“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” –James A. Baldwin

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He was 6 foot 3. About 280. Seventeen. They called him Big Black, and he didn’t seem to mind. Most of the counseling staff were afraid of him. He was always angry and because everyone expected him to be— violent.

Tutoring was never enjoyable. He didn’t like help, didn’t like school, didn’t like reading, and definitely didn’t like wasting his time. As winter approached I regretted making the trek more and more. It was a burden.

One night he arrived late to find another youth from the Center. As they met, we could sense the tension in the room. Walky-talkies were instantly powered on; security was on standby. Everyone watched in anticipation and fear. We held our breath and waited.

Slowly but surely the boys approached each other. Fists clenched, jaws locked, a snarl at the corner of each lip. Seconds of silence and then the unthinkable– patty cake. They started to play PATTY CAKE.

Ms. Mary Mack Mack Mack, all dressed in black, black, black with silver buttons, buttons, buttons, all down her back, back, back.  

WHEW! The entire building heaved huge sighs of relief. And then laughter. Tears of laughter. Glorious, soul-cleansing laughter.

I never wanted to have children. It’s a truth and a feeling I’ve known since I was a little girl. When I was younger, I didn’t realize this could offend others’ sensibilities. And although I was unnecessarily outspoken, I never felt compelled to explain why or rationalize it, and I never felt less of a woman for it. At times it felt liberating– aging alone, but without the worry and stress of not meeting-falling-marrying and bearing children IN TIME! I’ve truly felt fortunate.

On the train ride home that night I thought a lot about patty cake. I thought about getting older and being too far away from my growing niece. I thought about families and sacrifices, about work and work-life balance, and how hard it must be to raise children who are compassionate and kind. I thought about having children.

I don’t remember when race became salient for me. I just remember being young and understanding very clearly that there were expectations of people who looked like me—and I wasn’t meeting them. And I don’t think it ever occurred to me that this was the reason that I had never wanted children. Not the noise, or the battles, or the time and energy and expense. Not the questions, or the tantrums, or the power struggles, but THIS.

This struggle for autonomy, personhood and freedom. Having to constantly affirm that our lives are significant and meaningful. This struggle for our bodies– bodies that are over-sexualized, criminalized and demonized. Bodies that are brutalized and attacked. To challenge that our souls and our talent and our ingenuity are not for sale. This war with ourselves to find and receive love, to be perceived as worthy of love.

This war to be whole.

I want to be a better advocate and a true activist, but sometimes my own subscription to respectability politics disarms me, and I am ashamed. Big Black understood this.

Patty cake shouldn’t be a revolutionary act of defiance, but sometimes under the right circumstances it just is.


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