Something about him gives me pause and makes me drop my fork mid-bite. He’s standing at the soda machine, pouring cup after cup of water and gulping it down. I don’t want to feel uneasy or afraid – maybe he is just a thirsty guy in need of some hydration after a hard day of work. But, I’ve lived long enough to know that my gut is an accurate compass. It hasn’t ever led me astray.
When he drops the cup into the trash and exits the restaurant, I breathe a silent sigh of relief. But once it’s my turn to leave, I catch a glimpse of him again, this time standing at the bus stop. My feet move more briskly; my strides become intentional. And then I hear “Hey!” Short pause. “Hey!” Again. This time louder. My heels start hitting the pavement faster. Click. Click. Click. Clickclickclickclickclick. “Hey, Fantasia!” (I presume because that’s his closest reference to a woman with a haircut like mine). By the time he yells it again, I’m jetting down the stairs to the metro, peeking over my right shoulder to ensure he’s not there.
And, then I begin to tell myself that maybe I just made it all up. Maybe it was all in my head. Of course he wasn’t going to hurt me. Maybe he wasn’t even talking to me. But, then a more strident internal voice disturbs my misgivings. That voice tells me what I know to be true.
My gut is an accurate compass. It hasn’t ever led me astray.
I don’t feel relaxed again until I’m on the train, unwrapping my scarf and settling in for the trip to Eastern Market. But, by then, my evening has been both punctured and punctuated by that memory. All of my excitement to go on a solo date and attend Morgan Jerkins’ book signing has disintegrated into thin air.
Later that night, Morgan talks about being a black woman in the world. I lean over in my chair, nodding and smiling, trying to inhale all of her black girl magic for a moment in the future when I know I’ll need it. She tells us about a time when she interviewed Claudia Rankine and asked the poet how she deals with microaggressions and other weights of black womanhood. What is her armor made of? How does she wake up every day and get ready for the world?
“It’s not that I have to prepare for the world. It’s that the world interrupts me.”
This is what Claudia tells her. It’s the first time during the hourlong book talk that I whip out my phone and type the two sentences into my notes section.
Because isn’t that what so much, too much, of being a black woman is? Interruption. Intrusion. Folks sticking their feet out and tripping you while you are simply trying to hit your stride.
I’ve been deep in my thoughts and thick in my feelings lately, stuck in my own head and unsure of how to spill it out on paper. I’ve been thinking about my womanhood–how I strive to move through the world and how often that momentum is thwarted by people who never even think twice about it. People who don’t care to think twice about it. People who don’t have to think twice about it.
Perhaps my presence is radical. It upsets the balance.
Perhaps my presence is enigmatic. It defies understanding.
Perhaps my presence is infuriating. It incites enmity.
Perhaps my presence is majestic. It demands respect.
Perhaps my presence is worrisome. It unearths insecurity.
Perhaps my presence is overlooked. It paralyzes compassion.
Perhaps my presence is human. It reflects the world.
Yes, I yearn to glide through this life without any more of the breaches or bullshit. But, now I know that there is no armor or bulletproof vest that will save me. There is no formula or process to follow. There is not one way to prepare for the many interruptions to come. My momentum is predicated far less on preparation and far more on resilience. Perhaps that is both the power and plight of being a black woman.
The world will continue to shout that you should be softer. You’re not quite sure when you began to hear this demand, but somewhere along the line you did, and it started soaking up space at the pit of your stomach. Somewhere along the line someone told you that you needed to dull your edges if you ever stood a chance of being loved and understood.
For a brief moment, you believed them. You wanted so desperately to be adored, particularly by black men. You wanted to be a woman who felt warm and inviting, someone a man would be more inclined to stroll over toward during a balmy evening at a rooftop bar. So you worked hard to shrink yourself. Temper your confidence. Tone down your strength. There you were, a shell of the woman God created you to be, trying to shatter this angry black woman stereotype that you never birthed in the first place.
Yes, the world will continue to shout that you should be softer. It is an echo that will reverberate in the back of your ear for the rest of your life. On conference calls. In boardrooms. In bedrooms. On first dates.
Measure your tone. Speak slowly. Sprinkle some sugar on your words. It is an unwritten decree that will find its way into many conversations, both solicited and unsolicited.
