I don’t think I’m in the minority in saying this, but my parents are not super affectionate.
Sure. They love each other intensely. They’ve been married for more than thirty years. They are, as my sisters and I once joked, “Black: United As A Force.” They take care of each other. But they don’t hold hands. I’ve only seen them kiss twice (once on the Super 8 footage of the wedding, the second when I was an adult and my father was leaving to catch a flight to Texas). My father is more of a “doer.” He shows his love by setting up all the accounts and debts so if he meets an untimely demise my mother won’t have to worry about the money. Or he drives her to her doctor appointments faithfully and fusses over what makes my otherwise “Steel Magnolia” mom quite delicate.
But they’re not lovey-dovey. Never have been. My mom saves up all her displays of affection for my sisters and myself, who have been showered in hugs, praise and kisses from day one. Just the other day, at age 31, I found myself walking around Macy’s holding my mother’s hand just beacuse.
The Obamas, who are openly affectionate in front of apparently everyone, are outwardly tender and kind towards each other and their children. Scenes of this public adoration have become a regular topic of discussion between my mother and me. About how we crave it. About how we can’t look away. About how much we love it.
Mother, like me and a lot of other women, grew up with fathers who were/are doers. Who loved, protected and took good care of you, but were not openly affectionate. In fact, her father, my beloved Grandpa, R.B., wasn’t affectionate towards her as a child, but softened up in old age.
I remember him as an exceedingly loving man who hugged and kissed me, talked to me for hours and took me everywhere he went in Newport, Ark., often introducing me to people as his “smart, beautiful granddaughter from St. Louis who looked just like him.” My mother was always grateful that my sisters and I experienced that from Grandpa, and she got to enjoy this affection she once didn’t receive both through us and through him, now a more mellow man wanting to love and be loved.
My mother spread her affection to her brothers (all seven of them), her mother and sister. Not to mention her many aunts, uncles and cousins. Just because her childhood had consisted of being the oldest, of hardwork and of little time for affection, she saw no need to waste her adult years being cold. Her family even in those tough, poor years, were close and remain close. And we are all a happier, huggier and a more loving family for it.
Grandpa passed away in 2001. We all still miss him. And I can’t look at the Obamas and my mother can’t look at them without thinking how good it is that they are so openly affectionate. How this is a light black people are rarely seen in and that black people, most of all, need to see these images. We talk about how sad it makes us to see black women and children out, alone, the husband or father almost never there. To see other non-black families out together, having fun together, being affectionate. To go to the mall and see doddering old white men wait patiently for their doddering old white wives while the black grandmas either shop alone or with their daughters. To see black parents be relatively cold to their children, reaching out for their affection, but only being told to act like a “man” when the “boy” is only six years old.
Some of this is left-over “survival-mode” behavior from our history as an oppressed people. The poor and the enslaved, after all, didn’t always have the “luxury” of human affection. If your number one concern is just making it through the day, cuddling the baby and telling him or her that they are loved becomes secondary. But this toughness persists today when it’s about as necessary as a bursting appendix.
Black women don’t have to pretend to be super women anymore. We should get to be “women.” We should get the full spectrum of emotion that we were once forced to supress or deny. The mythology of the “strong black woman” needs to roll over and die so that black women can find their sensetivities and become free to be fully-functioning emotional beings, accepting of all their feelings — from love to fear. Not just acting out the pantomine of sassiness and chippy attitude that is practically encouraged in society and popular culture.
And black men shouldn’t have to pretend that they don’t need love. That being alone, both physically or emotionally alone in a relationship, is “the norm.” That being disrespectful of each other, or just accepting disrespect is “the norm.” And it shouldn’t be seen as weakness if you have opened your heart fully to your partner or your children. There should be no shame in attending the dance recitals, history plays, Easter pagents and PTA meetings. There should be no shame in telling your daughter she is beautiful and helping your kids with their homework and guiding your son through the bumpy paths in life while always letting him know your love will be there.
These things are not corny. It won’t make your children soft. The opposite will happen. There will be confidence and they will be better people to those they meet in life. They will value the lives and feelings of others. They will realize that black people need to be loved.
And your children seeing you be affectionate towards each other will only deepen that feeling of love, trust and stability. (And it doesn’t hurt your relationship either.)
If we’re going to make it, as a people, we need love. It was true during slavery when we were ripped apart from one another on the auction block. It was true after slavery when relatives searched high and low for those who were sold away. It was true in the 1950s when blacks married at the same rate as whites. It’s still true now in today’s age of fatherless families or black couples who are able to obtain material things through their intelligence and hard work, but don’t know how to build the trust that comes with completely giving your heart to another person.
We can’t presume to know the Obamas marriage. Only two people in the world know the truth in that. But I hope if there is any lasting example they leave it will be that we don’t have to always be hard. There is power in softness. Many of us are capable of giving and receiving love and those who in the past have not can learn.