Motherhood at the End of the World


First Person

Ray Hennessy, Mother Bird Protecting Her Young, 2016, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the run-up to Thanksgiving last year, you learned a whitewashed story at school about how the first peoples of this land were happy to give their sacred spaces to the consumptive force of European men in the name of civilization and progress. You came home from school and unzipped your backpack, revealing with artistic pride a picture book you had colored and stapled yourself. Your kindergarten teacher had asked you to color in a little Native American girl, then a Native American boy, followed by a pilgrim girl and boy, each one garbed in their traditional attire. I admired the craft of your book, a swell of parental pride coursing through me as I witnessed the evidence of my progeny doing and making things in the world beyond me. And I relished that you had colored all four children Brown like you.

As you flipped through the pages of your book, you narrated a sad story about how much the pilgrims had suffered when they arrived on this land. I felt a surge in my body, an immediate, unstoppable need to explain the other forms of suffering elided by this disturbingly singular narrative. I described some of the impacts of this arrival on Indigenous peoples—the European theft of their autonomies, cultures, languages, and lands. I explained that colonial practices dramatically changed how humans live in relation to this land. And I told you that this historical moment of colonial contact was crucial to understanding how we arrived at the global ecological crisis we face today. I will never forget the way you looked at me then, your head slightly tilted to one side, your eyes wide in bewilderment. We were sitting on the landing at the top of the apartment stairs, the contents of your backpack scattered around us. “This is not what my teacher told us,” you said with unmistakable agitation. I knew that for the first time you were confronting the existence of conflicting worldviews, a vital gulf between your formal education and your maternal one. “That’s okay,” I said. “My job as your mother is to tell you these stories differently, and to tell you other stories that don’t get told at school.” I pressed on to explain that history is a story based on a version of the past. “Can you hear the word story in history?” I asked. You nodded slowly, a little body in deep rumination. “These stories need to be told from the perspectives of those who have been most damaged by history. These other stories,” I said, “can teach us how to keep living.”

From the onset of your public education, you have been learning what it means to be American through a manicured version of history that keeps European whiteness at its center. This form of education willfully forgets the lives that were destroyed, the bodies that were brutalized, and the cultures and traditions that were abolished or displaced to establish that center space. It tells you a singular and continuous narrative of Western capitalist expansion, obscuring the bleak fact that much of what we call “progress” has been a direct and unrelenting line to the wholesale destruction of the earth. Against this obliterating narrative, I glean from the fragments in an attempt to teach us otherwise. I scramble to harvest alternative histories omitted by the textbooks, the histories of those who have faced annihilation and lived toward survival. Learning to mother at the end of the world is an infinite toggle between wanting to make you feel safe and needing you to know that the earth and its inhabitants are facing a catastrophic crisis. This morning, you went off to school to learn discipline, to hone your reading and writing skills, to study official state history. I am at my desk sipping tea, turning over words. The birds are chirping outside my window. You, me, the birds. We are all creatures living as though we have a future, as though tomorrow will continue to resemble today. Meanwhile, plans are being devised to drive the marketplace forward when the earth’s nonrenewable resources are exhausted. Scientists and businessmen are plotting to colonize the moon in a relentless drive to create an alternative human habitat when this one can no longer foster us. There is no consideration of ceasing extraction, only a maniacal mission to discover other worlds to plunder.

When the earth is rendered uninhabitable, when extractive capitalism leads to wholesale ecological collapse, we will not be chosen for this new other-planetary world. We, along with nearly everyone else, will be left in ecological destruction to scavenge what we can from the wreckage, or to perish. The truth is I am glad not to be among the chosen ones. I know in my body the cost of “discovering new worlds,” the brutal violence that accompanies the colonial mission. No, I do not want to leave this planet. What I want is another world. And when I say another world, I mean this one, toppled and reborn.

Another Thanksgiving is upon us, and this year you inform me that your first-grade class will soon be studying Pocahontas. You ask me earnestly whether we might watch the Disney movie together. Intuiting my hesitation, you add that Pocahontas comes from the land near where we now live, and that she is a super important person. I concede to your request, knowing you will see this film sooner or later, and finding myself oddly curious about how Disney has rendered this history.

