Roots, Wings, and the Space In-Between – Katie Mgongolwa

Katie Mgongolwa is a high school teacher in Durham.
Katie Mgongolwa is a high school teacher in Durham.

I am from fried chicken, late night clabber games, and cinnamon bread on Christmas morning. I am from Mellencamp and Springsteen, church hymns and Disney songs on repeat. I am from peaches with cold milk, a mother whose gardens thrive, and from “The Paperbag Princess.”

I am from a grandmother who spent years in a chocolate factory, dipping walnuts into caramel and chocolate; from a grandfather with union strikes at Whirlpool, living off of canned beans and negotiations. I am from sacrifice and hope, from Detroit and Evansville, and folks who love hard.

As Mother’s Day nears, I spend a lot of time thinking about motherhood and who came before me. It is grounding to think about the ancestors whose choices and luck and dreams meant I stand today, that I continue this tradition of motherhood.

The Durham-based collective SpiritHouse, self-identified as a “multigenerational Black women-led cultural organizing tribe,” occasionally asks folks to reflect using the “Where I’m From” grounding exercise before new activities. I participated for the first time while joining in living- room conversations around the book “Incarceration Nations” last year. In truth, I hadn’t spent much time as I should have reflecting on who I am or where I’m from. Part of this is by societal design – a common, gripping moment for many white folks is asking them, “When did you realize you were white?” Many of us don’t have an answer, or, if we do, it was early adulthood before we registered the implications.

Moving through life as a white woman has afforded me opportunities and ease that will not always be available for my daughter, who is biracial and multinational. When I think about where I am from, and what comes next, I am thankful for the sacrifices of those who came before me, but also cognizant of the privilege accrued.

A simple example is one’s DNA: at a recent Racial Equity Institute (REI) Groundwater Training I attended in Durham, we talked about how accumulated stress and trauma can be passed through our DNA; literally, it changes genes for generations. In other words, your DNA could reflect trauma experienced by ancestors. It impacts you and your descendants. This is just one reason why stories about where we’re from matter.

My relationship with my daughter is something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

My daughter is me, but she is also my husband. She is also herself, most importantly. And I watch her grow and become more agentive, I wonder where her ideas and thoughts and dreams come from. Is it me? How much of where I’m from is where she is from? How much of where my husband is from is where she is from? In his own words, my husband is from pilau and meat soup; banana trees and peaches. He’s from corn fields and rivers, blue sky and mountains. He’s from bamboo trees and dirt roads; from “if you’re planning to move mountains, you start lifting stones today.” He’s from Chief Mkwawa and the Mkondas, from “if you’re full of pride, then you have no room for wisdom.”

My daughter is from that same green land and the Kihehe tribe and equatorial heat, and as she gets older, she seeks to understand and balance her multifacetedness. The other day, while I drove my daughter and her friend to a birthday party, my daughter asked to turn on some music. She thoughtfully slid through the songs and stopped triumphantly on a song about Africa. As the familiar music swelled, she told her friend about where she was from: she explained Mount Kilimanjaro and how it was formed; she shared some words in Swahili; she told her friend about the Serengeti. I hadn’t heard my 6-year-old share so much about Tanzania to friends before, and I listened with a smile. I’ve heard her do that more lately- find a connection between her daily life and where she’s from.

I once heard the advice that there are two gifts we should give our children: one is roots, and the other is wings. Of course, that sage advice giver did not explain how I would blink and my child would be in kindergarten, nor did they advise me how difficult and amazing both these tasks can be, especially in raising a girl of color in a world that will police her just for existing. It is challenging and discouraging as a white person so unconsciously used to white spaces to realize so few such spaces are safe for my husband or daughter. Still, it’s still far easier for me than what it is or will be for them.

Motherhood is a vehicle for change. In the anthology Revolutionary Mothering, Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes, “We say that mothering, especially the mothering of children in oppressed groups ... is a crucial and dangerous thing to do. Those of us who nurture the lives of those children who are not supposed to exist, who are not supposed to grow up, who are revolutionary in their very beings are doing some of the most subversive work in the world.” How can we, those embedded in the sacred context of family, affect change?

Motherhood is an act of resistance. We can start with radical acceptance while putting in the work. Someone once told me, “when you choose a partner, you choose a story.” It’s interesting to see how that works: how roots and ancestors connect, how new generations begin, how we make choices that lay the groundwork for change. From their roots to their wings, our children are our greatest stories.

If you’re interested in engaging in revolutionary mothering in Durham, check out Southerners on New Ground’s campaign to bail out mothers on Mother’s Day!

Katie Mgongolwa is a high school teacher in Durham. You can reach her at Katie.Mgongolwa@gmail.com.