“I thought about how I’d explain to my African baby girl that Black women are severely unprotected and unsupported.”
— Ten Pittmon, artist, writer, small business owner and mother
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Last September, an unfamiliar sight distracted Nala Pittmon, age 2, from the picture book she was reading. Her mother was crying.
Ten Pittmon, 27, had just learned that none of the Louisville police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor had been criminally charged with killing the 26-year-old Black medical worker. First came rage, then disgust, exhaustion and then, finally, a release.
But she could not afford to “break down” in front of her child, she said, so she wiped away her tears and busied herself with cleaning and cooking.
“From that day on, I’ve made conscious efforts to tell her that she’s loved, appreciated and protected — often,” Ms. Pittmon said.
Her efforts reflect a longstanding history of Black mothers cultivating Black girlhood, according to Crystal Lynn Webster, an assistant professor of history at University of Texas at San Antonio who specializes in 19th-century African-American women and children’s history. She pointed to the traumatizing legacies of slavery, racism and misogynoir, crediting mother-daughter bonds within the Black community as forming powerful counters against systemic oppression.
“Black women’s practices of mothering Black girls in the face of terror, objectification and loss was, and continues to be, a radical and political act,” Dr. Webster said. “The relationships developed between Black girls and their mothers — whether biological or as part of kinship networks — protected and prepared Black girls for a world which attempted to erase their humanity.”
More recently, the convergence of the coronavirus pandemic — which has disproportionately affected communities and women of color — and Black Lives Matter protests have magnified this erasure.
Black girls attending school online have been subject to “virtual suspensions” and incarceration amid a disrupted school year that has aggravated digital divides and racial achievement gaps. Honestie Hodges, 14, died from Covid-19 in November, three years after police officers seeking a middle-aged woman had handcuffed the girl — then 11 years old — outside her family home in Grand Rapids, Mich. Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old Black Lives Matter activist, disappeared and was later found dead last June, shortly after reporting her sexual assault to the police and describing the event on Twitter.
Police violence, disproportionate student discipline rates, and excessive criminalization are equally experienced by Black children regardless of gender, but recent reports and initiatives like Black Girl Freedom Fund, which are founded and led by Black women, reveal that girls remain particularly overlooked and underprotected.
Having once been Black girls themselves and understanding the challenges they face, Black mother figures are uniquely equipped to offer insight to help their daughters navigate obstacles while developing a transformative love of self and community.
Here four Black mothers pass along advice and aspirations in open letters addressed to their daughters.
“I thought about how I’d explain to my African baby girl that Black women are severely unprotected and unsupported,” Ms. Pittmon said about her letter to Nala. “I also wanted to uplift her, spiritually and mentally, so that she could transmute such a dark moment in our history into personal empowerment.”
The letters have been edited for length and clarity.
“When I saw you, I saw us”
Ten Pittmon lives in Columbus, Ga., with her daughter, Nala.
I’m thinking of the day that I first heard the phrase “first-degree wanton endangerment.” Mommy is strong, powerful and resilient, but on that day — the day that they weren’t held fully accountable for taking something so precious from us, the day that we all cried for Breonna Taylor — I had to take a moment to breathe and release.
You were here with me the day we all got the news. I felt all of the anger that we’d been told to get over. All of the overprotectiveness that we possess for ourselves and our children. I felt the collective exhaustion come over me. I felt helpless. Hopeless. Scared, even. Then I looked up at you.
When I saw you, I saw us. Black women. I saw the day where I would have to release you into this world as the woman that I’ve raised you to be. Things are changing, Nala, coming to an end and a new beginning. While generations before you may have fought and cried for Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Alexia Christian, Mya Hall, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Oluwatoyin Salau, Sheneque Proctor, Tanisha Anderson and so many more, your generation will be the life through which they live.
So let go of what the media portrays about the value of your life. Let go of the idea that your color determines anything about you. Let go of the idea that your gender determines anything for you. Let go of the guilt and shame that too often come with being a woman who does, feels and expresses as she pleases. Let go of systems that try to put you in a checkbox. You’re bigger than that. You are stronger than that. You are wiser than that. You are smarter than that. There is nothing too broad, or anything too deep that you cannot possess. You are the curator of your reality.
Your life matters. Asé.
“Bloom, little one, bloom”
Teana White, 32, is a dance educator living in Queens, N.Y., with her daughter Janai Thompson, 7.
God showed me your face one morning in church after I asked if I was indeed going to be a mom. Your existence in this world flooded my thoughts as my growing belly signaled your upcoming arrival. As the months passed, I readied myself to steer you clear from the many traps aimed to diminish the light of little Black girls. Because as you’ll undoubtedly learn, being Black in America can be challenging.
