As a mom of two Black daughters, ages seven and three, I have been intentional their entire lives about surrounding them with books that affirm them. They were born four years apart on International Women’s Day. With Black History Month in February giving way to Women’s History Month in March, I have always used this time period as an opportunity for nonstop celebrations of extraordinary Black women.
I take my girls to the library and we choose picture books on trailblazers like Melba Liston, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Harriet Powers. We throw so many in our two totes that my shoulders ache from their weight. But we read them all.
I thought that was enough.
But recently, while preparing for a school project, my oldest daughter threw me for a loop. Her project asked her to read a book on a famous Black person and write about why they chose him or her. My daughter chose Oprah Winfrey. And on her written list of reasons was an observation I would have never expected from a 7-year-old: “I chose her because most people are men.”
I whipped my head up from reading her paper. “Can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean?” I asked. I suspected what she meant but still wanted to hear it clearly from her.
“Most of the people in my Black history books are men, so I wanted to choose a woman,” she explained.
I’ll be honest: if I hadn’t witnessed it, I’d believe the comment came straight from a Woke Toddler meme. But this was my real life, not a Twitter feed.
At first, I had a “You go, girl!” moment. My daughter had noticed a visual representation of sexism on her own without being prompted. Then she had set out to correct that imbalance by deciding to highlight a Black woman for her project. Take that, patriarchy!
But as my mini-congratulatory party subsided, I felt saddened. Was age seven too early to be burdened by the desire to fix something broken far before you were born? I remember being at least in middle school or high school when I first became aware of sexism. Even if you don’t have the language to call sexism by its name, once you notice it, you can’t unsee it.
I wish my daughter could unsee sexism for a little longer.
Then I remembered the time a few months ago when she asked, “Mommy, can women be firefighters?” Of course, I immediately assured her then that women could be whatever they wanted, including firefighters. But clearly, she’s not new to this; she’s true to this. She reads subconscious messaging loud and clear. It was only a matter of time before she regurgitated it.
I told her that Oprah was a good choice for her project and left her to decorate her poster board with felt stars. Childhood still needs its whimsies.
Right on time, my mom-guilt surfaced. My daughter called us all out in one sentence—the publishing industry, her village, her parents, her teachers. I felt I’d failed her, even though her bookshelf held an amazing Black women’s history book for children, among other materials. “Most people” in this world are not men, and I want the images she sees to reflect that.
I thought I had been doing enough to give my daughters diverse stories of women who looked like her. However, she taught me there will likely never be enough I can do to shield them from the way Black women are often marginalized in this country. But I will never stop trying. That’s my job as a mom and I have so much more to do.
Mothering Black girls, for me, can be fraught with the responsibility of teaching them Black women’s stories while clearing space for them to write their own.
I am thankful for the gift of daughters in a world that stuffs history books full of men, today and every day. I relish the challenge of showing them how awesome Black girls and women are. My shoulders might ache with the weight of all these worlds, all these words, but it is well worth it for my girls to see themselves.