In preparation for our date, we slice apples, pour chamomile tea, and fill bowls with popcorn before climbing into my bed to watch. Early in the film, you declare that Pocahontas reminds you of yourself, and I ask you how you see a resemblance. Eager to keep your attention on the movie, you briefly list her kindness and her connection with nature. Then, in a fabulous offhanded gesture that makes me laugh, you add that Pocahontas’s hair, which is long, immaculate, and shining black, is quite similar to your own short, ever-disheveled, and unmistakably brown hair.

Moments later—on the heels of your declarative affiliation with Pocahontas—you say, for the first time in your life, “I wish I was white.” I hit the space bar on the laptop to pause the film. I feel like I’m sliding through time, careening into transmutation. Thirty-five years ago, I, too, was a little girl wishing for whiteness. I am astonished by the twinning, even though I know intellectually that a childhood wish for whiteness is as mundane as it is predictable. Still, in that split second I want to look into your eyes, our eyes, and say, “I have always loved you, little misfit.”

Instead, I ask an inane question: Why do you feel this way? You respond without hesitation, bluntly, “Because I want to be one of the good guys.” I remind you that the only expressly “bad guy” we’ve seen so far in the film is the white Ratcliffe. But I know you are intuiting and absorbing the representation of the “savage” that the film propagates, and so while there is one “bad” white man in this narrative, the “uncivilized” ways of the Indigenous peoples of this film are presented as the real problem. In other words, you are reading the film through its own disturbing lens: the white man is fundamentally good if we can just beat off the one bad seed, and the Indigenous peoples are inherently misguided and belligerent, even while we are given permission to love the girl who dared to love a white man.

How to explain all this to you? How to say in simple terms that we are steeped in layers of ideology that make up a collective sense of goodness, beauty, and civility? To explain that these dominant narratives come to inform, if not dictate, what we desire and how we live our most intimate lives. I cannot shield you from these structures of belief or their profound and abiding effects on you. But I can complicate and unearth them with you. Indeed, my role as your mother may be nothing more than an endless task of reading narratives against the grain, of resisting the mainstream’s consumptive ease.

When the film is done, we turn out the lights to fall asleep together and our ritual unfolds. I whisper, “I love you for always. You’re my favorite thing.” You respond, “Tell me a story, Amma.” Then, often together, we say, “Once upon a time, a long, long time ago…” I break into a fantastical story that you expect me, night after night, to invent for you on the spot.

“Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there was a magical little girl—”

You interrupt me promptly and insist, “No! Not magical, Amma!”

So, I begin again. “There was an ordinary little girl…”

And then, frustrated with my easy adjectival foreclosures, you interrupt to assert that I should “not make the story so obvious…”

Who is the teacher and who is the student in this elementary pedagogy? In the end, it is you who schools me—to always complicate the story, to never prescribe, never reduce. There is infinite promise in this teaching. I hold the lesson in my body.

On the sixth day of a nine-day work trip—the longest period I have been away from you—I FaceTime home and find you deeply engaged in an act of fruit sculpting. You tell me you are making a Powhatan village. The Powhatan people are represented by banana slices, and apple skins make up their shelters. Off to the side of the village, you have crafted colonial ships by slicing kiwis in half, gutting their insides, and attaching the skins to the little fruit boats to serve as sails. You have created rough waters out of banana peels, and a wall of carved-apple manatees that surrounds the kiwi ships on three sides.

“What’s happening in this scene?” I ask.

“The rough waters and manatees are pushing the Europeans back home,” you reply earnestly.

I am blown away to witness this art-making against the state, this anticolonial fruit installation that is also a fantasy of organically reversing history. What I love most is that in your historical revisioning, you move us beyond the subjugated histories of Indigenous resistance to colonial force. Instead, you turn your attention to the sea, letting it emerge as an actor in the opposition to the colonial mission. Your artwork veers me away from the anthropocentric position, carefully and imaginatively invoking what the earth itself might desire.

Last year, as we walked to school hand in hand through the lush green streets of Richmond, Virginia, you asked me with stark curiosity whether you would have been a slave had you lived here in another time. The question did not come as an absolute surprise, because I knew you had been studying Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson in kindergarten. Only months into your formal education, and you were already immersed in a top-down history that tells you Black folks became free through the noble gestures of white presidential slave owners. This history slyly refuses to include the resistance from below that has always made freedom possible. It is a history that will not tell you how hard and through what means Black and Brown people have fought to be free, how crushing the blows of European “progress” have been to those subjected to its force.

