How my white mother shaped me into a black man

Updated
Credit: Albert L. Butler
Credit: Albert L. Butler

I am an avid watcher of Melissa Harris-Perry, so I was not at all surprised–and was quite pleased–when host Melissa Harris-Perry tackled the subject of white mothers raising black boys in America in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict. Prior to turning to her panel, the professor reminisced about her white mother offering a relevant (yet often overlooked) point that white mothers of black boys are confronted by the same realities as black mothers.

As the segment continued, I found myself nodding in agreement as the panel of mothers discussed how important it was to talk about race, discrimination, and culture with their black children. I know firsthand how important this is; I am the black son of a white mother, and my mom made sure she addressed those issues in various ways from my early childhood to my early adulthood. Even now, as I stretch across the 40-year-old threshold, we still discuss all of it. Her choices, in very large measure, empowered me to be the strong, confident black man that I am today.
My dad was a Baptist city kid from Brooklyn, working as a civil rights activist and youth advocate when he met my mom, a Quaker girl from a tiny farming community in North Carolina getting a master’s degree in social work.
Now, make no mistake. Though my folks were divorced before I was five and my father was not a daily presence in my life, he was present until the day he died of leukemia just a few months after my 22nd birthday. My mother didn’t see her role so much as teaching me about being a black man, but more to undergird and to reinforce what my father provided.
And she started early. She told me of a family vacation where my father was denied service at a rest stop in Virginia, and my mom had to get us food to eat. That disparity of access was (and in many ways still is) the reality of being black in America, and my mom never kept it from me.
To expand a critical point made by the #nerdland panel: my mom never talked about being colorblind. Early on, she made sure I was exposed to my culture. Even though I grew up in Philadelphia, a city with a large black population, my mother still needed to be intentional in her efforts to connect me to my culture.
“I had a lot of white people around me, and you were around plenty of white people,” she told me. “Learning about your white culture was never going to be a problem.” She made it a point for us to live in diverse neighborhoods, and for me to go to a small, but multicultural grade school.
She didn’t stop there, though.
When my mom thought I needed another black male presence, she set me up with a black Big Brother. When I suffered a childhood trauma and I needed counseling, she sent me to a black female psychologist. When PBS aired “Eyes on the Prize,” she sat me down to watch. When I started to read more, she directed me to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the poetry of Langston Hughes.
When I started to discover my militant voice, my mom gave me a book of Malcolm X speeches. (She also bought me Public Enemy and N.W.A. cassettes, though I’m pretty sure she had no idea what she getting me.) When I told my mom I wanted to go to an historically black college, she added a seven-school college tour to our annual North Carolina summer vacation.
All of these decisions were even more meaningful because although my father was an activist, youth advocate and later a Baptist preacher, he didn’t talk about the civil rights movement much. Looking back now, it was like talking to a veteran about war. He would say something to the effect of, “I lived it… I don’t want to relive it.” So after a while I just stopped bringing it up.
However, my dad did impart upon me lessons about character, about standing up for yourself, and about fighting for what you believe. A man of modest means, he always was proud, dignified and commanded respect everywhere–from the street, to the boardroom.
My father was my example of what it is to be a black man. My mom gave me the tools to get there.
Albert L. Butler is a radio host for 900 AM WURD, an independent black station in Philadelphia. You can listen to his program mid-mornings from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET via this live stream.
The discussions from Sunday’s “Melissa Harris-Perry” can be found below and here.

How my white mother shaped me into a black man

Updated