But then you will remember sitting in the back of an Uber one night and asking a man–a man who you fought hard for and lost big for–what he thought of you. And the first thing he’ll say is “You say what you mean and you mean what you say.” It will become one of the highest compliments you’ve ever received, and you’ll never care to be called beautiful again. You’ll want to be known, and loved, for saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
The world has decided that women without sharp edges are easier to consume. And it seems like sometimes that’s all this world wants to do –absorb you without ever getting to know you. Devour you. Digest you. Make a meal out of your brown skin and beautiful eyes. But if you are sharp and if you have stories and if you speak with the conviction of a firm-and-brimstone preacher, then the world can’t eat you up so fast. It can’t figure you out. It can’t just suck you up and sit satiated while you dissolve at the bottom of its belly.
You were not handcrafted by heaven to be soft. You were not designed simply to be consumed. You are not here to live a miniature sort of life or assuage the insecurities growing like wildflowers inside of others.
Shout. Be loud. Stay tough. Take up the space. Allow the walls to crumble for the people who are worth letting in. Protect yourself when you need to. Dismantle your fear when you should. Let your energy rearrange the room and let your laugh suck up all the air.
Your sharp edges do not preclude you from being fragile. They do not mean that you aren’t sensitive or complex or affected by the way tides turn. Your sharp edges simply mean that you stopped being afraid of your own strength a long time ago. You quit apologizing for your sunlight. You decided to claim more space.
Not everyone believes in just eating you alive. Know that and believe it. Keep it somewhere in your back pocket for a winter’s night when it feels like love always proves to be a losing game. Some people will dare to peel back your layers and savor you one story, scar, and sharp edge at a time.
I almost pass her by. I am on my way back from lunch scurrying up Wilson Blvd. as a pool of sweat begins to form in my cleavage. It is not until I’m right up on her that she catches my periphery. I do not read her sign. But, something about her posture punches me in the gut. She is not making eye contact with anyone. She is not asking for money. Instead, she is crouched low to the ground with her head bowed and her arms outstretched.
My mind instantly recalls the $10 dollar bill my coworker handed me less than an hour before so I could also grab her lunch. I remember how that bill is still balled up in my wallet because I paid for everything on my card, assuming the $10 dollar bill would be an unexpected treat I’d forget about and find in my wallet a few days later. But, there is something about her. There is something about this black woman who is crouched low to the ground with her head bowed and her arms outstretched that compels me to unzip my wallet.
I’d love to say this is something I do often. I’d love to tell you that I always find my heartstrings being yanked on as I pass paupers on metropolitan streets. But, I am not always a good human being or even a decent one. I, like so many others, can grow numb to the way the world chews people up and spits them up.
But, today, the emotional Novocaine wore off. And I saw this black woman who suddenly didn’t seem or feel or look so far away from me. I saw her more than likely praying to the same God who I’ve been trying to find my way back to as of late. I saw her on a sunny Friday afternoon fighting to live and smile and survive in a world that decided it would be fine to bypass her or, at best, keep her in its periphery.
Our eyes lock when I hand her the bill. And something about the way her voice bounces one note higher when she said “Bless your heart, sis” leaves me in tears both times I reminisce on the exchange.
I want to make some resounding statement about black women, but the truth is the way an encounter like that brings me to my knees is still brand new. I am still making sense of the way my passion for black women bubbles over. I am still finding outlets for anger that swells when I witness the inequities we experience. I am still figuring out how to keep my feet on solid ground when it seems as though the world just keeps spinning.
But, all I can do is fight to keep my heart wide open and my arms outstretched.
Editor’s note: Erica Nichole is the voice behind www.everythingenj.com. You can follow along her motherhood journey on Instagram at @edotnichole.
To Erica: We were just kids back then. We were two women writing our way through and fighting hard to find our footing in an online world that barely knew our names. At least that’s how I remember that serendipitous day back in November 2013 when we met for the first time at brunch on 140 7th Street.
It’s nearly impossible to believe all that has transpired between us and within our spheres since then. Losses and gains. Accolades and upsets. Ripped ropes and restoration. Beginnings and endings. Ground zeroes and heavenly skies.
Erica, you are my soul sister. Through and through. To the moon and back.
I can’t tell the Internet world exactly what I said on a hot day in late summer when you asked me to be Kairie’s godmother. But what I can say is that I have always believed in living a big life, and when you entrusted me with that responsibility, you made my life that much bigger. You made it grand. You made my world extend beyond myself. I am so honored and excited to share a bit of your motherhood story here. Your motherhood – how it ebbs and flows, how you share it and protect it, how it moves and matures – has always been a unique and sacred form of poetry.