Your question was hard for me to answer because its limbs extended in so many directions, because it required not a single answer, not a reductive no or yes, but a careful inventory of moving bodies. Some of those bodies came with colonial minds, some were “discovered” here and brutally eradicated or displaced, some were captured from elsewhere and forced across the ocean, and others came from distant lands to save or improve their lives. At its root, your question was a way of asking where your body fits into the racial economy of this nation. And the answer to that question must necessarily be a dynamic one.

I tightened my grip on your hand, slowed our pace, and drew you close. I told you that people like us did not live here during the time of slavery. But already I was wondering about the words I used—people like us. Who was this us I had summoned to make sense of things for you? At the time, I had undoubtedly meant those critically impacted by the force and manipulation of British colonialism in India. But my utterance also implicated the Jews who were exterminated and those who narrowly escaped the Nazi camps. Our blood is laced with modern histories of unbelievable violence. It is a strange and hybrid brew that you will feel in your body across your life, as I have always felt it in mine.

Our particular histories are those of imperial conquest, mass extermination, and nearly unimaginable forms of racial and religious violence. But here in America, it is toward the local histories of genocide, slavery, forced religious and cultural conversion, and internment that we must reach in solidarity. Each of us who emerges from the subjugated ends of history, who stands outside whiteness but is also saturated by its power, shares something not only at the surface of our bodies but also deep within them.

I am writing to you, and to future you. I am writing to the six-year-old girl you are now, the one who both insists on her unequivocal need for my body and loves to perform her independence from me.

You slide your hands along my skin, expressing your endless love for my body as you lock your arms around my waist. I am busy with some task—an email, the groceries, a lecture that needs to be written—and when I try to unlatch, you strike a dramatic tone and declare, “But I need your body to live!” We both laugh, understanding that in this fantasy you are a helpless infant and I a gigantic breast, the wellspring of your survival. You have outgrown my womb and my milk, but my body remains your target. A deeply desired dwelling place, a fantasy of origin and endless return.

Yet in the social world, you are all independence and moxie, a creature that appears to have sprung autonomously, fully formed. You toddled, then dashed, now saunter into social spaces and make your presence known. At the farmers market, you help the farmers organize and sell their produce. At the grocery, you join your “coworkers,” chatting with the employees as you help bag groceries or work the customer service desk. You don’t always mind your parents nearby but make clear your strong preference that we kick back at a distance, let you navigate your own social relations. You both need me to live and love to not need me at all.

I am writing also to the becoming-being that you are, the one who will face a world in ruin and undoubtedly wonder over my place in all this destruction.

Over half a century ago, James Baldwin repeatedly wrote and tore up drafts of a letter penned to his nephew and namesake until he was able to articulate the plain, pitiless fact that the younger James would face profound struggle for no other reason but the fact of his Blackness. More recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates followed Baldwin to elucidate for his son the brutal truth of state violence inflicted against Black bodies. It is no coincidence that both Baldwin and Coates have felt an urgency to write to fifteen-year-old boys tipping into manhood, their Black paternal mouths spilling with revolutionary promise as they equip their boys to face a criminal justice system designed to exploit and devour them.

I write to you with a different urgency. I write not with the immediate fear that you will be gunned down by police in the streets, or that you will be metabolized by the prison industrial complex, but with an adjacent set of fears about being a Brown girl in a country that thinks and feels race through a sharp binary. I write with an impossible desire to prepare you for political and ecological catastrophe. I write because the burden of history—the indispensable need to keep us all from coming apart—keeps falling on the shoulders of girls and women of color. I write because, as mother and daughter, we are unmistakably entwined, and because I know—which is to say I feel in the most microbial registers of my body—that the shape of our entwinement will need to be radically reformed as we fight global patriarchy, extractive capitalism, and indiscriminate planetary destruction.


Julietta Singh is a writer and academic whose work engages the enduring effects of colonization, current ecological crisis, and queer-feminist futures. She is the author of two previous books: No Archive Will Restore You (Punctum Books, 2018) and Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Duke University Press, 2018). She currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her child and her best friend. 

Used by permission from The Breaks: An Essay (Coffee House Press, 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Julietta Singh.