Never did it hit me how difficult it might be to raise two Black sons until I began shooting a documentary about my mom this past year. The film, Duty Free, follows her after she's fired at age 75 and rediscovers life by going on a bucket list journey.
My mom wanted to skydive and join Instagram, take a surprise vacation and bake a cake with her granddaughter. But, surprisingly, my mom also wanted to "take a hip-hop class." When I asked why, she told me, "I always watched you two dancing so proudly, and I could never hear the beat. I just wanted to dance to the beat."
In that moment, I realized clearly that, though she was my mom, she was always, in some way, culturally disconnected from us. Not only was she British, she was white.
Growing up, my mom could never rattle off Ma$e or Biggie lyrics as we could, she didn't sit glued to Moesha or Girlfriends as we did, and she wasn't, herself, racially profiled in applying for a job or driving a car as we were.
All that didn't make her ill-prepared to raise us, but rather it emboldened her to make sure she raised us to know who we were. She sent us to predominately Black middle schools and brought us to Black-empowerment rallies as kids. She picketed on the front lines of the YWCA, where we grew up, with its mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. And she made sure we spent time with our Haitian dad, despite him living in another city. If she couldn't teach us about the Black experience first-hand, she'd find someone who could.
My mom was an ally who made sure we sang the song, even if she couldn't hear the beat. Just before our hip-hop class earlier this year, I asked her whether she ever worried about raising two Black children. "I didn't think twice about it," she said. "The only thing I was worried about was that you both would be girls, and I wouldn't know how to braid your hair."
Not everyone else in our Boston neighborhood was so naive. While pregnant with my brother, a co-worker brought her to dinner to talk about life...and the baby. "Well, I know you're pregnant with a Black child, but I'll still be friends with you," the woman said to my mom. Without skipping a beat, my mom replied "I don't give a [expletive] whether you're friends with me or not. He's my child and I'll love him."
It's that fierceness and confidence that I'll always admire about my mom...her ability to own who she is and what she stands for. Not to mention her ability to shut down haters.
Earlier this year, she took a hip-hop class with Hope Easterbrook, a dancer from the hit Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical, and her ferocity was on full-display. Beyoncé remixes blared through the speakers while Hope translated the beat to my mom: "Boom, boom, dun, unh. Boom, boom, dun, unh." My mom swayed and dipped, twirled and hit.
For 75 years, I'm convinced my mom always heard the beat...but in that studio she finally felt it.
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Cultural Contributor / Seen on CNN, HLN, MTV, CBS, etc.
Contributing Writer featured in Men's Journal, Wired, Boston Magazine, Ebony
Twitter: @swaggernewyork, @sianpierre
(Photo: Duty Free Film)