“I Am the Darker Brother”: On Parenting Black Children in America (On Parenting Henry)

I, Too
   by Langston Hughes

I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.     

As readers of Hope Sings, So Beautiful will remember, my wife and I adopted our son Henry just before his first birthday, and our daughter Sophia just before her seventh, both from an orphanage in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Nine years later, I cannot read Langston Hughes’s poem, “I, Too,” a poem I teach frequently in class, without at once seeing Henry’s face, without pondering his story and the miracles that brought him into our family. Henry is, both literately and figuratively, “the darker brother.”

If his family sometimes sends him away “when company comes,” it is not because he is not beautiful. It is not because we are ashamed that he comes from a “shithole” country, according to our always eloquent, empathic president. It is because Henry is crippled by social anxiety, a deep-down fearfulness that can unpredictably send him into a tailspin “when company comes.” (And even when they’re gone, the anxious voices remain.)

Yet Henry still laughs, and eats well – very well! – and grows strong.

Like it or not, Mr. President, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance got it right. America’s present and future well-being already hinges on millions of children who look more like Henry than me, my wife and my biological kids. It has always been thus, though too rarely acknowledged by the powerful who cannot see past their full bellies and bloated bank accounts.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” And tomorrow, you’d better believe, they’ll “be at the table when company comes.”

Henry will be at the table. And, I’d wager, he’ll be making everyone to feel welcome, to laugh with joy, as he so often does for his family. If only he could glimpse in himself what we see shining so brightly in him. If only others could (and many do!). If only I could, when the struggle gets especially hard. If only, if only, if only.

America is a beautiful, and sometimes terrible, contradiction. What Henry has known here — a loving home, healthy food and clean water (we don’t live in Flint or Newark), good public education, mental health care, and much, much more — he would not have known in Haiti, and that is a miracle worth celebrating — though, as I acknowledge in Hope Sings, it is a miracle that bears, in his flesh and ours, many historical ironies and ambiguities. If America represents the yearning “to breathe free,” then that yearning has been met generously, in no small way, for Henry.

Yet in the world of social relations, it is clear that our son is beginning to feel himself — deep down, amygdala-deep — as an anomaly among his white peers. It began with “mild” bullying at school, and during the 2016 election, the sudden awareness that his “brownness” set him apart from his white schoolmates (and his own parents). It is no simple matter to distinguish “effects” from “causes” in the realm of identity formation, but for Henry at 8 years old, the conviction that “Donald Trump wants to erase brown people” — blurted out to me with tears in his eyes the morning after the election — marked an existential paradigm shift, the dawning of a new urge to fight or flight that has shadowed his self-consciousness ever since.

To be clear, this bone-deep realization of a certain danger for him in the post-election landscape did not come from his parents. It seems to have come by osmosis, from the banter of second grade classmates and the toxic climate of the 2016 election season. Nevertheless, how to navigate it? How to help him understand this strange “double consciousness,” as W. E. B. Du Bois has it, which is not his fault? How to help him not just to survive but to thrive in America, happily, confidently, joyfully, in his beautiful Haitian body? How to help our Haitian daughter, now 16, do the same?

I don’t experience such questions in the same way an African American parent does. Yet we do fear for our kids the way every parent fears. Not being black, not inhabiting the skin, the history, the necessity of fight or flight to stay alive, how I will explain to my son why his blackness, his size, his acute anxiety episodes, may elicit dangerous or even deadly reactions from others as he moves through the world, remains a terrible mystery to me. (“How does it feel to be a problem?” asks Du Bois of himself, through the eyes of his white interlocutors, in The Souls of Black Folk.)

There was never a day in my childhood that somebody wasn’t reflecting back to me my own made-in-the-image-of-God-ness. There was never a day that my teachers, my church, my society, did not communicate the same. When I made bad decisions, when I screwed up, even trespassed the law as a teenager, there was room in my world for error. (The police in our suburban neighborhood were forgiving even when my parents were not.) Long after I’m gone, when the warm glow of his parents’ love and our (white) social privelege no longer protect him, will Henry be free to be Henry in his own skin? Will his God-given gifts be welcome in America, for America?

In eighteen lines of poetry, Langston Hughes says it better than I ever could. You are beautiful. Don’t ever let anybody send you away when company comes. In just three lines, Jesus says the same. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. But who will have the eyes to see? The ears to hear?

Our beloved Henry, you give light to all in the house. Set your beautiful Haitian self on a lampstand! You, too, sing America. You, too, are America. May America be worthy of you. May I be worthy of you, especially when I am most plagued by fear and doubt. And may God help you always to know your light.

Author’s Note: The above is revised from an earlier post. A reader’s comments prompted my revision to try and more adequately express the complexity and nuance of parenting a multi-racial family in the United States, past and present. Because the comments were ad hominem, and clearly violated the “rules for engagement” of this site, they have been deleted.

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