Statistics tell us all about how we are disproportionately impacted from systemic racism: high rates of poverty, incarceration, police brutality and violence. I have personally witnessed it break people’s spirits, sucking the life out of Black bodies like the parasitic infection it was designed to be. My heart breaks to see this vicious cycle engulf us — lives stolen over and over again, casualties in this war against white supremacy. I hope you don’t have to bear that weight. You have muscles, yes, but that baggage is too heavy for you to lift alone.
As Black women we often feel the need to be superhuman in an effort to sustain the number of leaves in our family tree. And the women in our family have a long history of overcoming obstacles. We are Southern-bred, humble, hardworking and a people of great faith. As a young widow, your matriarchal great-great-grandmother Virgie Davis raised her 10 children with love, faith, wisdom and practical skills, tilling the rich soil in which our family is rooted. Your grandmother Edna Davis taught your aunts, uncles and I the importance of serving our community and making magic out of the ordinary. Strong Black women have always been the glue in our family.
But while we are strong, we’re also human. That’s why, babygirl, I desire most for you to live — a seemingly simple thing. So learn from others, celebrate your growth and bloom, little one, bloom.
“With love and adoration”
Pamela McCormick, 40, a program analyst with the Federal Highway Administration, is married to Tiffany McCormick, 33, a supervisor at Exelon Utilities. The couple lives in Prince William County, Va., with their two daughters — Taylor, 18, and Tocarra, 13. The daughters refer to their stepmother as Mrs. Tiffany.
Dear Taylor and Tocarra,
My loves, I am so proud of how you have handled these last few years. Especially how you have handled the last year. If I had to describe it in one word, I would say “grace.” From Covid-19 to the Black Lives Matter protests to virtual schooling, you handled all those events with grace and gratitude.
I know that these events have taken a toll on your mental health, as well as ours, but you continue to conduct yourself in the most gracious way possible.
In a world that is constantly telling you that you’re not good enough, you are persevering and rising above it all. Looking at you, no one can tell what we have gone through as a family.
We have gone through things that in a perfect world I would not have wanted you to experience. Things like me being a jobless single mother living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States or having you see me being demeaned while having to apply for public assistance because I couldn’t afford to feed you. Moments like those have not held us back but have only made us stronger.
Speaking of stronger, I think our family dinners have made us stronger. Our family dinners are truly the highlight of my day. I love that we talk about everything from social, political and cultural issues to mental health, therapy and what it’s like to live as a lesbian family. During our dinners we encourage each other to be the best and to always stand up for what’s right. Because who runs the world? Girls! We are truly a unique blended family, and I love that. When you both are grown and out of the house, I am truly going to miss our family dinners.
I hope that as you both grow older, you will look back and see Mama No. 2 and I are role models and always seek us out for advice.
I want you to continue to go after your goals, recognize your worth and don’t accept anything less. Likewise, always be in a place of learning and growing because that is truly all that matters when you look back on life.
First, I want to let you know that I love you. I know that I’m tough but it’s all because I’ve witnessed and experienced things as a Black lesbian woman and I want to give you tools on how to navigate your life based off of what I’ve learned so far.
Although there is WAY more room for growth, I know that you both are brilliant and courageous enough to speak your mind and stand on your own when you are presented with a challenge. That encourages me in more ways than you may realize. It reminds me to keep being authentic, owning my space in whatever I do, because in doing so you both see it and you implement authenticity and self-expression so beautifully in your own way.
Make sure you make mental wellness a priority. If you’re stressed, overwhelmed or sad, please know that you don’t have to live in that space by yourself. We as your parents are here to help you and support you. We’re here to provide you with the resources and tools so that you can figure out how to live a happy and peaceful life, whatever that looks like for you.
Part of maintaining mental wellness is embracing some form of spirituality. It is important to come to an understanding that Spirit is the base, well, entirety of who you are. As you get older, you’ll understand the importance of seeking a spiritual lifestyle … until then, do your research, take time to think about God, life, things in the beyond that connects us all. …
Be mindful of who you let in your life be they friendships or relationships. They should add to you and not take away from you. Likewise, you should add to your friendships or relationships and not take away from them. It is a two-way street. Cultivating a healthy tribe comes with trial and error, but you’ll eventually find it.
As I end the letter, I send this to you with all love and light. Love yourself and love others (within reason). Never forget to go after everything you want in life with a vengeance. You are the creator of your life, no one else is. It is your responsibility to go after what you want and stay focused until you get it. We always say “Success is mandatory and failure is not an option” — it still remains true. Please believe in yourself, because we surely believe in you. The world is yours and everything in it for the asking … only if you really want it.
With love & adoration,