by Helen McDonald
No one warned me that when I came out, it would provoke a disaster of restorative Black female love. The hardest part was recognizing that no matter how much I love my mother, I had to break her heart to heal my own.
The preciousness of our relationship arose from its fragility. It had always contained traces of antagonism, not because my mom was cruel but because I saw her life as the site of a patriarchal battleground, designed for men like my father to conquer and dominate. She was always the example my father used to demonstrate what was acceptable, submissive female behavior when he was policing my own assertive and “boyish” nature.
Despite the respect and love that matured in our mother-daughter relationship over time, when I came out to my mother, we found ourselves in a battle neither of us wanted to fight. Being truthful about my sexuality suddenly cast us as enemies. She saw my queerness as a betrayal to everything she had ever taught me about being a Black woman in this world. On that day when I first came out, my mom told me that as her only daughter, she would not stop loving me, but that she could not accept this unnatural choice I was making. And, in many ways, I do recognize my sexuality as a choice.
Two years ago, in the midst of a deep depression, I chose to live out my truth as a gay woman. In a moment of clarity, I decided that if I was going to try to live through all of my pain, I had to commit to loving myself to really have a chance of surviving. For many years before then, I had truly erased the possibility of all queer love from my consciousness as a mechanism of self-preservation. I lived with silent desire and shame.
I never thought I had a chance at love because I am a Black woman. My whole life I had been told that Black women are never supposed to be emotionally vulnerable or available enough to truly open our hearts fully, or to only have enough emotional availability to protect and restore others. I thought I could live a lie, because I wasn’t denying myself any type of love that the world was not already determined to keep from me.
During the next several months after my first coming-out, the arguments about my sexuality became a ritual we performed together: a dance of fear, and confusion, and love. Fighting disguised our yearning to understand each other once again, and perhaps muted a frustration that a mother-daughter relationship — that had always felt fraught — was once again burdened by the complexity of Black female love.
bell hooks asserts in Sisters of the Yam that, “Many black women in the United States are broken-hearted. They walk around in daily life carrying so much hurt, feeling wasted, yet pretending in every area of their life that everything is under control. It hurts to pretend. It hurts to live with lies.”
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One day, my mother told me that the only thing she’s ever been sure of is that she needed to be a mother; by that, I think she meant that she would always have love to give, but considered it a luxury to receive. At some point in our lives, the world tells too many Black women that we don’t deserve love, and many of us believe it. Women like my mother are always choosing between self-defeat and self-sacrifices — two sides of a coin that falls heavy like the burden of loving your half-dead self. So many of these women will never know what it means to be fully alive.
It took years for me to see the beautiful resistance and defiance my mother carved into the confines of her prescribed womanhood: one dictated by maternal roles, outlined sexism, and misogynoir that control the lives of so many Black women. She’d always been my biggest advocate for feminist autonomy, allowing me to rebel from gender norms and have freedom outside of the home even when my father said I was supposed to be “learning how to cook to someday please my husband.” My mother, however, couldn’t see that I was choosing to honor my self-worth exactly the way she’d taught me. She could not see that I, too, was carving a beautiful resistance into the confines of my prescribed womanhood.
Once, during yet another ill-fated conversation about my sexual orientation, my mom caught me off-guard for the first time in my life, emphatically declaring, “You don’t have to like men to be with them!” I was so stunned that it sucked the air out of me. It caused me to wonder what choices and sacrifices my mom has had to make in her life, and it allowed me to see how, to her, my sexuality may seem like a contest of agency and insurgency that’s gone too far.
I realize now that not everyone can choose to live their truths the way I did; not everyone has access to the emotional and practical resources necessary to embark on a journey of constant self-affirmation. To survive, I must constantly affirm myself and who I am every day that I wake up gay, every time some asshole on the street calls me a dyke-nigger, and every time I walk down the street holding hands with someone else the world sees as woman. This affirmative work is difficult, tiring, and not always possible.
I no longer argue with my mother, who loves me more than I think she loves herself — perhaps more than I love myself. I do not argue with the woman who was forced to make choices, who long ago accepted her mother’s and foremothers’ fate and forged strength somewhere between a rock and a rock. I mourn women with awe who could not choose what I have chosen, who perform lies disguised as lives, and who sing their half-dead selves to sleep at night with whispers that sound like prayers that slip through tight-pressed lips.
Today, out of the blue, I hug my mother and tell her that I appreciate her. She holds me, waits a beat, and then says with a smile that I’m the best daughter she could have. The anger, the witty college-education-sponsored response, and all the theoretical frameworks I’ve internalized vanish from my mind, and all I feel is love for this beautiful, resilient, hardened, but compassionate woman who raised me. A silence hangs between us, subtle and yielding, like forgiveness.
Helen McDonald is a 20-something Black lesbian feminist living off of pizza, social justice and a lil snark. By day, she’s a community educator, teaching young people about healthy relationships. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog sapphosistah.tumblr.com and is a contributing writer at ElixHer.com
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