I (inhaled, then) exhaled pain into my daughter’s hair. It wasn’t my plan. My husband was supposed to be sitting in my place, his legs open, a red plastic chair squeezed between them with our four year-old sitting atop the seat. And while he moisturized and detangled her curly puff ponytail, I was going to sit in our bedroom closet, lights off and body hugged against the stinking laundry bag, to weep. But plans, like they tend to, changed. And so I sat with my legs open, wide-tooth comb in one hand and a spray bottle in the other, and (inhaled, then) exhaled pain into my daughter’s hair.
I (inhaled, then) exhaled and said, “You know about the virus, right? [She nodded and said yes.] Well, there’s other things going on too.” I inhaled thinking that would stop whatever it was I was going to say, the damage I was about to do. I held my breath and imagined my father sitting next to me as he inhaled the world and exhaled, “You know your ABCs right? [I did.] But do you know ‘em backwards? See, baby, you gotta be prepared because some cop’ll pull you over and have you saying the ABCs backward, trying to trip you up and haul your ass off to jail.” And I remembered his angry, raggedy breathing as we recited the ABCs backward as we sat on the living room couch, and as he drove us in his Volvo down the highway and he asked me to keep an eye out for the police, and as we sat in the car later eating ice cream from Thrifty’s.
I exhaled that memory and more pain came out of me than I wanted. I breathed a fraught life into existence and it nestled in my daughter’s curls. I had to get it out of me, of her. More than anything, I just wanted to get out of here—this world. “People are marching in the street. They’re angry. [She asked why people were angry.] Some people out there hate Mama’s skin.” And because folks on the Internet, doctors and psychologists, said parents should be specific when informing their children, I (inhaled, then) exhaled my pain into the ragged parts I had made in my daughter’s hair with the rat-tail comb and specifically cut the innocence from her throat as I said, “People hate Mama’s skin because she’s Black. I’m Black. You know you’re Black, too, right? [She nodded and asked which people hated me. Was it the bad people?] Yes, the bad people.” Then she wondered if it was the bad people we saw on the bus. Before the virus, we’d always see the black and white bus taking “bad guys” to the local lock-up by our house. These were the bad guys she knew. They probably looked like cartoons in her mind. I couldn’t quite tell her that some of those bad people were also driving the bus and running the lock up. But it didn’t matter. Bad guys wanted to hurt Mama. And bad guys wanted to hurt her.
Then my daughter (inhaled, then) exhaled pain too. I held my breath when she said she’d protect me. She’d beat up the bad guys. I didn’t say a word. Couldn’t. I didn’t want to cut more of that innocence from her throat. “Thank you,” I said and kept (inhaling, then exhaling and) combing and twisting her hair.
And so while my white husband was upstairs in the rocking chair, cradling our youngest daughter, cradling her sleepy head with ease, without the pain of running into closets to weep into a pile of dirty laundry, I was downstairs with our oldest daughter. The both of us inhaled and exhaled pain in silence as we stared out at the sheet of night beyond the sliding glass window, our bodies rigid, our hair parted.
DW shares the story behind the story:
“A Black Mama’s Breathwork, or, the First Time I Had ‘The Talk’ with My Daughter” was created in a moment of deep sorrow. It was the summer of 2020, and everything was falling apart outside our home. There was (and still is) the coronavirus, BLM protests across the nation, police brutality on full display, an increase in Black folks dying under mysterious circumstances… I was desperately trying to keep it together inside our home, all the while my own emotional and mental health was fracturing. I was trying to figure out a way to breathe through it all.
In the Black community, we have this thing called The Talk where Black parents and elders teach the younger generation about how to navigate this world as a Black person. I know this will be different for my biracial children, but some things won’t be as I am still their mother and they still have Black grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and friends. At the point when I wrote this essay, my husband and I already had frequent conversations with our children about COVID-19, and I knew that we had to have similar conversations about the flagrant racism happening around us and the protests against that racism. How do you do that without overwhelming or frightening a child? Yourself? I made an attempt, and the world shifted.
DW McKinney is a Las Vegas-based writer whose work appears in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Mom Egg Review, Barrelhouse, Hobart Pulp, and Narratively, among others. Her writing has also been anthologized in I’m Speaking Now (Chicken Soup for the Soul, 2021). A recipient of the 2021 Shenandoah Fellowship for BIPOC Editors, her nonfiction was a finalist in Hippocampus Magazine’s 2020 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction. The founder and current instructor for We Are The House: A Virtual Residency for Early-Career Writers at Raising Mothers, McKinney also serves as a nonfiction editor at Shenandoah. You can drop a line on Twitter @thedwmckinney or at dwmckinney.com.
“A BLACK MAMA’S BREATHWORK, OR, THE FIRST TIME I HAD “THE TALK” WITH MY DAUGHTER” was first published in JMWW.