During the past year, we have witnessed your evolution from a mother of two to a mother of three. This coincides with the ways in which you’ve changed as a writer and storyteller. Tell us a little more about what’s been surging through your head and heart in the past year.
Wow. Well, I believe giving birth to a daughter after having two sons changed the dynamics of how I view womanhood and motherhood, and those two things definitely are large components of my writing. Looking back at my journey of storytelling over the years, there was a rawness to my words and tying that into life at home with boys, reflected my style of parenting–being very straightforward, no cookie-cutter, unfiltered truth. In having a girl, that same way of guiding her is going to exist, but I’ve been focusing a lot more on my words and my why’s. Part of that is attributed to my own mother who was very straight-to-the-point, but didn’t explain the methods to her madness, so there was an air of mystery to her that complicated how I looked at parenting. I said that if I ever had a daughter, going into depth with things as to help her develop a sense of understanding on what we go through as women would play a major role in how I raise her. That promise I made to myself for her manifested itself in the letter I wrote to her which to me, is the strongest piece of writing I ever put together.
Although you were on sabbatical from blogging throughout your pregnancy, you often times chronicled your experiences through social media, specifically Facebook. What about social media lends itself to self-expression in a way that’s different from blogging?
I think with blogging, you have to be very strategic about content, especially if you’re aiming to make the shift from an online space to a brand. That’s at the forefront of my mind at this stage with Everything ENJ, so I knew that I wanted to come back strong and that would be through the open letter after my daughter was born. With social media, I was able to get my thoughts out in a way that wasn’t so structured, but still allowed me to document my pregnancy without thinking too deeply about format or editing. With blogging, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can be a bit of a perfectionist, whereas on platforms like Facebook where I’m ‘friends’ with people I actually know outside of the screen, I write without much thought about “fancying” the content. The smaller pieces on social media segue into bigger posts on the blog which is a good balance for me as far as writing on different scales.
Since your daughter Kairie was born, you have combined stunning black and white photos with short narrative on Instagram in such a captivating way. How does photography enhance your work as a storyteller? How do the two forms of art play off of one another?
As a storyteller, it’s important to paint a picture to draw the reader into my reality. For me, I found it’s one thing to write on the memory of what something was; its another to have the ability to capture an exact moment in time and be able to relive that experience through visuals that make for more in-depth storytelling. You can look at a photo and form your own conclusions on the why and the how behind it, which is one of the things I love about photography, but it’s fusing a personal narrative with what you see that changes the point of view. I’ve always said “shifting the perspective” is one of my top goals as a writer. So incorporating pictures gives the reader direct access into what it is I’m seeing and drawing inspiration from exactly; adding a blurb or an entire blog post gives the reader insight without room for interpretation, from the angle of a mother.
You also do a great job anchoring your work with quotes and voices of other writers. What are some of your favorite quotes about motherhood?
Thanks! There are so many words I use from women of color, women that are mothers, women that have never bore children in my work, but my favorites are from Black women in the arts. I love a quote from Toni Morrison that says:
“…I never felt more free in my life until I had children. They were just the opposite of a burden. But for Black women, enslaved, to have a child that you were responsible for that was really was, that was really freedom. Cause they took those children; you didn’t have children; you may have produced them, but they weren’t yours. They could be sold [and] were sold. To be a mother was the unbelievable freedom.”
A quote from Jada Pinkett-Smith that reads:
“I think the re-massaging that we, as mothers, need to have and gravitate to is that you have to take care of yourself in order to have the alignment and power to take care of others at the capacity that we do, because it fills the well. What I believe that I do takes so much energy, so much work from the heart, spirit, and creativity, that I have to be responsible enough to take care of me.”
And a quote from Shonda Rhimes:
“All the greeting cards are about sacrifice. ‘Mother, you gave up so much for me. You worked so hard for me. You sacrificed so much. You were so wonderful and giving and selfless.’ Where is the greeting card that says, ‘Mother, you taught me how to be a powerful woman,’ ‘Mother, you taught me how to earn a living,’ ‘Mother, you taught me how to speak up for myself and not back down?’ Those are the greeting cards that should be out there. Those are the qualities that we would want for our daughters to have. I don’t want my daughters to grow up and think, ‘I should shrink and be in the background. I should be selfless. I should be sacrificing. I should be silent.’ That’s not what I think a mother is.”
