, baby, get on the plane.”

I heard your dad’s voice urging me to move, but I couldn’t.

“Kelly? Get. On. The . Plane. I want. You. Home.”

That dog is barking again.

I got in line to board the flight back home to New Orleans.

will there ever be freedom in this body?

I sat in my seat and prayed for you, prayed that at 3 months in utero you weren’t traumatized, too. I was so afraid. You weren’t even born yet, and you had already been policed.

You’re 3-years-old now. Already some white parents have yanked their children away from your black body. Once we were at a library program. You were singing and clapping to “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” A white boy tattled to his mother that you were clapping too much and too loud. You were dancing, and his mother held him tightly—away from you.

In celebration of Dr. King Holiday, you told your teacher: "I just want to be happy when I grow up."

At another library event, a white boy tripped you on purpose during a neighborhood toddler play time. You fell flat on your face, but then you popped up, looked at me and said, “I’m OK.” He tried to trip you again, but this time, you hopped. Left foot. Then right foot. Making him miss. I said to myself, “Oh, my God, isn’t this what all Black people do?! Always dodging somebody’s snares?”

You never cried. You kept dancing.

I wish I was as resilient as you when I was a girl.

"show your muscle/ flex your God..." (from poem: Hushpuppies)

I cried a lot. I never thought I was smart, although I was an honor-roll student. I wanted to be a doctor for little children like you, but I didn’t think I was good enough in science or math.

Your mama at 8 years-old

I was always worried. Worried about our house getting broken into again, worried about going to hell, worried about my parents’ divorce, worried about where I would live, about having enough money, about losing weight, getting into college and if I would ever be anything. Would I ever be pretty? Would I ever have friends? Would anybody ever love me enough to marry me? But more than anything, I worried about Grandmama, my mom. She did hair on the side, and she cleaned white people’s houses.

I come from a long line of cleaning women.

One time I went with her to work. She made me promise to not touch anything.

It was a beautiful two-story house with five bedrooms. It had the first home garden I’d ever see. The driveway was long as a street it seemed. Inside it looked clean already. Why did mama have to clean it? There was a chandelier in the foyer. I looked up and it was like diamonds were dangling over me.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I sat up trying to figure out why we didn’t have what white people had. Maybe they were smarter than us. Better than us. My daddy’s mama cleaned for white people, too, and she eventually retired as a hospital housekeeper. Why were my mother and grandmother always cleaning up for white people?

The day I graduated from college, your grandma hugged me the tightest she had ever hugged me. She cried. She seemed more relieved and proud than I was. But having a college degree has not relieved me of worry or protected me from racism.

Naomi, I worry about you and black children.

I didn't take inventory of my black girlhood trauma until I become a mother.

Four weeks after your dad and I married, Barack Obama was elected president. A black family is in the White House for the first time ever, and yet the list of black people murdered by police keeps growing. At times I don’t know what to think. In many ways the country is better than when Grandmama was a girl, but we still need to say, “I can’t breathe” and “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” as we demand justice.

Art by your grandpa, Eddie Harris

I want you to pay close attention to structural racism. Policies, elected officials and powerful institutions can make your life hell. Most black people I know have generational struggles of wealth, health, criminalization and everything in between.

Your great-grandparents left the family 160 acres of land in Moro, Arkansas

Grandmama’s mama and daddy were sharecroppers in Moro, Arkansas. They had little education. Black people respected them, but white people cheated them out of money. They raised 15 children. Grandmama is number 14. Structural racism made it impossible to leave real wealth and opportunity to my mother and hence begat the poverty and job juggling she endured most of her life—my life. Your grandmother, my mother, has always earned minimum wage. Even at the age of 61 years-old she worked in a factory that produced military boots. She had to beg for time off just to be at my side when you were born. She was granted 3 days.

September 15, 2012: Grandma watching you.

It’s overwhelming somedays being black, woman and mother.

You’re 3. I often tell you to stop crying. I make you get it together. But somedays I wish I could cry in the middle of the floor. I wish someone was there to clean up behind me. I wish I could scream and stomp. I’ve made hard choices, even after marrying your daddy. I’ve worked small jobs and put a career on hold. I feel like I am constantly reinventing myself to help meet our household’s needs. I decided to teach you the best I could for your first two years. It’s meant we’ve had less money.

One day I felt like I didn’t have it together and I started crying.

You climbed on my lap and said, “Give yourself a hand, mama. You do a good job.” You rubbed my arm.

People keep talking about how happy you are. Some say you are the happiest child they’ve ever seen. You’re always walking like you’ve got somewhere to go, and you tell people no when you mean it, and you’re not being mean.

“Naomi, do you want apple juice?” someone asks.

“No,” you say and you keep walking.

You refuse to take what you don’t want whether it’s a juice or a kiss.

The offended adult says, “Well, excuse me.”

Your confidence is policed by black folks, church folks especially, who want you to be a perfect statue of a girl. They want you to sit, be still, never question and be quiet. Some people in our community and some complete strangers have called you bad and predicted you will be fast and a pregnant teen.

And yes, there have been adults who were mad at you— a 3 year old— when you didn’t run to their open arms at first sight.

There is a popular term right now called, Black Girl Magic.

I define it as the ability of a black girl or woman to conjure excellence and creativity in spite of people trying to hold her down. It’s the ability to go far on an empty tank. To maximize little hope and to find ways to not only hang on but create just enough rope to lasso in whatever is necessary. It’s to be beautiful and talented while also being tired, depressed, broke, flawed, sad, angry, with no answers and with no place to lay your burdens down. And yet, somehow, some spiritual, magical, ancestral power butters her burdens like bread and she finds a way to rise.

Black Girl Magic. I can trace it back to my mother and her mother, and she could probably trace it back to hers. It’s inside you, too. Conjure and stir the wind, baby girl. Black girl. Naomi, You’ll be tripped many times again and you will rise--just like all the Black girls before you.

Kelly Harris-DeBerry is a poet and the founder of BrassyBrown.com. E-mail: kellyharrisd@gmail.com

Kelly Harris 

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