People say that we live in a divided country, and they are absolutely right. There are two kinds of people in this world: the ones who haven’t read At Mama’s Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White, by April Ryan, and the ones who have. In this book, Ryan perfectly pens the challenges that Black women face in America. Ryan is also the Washington Bureau Chief for American Urban Radio Networks and is often in involved in heated exchanges with White House spokesman Sean Spicer that have racial overtones.
In her memoir, she discusses how at a young age her mother taught her about “the contributions that so many Black people have given to the world.” This lesson, and other similar ones, put Ryan ahead of the game in being knowledgeable about Blackness in America.
What good is a book about race, if it doesn’t mention “the talk.” “The talk” is racist myth that entails: Black parents talking to their children about how they should walk, dress, talk, breathe, eat, smile, blink, cough, laugh, or perform any other gesture, in a specific kind of way, which is supposed to strip racists of their racism. This “talk” is supposed to help Black youth avoid altercations with police and everyday regular racist people. Being Black can rob you of your life, because we’ve been stamped from the beginning as inferior. You should never put this responsibility on the oppressed, but rather on the oppressor. Ryan does well by addressing this talk, and hopefully putting an end to this myth.
For those who assume Black people make up stories to make their lives seem harder than they are, Ryan includes a bevy of statistics. She notes that “for every 100 Black women not in jail, there are only 83 Black men. The remaining men—1.5 million of them—are, in a sense, missing. They are missing largely because of early death or because they are behind bars.” These figures indicate the racial disparities in this country. It is undeniable that Black communities are policed more which equals more arrest. When there are more arrests, people then perceive that there is more crime.
In another excerpt Ryan’s details more consciousness that she attained, from being At Mamma’s Knee. “I learned early on, especially as I watched those old black-and-white movies, falling in love with the hero, who was usually White… My mother was quick to point out that everyone was not as embracing of our community as I imagined it was in the movies.”
April Ryan depicts a conversation that she had with Barack Obama about Blacks living in a post-racial America. She asks him, “Is this post-racial, or would you say post Obama?” She stumped the former president on the question, but you will have to read the book to see how the rest of the conversation plays out. But one thing I will say, is that I strongly agree with Ryan’s belief that “racism persists at its worst level, even today,” no matter who says otherwise.
The most intriguing segment of At Mama’s Knee is when Ryan, who is a graduate of Morgan State University and worked for years in the Baltimore market, discusses the power of invisibleness that comes with Black skin, while using Michelle Obama as a tour guide. She describes how “[Michelle] would walk the streets of Washington, D.C., around the White House, unannounced and in most cases unnoticed.” She explains that Michelle had several such walks and was rarely recognized by tourists, workers, and residents, and it’s because she is invisible, I mean Black. We live in a country that nourishes us to see color, so race is the first thing that many of us notice.
Despite Michelle’s face gracing many magazine covers, television screens, as well as her many accomplishments, Ivy League schools she attended, and her being the First Lady of The United States, she was still invisible. This should be living proof to every Black person in America: accomplishments can not erode racism. Therefore, your work should never be done with hopes to seek validation from the people who oppress you.
At Mama’s Knee by April Ryan is a must read for everyone, most importantly those parents who seek guidance in how to transfer wisdom about race to their children, how Ryan’s mother did for her, and how she currently does for her daughters.
Kondwani Fidel is a writer, speaker, and spoken word poet. Fidel is the author of Raw Wounds and is a member of Ivy Bookshop. He is from, and currently lives in Baltimore, Md. All book reviewed in this column can be purchased at The Ivy Bookshop, located at 6080 Falls Rd, near Lake Ave in Mt Washington. For more information about book club discounts or upcoming author events please go to theivybookshop.com or call us at 410-377-2966.