How would you describe each of your children?
Kae, 8, is definitely the most compassionate and sensitive of the bunch. His challenge is acceptance, and he tries really hard to fit in and make people laugh and feel good. When that falls through, it sort of crushes his spirit because he “feels” so much. So his dad and I are working on helping him understand rejection, while letting him know there’s nothing wrong with the emotions he shows. A lot of parents kill that side of Black boys from early on, and I really want him to embrace that, but channel it properly.
Kam, 7, is the more quirky child who dances to the beat of his own drum. He’s definitely the more rebellious one and fitting in isn’t his forte. He’s incredibly smart (he’s currently in first grade reading on a fourth grade level) and he likes to be left alone most times which he takes up from his father. I’m excited to see who he’ll evolve into over time just because there are already so many layers to him that are fascinating to witness.
Kai, 3 months, already displays sides to her that are interesting because I see so much of who I am now in her as a baby. She has sass, she has attitude, she demands attention that her brothers didn’t at that age. I think she’ll pose more challenges for me as a mother and there will be more self-examination as a woman being in her presence, and that’s what both excites and frightens me for the future.
I recently joked with GG that being a mother of three seems like it’s in a different stratosphere from being a mother of one or two. What’s different about you now as a mother of three? How have you changed as a parent since having your first child?
Ha, this reminds me of a quote that’s been circulating on Instagram that said “Having one child makes you a parent; Having two makes you a referee; Three or more? You’re basically a bouncer.” On the letter to Kairie, I went on this whole journey on my road to motherhood and reflecting on the last eight years has been cathartic. Having my sons in my early twenties and then back-to-back, I don’t think I ever had a chance to really sit back and spiritually measure how much I’ve grown through raising my children until piecing that together. I just wanted to get it [parenting] right.
When I had Kae, I was very much uncertain about who I was and again, my mother and her relationship with her mother set the tone for how I viewed motherhood. It took a lot of trial and error to figure out what it is I wanted to adopt from my upbringing and my mother’s methods of raising me. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure it out, but from Kae to Kai, I’m more patient with myself and with my children. I’m more accepting with failing than I was years ago. I’m more understanding of my shortcomings, but cognizant of the fact that the mistakes I make don’t define my motherhood and I have plenty of opportunities to shift those shortcomings into successes.
What is unique and special about mothering two black sons?
Teaching them that they’re valuable in a world that views them as disposable. Guiding Black sons and telling them they matter and more so, showing them they matter, is revolutionary. They’re very much well aware of color and I know that as they grow older, they’ll become increasingly conscious of how others view them. I hope they hold on to the words and the actions that live with them because it’s going to be vital for their survival. Being the root of their existence–not just in terms of being the vessel that carried them, but the one that raised them to believe the opposite of what the world will–makes mothering them special.
What is unique and special about mothering a black daughter?
Being a daughter who absorbed everything that was said and being a mother who writes, words will always take precedence in my style of parenting, so although it’s only been a few months, I’d say knowing the words I speak into my daughter will be the reason why she’ll hold herself at such high regard. Like her brothers, she’s going to hear she’s everything but worthy, and powerful, and magical from the world, but I pray none of that becomes her because she was raised listening to affirmations of her value. If that’s radical, so be it.
From Chrissy Teigen recently sharing her struggle with post partum to Beyoncé’s twins reveal, there is a lot of rhetoric in popular culture about pregnancy and motherhood. What is affirming about these narratives? What is challenging about them?
What’s affirming is knowing that although motherhood looks different for every woman, we all share similar stories about how our lives are changed through our children. We all experience some form of loss and gain. In Chrissy’s story, it’s feeling like she lost herself after giving birth to her child; in Beyoncé’s, it’s having the ability to bare twins after having a miscarriage. No two mothers, as no two children, are the same, but it’s that underlying theme that connects us. That’s the human experience.
The challenge, however, is determining how much of your motherhood should be exposed. I remember posing a question on my Facebook when I was pregnant with Kairie on a parent’s decision to share photos of newborn babies and the feedback was mixed. There were mothers who felt women shouldn’t “tease” the public; then there was the other side that thought mothers shouldn’t have to prove something so private. Social media is to thank or blame for this.
