Four days after Christmas one of my teeth sheared off at the gum line. I was eating a cinnamon roll I should've left alone and I tried to fish out my crown-with-my-tooth-inside before I swallowed it. The jagged edges of whatever was left began tearing at my tongue immediately. My family was visiting and I was so mad and frustrated. I didn't say anything because I just didn't want to talk about it. A week later I sat in the dentist chair and fought back shame tears while trying to sort out how to stop the hygienist from trying to make me feel better.
"Oh! How many kids do you have?! In the old days you'd lose a tooth with every kid!".
"Well… I mean, I parent 6…"
"See! These things happen."
"Right. I mean. Well, I didn't have… I mean. Never mind."
My teeth and I have a complicated relationship. I had my first abscessed molar at overnight camp when I was 11. At 24, my fresh-faced, Mormon dentist pulled two molars and all my wisdom teeth in a single visit. Last Christmas, I went in for a root canal and ended up (three visits later) with a raging infection moving down my neck and another extraction. I'm now left with far fewer teeth than my children, a lengthy "treatment plan", and the sinking feeling that my none of this will improve with time. The dentist tells me my teeth look great. I roll my eyes.
"The remaining ones, I'm assuming?"
The truth is, I'm embarrassed. I can't seem to prevent my teeth from falling out. Conversely, why do I care about so deeply about something I can't control? Up until this point, the impact has been mostly cosmetic. The first is just wallowing. The second is obviously the classism and respectability politicking that has conditioned my ego to wince. I will get over the first. The second is harder. It bugs me that I'm so eager to replace what's gone. And the replacement will mean sacrifice, which deepens the guilt. We are down to one vehicle and now I commute for the work week. We were hoping to take a trip with the kids. I joke about it. It doesn't help.
Of course, it is not lost on me that it's the same vanity and the same respectability I lord over my boys when I send them out into the world. I am consumed with keeping them safe and making sure that they do not give anyone pause. My children bear the breaking responsibility of something they cannot control and cannot fix. In their case, money cannot buy safety. And respectability poisons their capacity for compassion and empathy. They are policed and corralled, even by their own classmates. I am desperate to not kill their spirits. I yell at them for not brushing their teeth. They look at me with knowing eyes. It's not like they don't see me brushing every day.
When Paul told me to listen to this Brother Ali song, I asked him if I would cry. "In the first 20 seconds", he said. Brother Ali's "Dear Black Son"
You were a king long before them ships departed
You are not defined by anybody else's crimes
You don't need to answer for what happens in their minds
You are not confined by their imaginary lines
You don't need permission to exist with the divine
In fact, you don't need permission from no one including me
I am surrounded by parenting role models who have married the fierce protection of their children with the abolition of respectability in their homes. I lean on them. Systemic Racism Couldn't Care Less About Your Respectability Politics:
Black love is white supremacy’s greatest fear. Loving the people society has taught us to hate is revolutionary. But that love means nothing without action. We must champion an all-encompassing love for all black people. We should not have to decide who is “worthy” of this radical black love we possess. Rather, we should understand that in order for this love to be revolutionary, it has to identify with black people across the spectrum.
And again… for the people in the way, way back. This is who we are. This is who we've always been. The Heartbeat of Racism is Denial by Ibram X Kendi
Begin with the eight presidents who held slaves while in the Oval Office. Then consider how Abraham Lincoln urged black people to leave the United States. “Even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race,” Lincoln told five black guests at the White House in 1862. So “it is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”