I think with Bey and the controversy that surrounded her pregnancy with Blue sort of came this demand to share pictures of your belly. That’s unfortunate because the world we live in calls for constant access to your every move and your body. We’re sharing maternity photos and milestones, we’re sharing stretch marks and breastfeeding journeys, and while a lot of those things should be celebrated in hopes of normalizing them, it just sucks that some mothers feel the need to give, give, give just to satisfy a cultural desire and prove a point instead of aiming to shift the narrative.
What’s next for you as a mother? As a writer?
Well, I’m done in the baby department, so I’m just excited to raise my children and watch them grow because I know with that comes more growth within me. They’ve been my greatest teachers.
As a writer, Everything ENJ is about to undergo a major makeover for my thirtieth birthday, so that means more content soon! Nothing will change as far as what I write about, but I’ll be documenting more on motherhood because the vision is to have my children read the blog in the future. I have a few surprises I hope to roll out by the end of the year, and early next year that involves working alongside other writers, so fingers crossed that comes into fruition. And I hope to write for one or two major online spaces, so I’ll be jumping back into the pitching pool, too, in hopes of strengthening my writing.
Finish this sentence: Motherhood is: a testament to the depths of love, a reflection of ourselves through our creations, and a signifier that God does exists.
Erica Nichole is a twenty-something native New Yorker, mother of two boys and one daughter, a woman in a complicated situation and the writer behind Everything EnJ. She has penned for notable outlets including VIBE Vixen and xoNecole. Connect with Erica Nichole via Twitter and Instagram and @edotnichole.
I hope you slap your knee when you laugh. I hope you laugh hard and often, loud and unapologetically, with all of the might that your chest can withstand. I hope you cock your head back and kiss the sky with your cackles.
I hope you smile. I hope you smile not because some semblance of a man on a street corner has insisted that you turn your lips upward, but instead because there is something about this life that feels good and wonderful and brilliant. I hope you smile because you still uncover treasures in dark corners and find pennies in the holes of your pockets. I hope you smile because there is someone, some thing, some energy in your orbit that makes this life worth smiling about.
I hope you wear marigold and neon pink and fire engine red. I hope you fill the world with color and passion and spirit and vibrancy. I hope you radiate every shade of the spectrum and splatter your paint on life’s blank canvases. I hope you buzz and skip and hop and dance and strut. I hope that when other people see you, they instantly feel you, and that when their eyes meet yours, something inside of them wakes up from hibernation. I hope you never leave any place or any person the same way they were when you met them.
I hope you keep poems on your nightstand and bible verses in your heart. I hope you always have words to anchor you and quotes to carry you and sentences that rock you to sleep when the waves start rising. I hope you find solace in bell and Nayyirah and Nikki and Audre. I hope you are armored with all of the wisdom and solidity you need to build bridges over choppy waters and claw your way up crumbling mountains.
I hope you love without pretense. I hope you love in a boundless, unlimited, the-world-is-wide-open kind of way. I hope you love even after your heart has shattered. After your window panes have been broken. After you have bloodied your knees praying to God that some sort of change will come. I hope you still love without pretense. I hope you give of your wild love without reservation.
I hope you choose every day of this beloved life to remain soft and bright in a world that would rather have you be hard and darkened. I hope you let sunlight smooch your cheeks and moonlight brush your lips. I hope you never let the deck of cards stacked unfavorably against you keep you from giving this world all of the goodness you’ve got.
See, I’ve learned that this existence is full of contradictions and injustices and untidy truths. I’ve learned that black women hardly ever become angry in the blink of an eye, but instead stitch together bullet proof vests with the thread of every heartbreak and transgression they’ve ever survived. I have learned that remaining soft and bright as a black woman in this world is a choice. It is an intention. It is a battle and it is a risk. Remaining soft and bright as a black woman in this world is increasingly more difficult than just wearing your armor and moving on through.
But, still, I hope you slap your knee when you laugh. I hope you wear neon pink and keep poems on your nightstand. I hope you love with reckless abandon and let the sunlight smooch your cheeks. I hope you pen words and stir souls and enkindle the people around you with your undeniable rays. I hope you remain soft and bright. I pray you remain soft and bright. There is no greater rebellion for a black woman in today’s world than to forego the armor and elect to remain soft and bright.