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Mothering without a Compass: White Mother’s Love, Black Son’s Courage

Becky Thompson
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 180
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  • Book Info
    Mothering without a Compass
    Book Description:

    Mothering without a Compass is the moving story of the author’s first year as the white lesbian mother of an African American boy. Thompson gives us an absorbing and often humorous account of her attempt at antiracist, multicultural parenting.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9187-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Put my head in her hands, our two heads together
    (pp. 1-10)

    I had known for many years that I was going to be a mother. In fact, I had had a recurring feeling since early adulthood that a child would simply arrive on my doorstep. My intuition was that I wouldn’t even have to go and fill out papers. A child would simply show up at my house. So, I wasn’t very surprised when Adrian—the younger brother of Andrea, a marvelous, twenty-one-year-old woman who had become my goddaughter a few years earlier—arrived for a two-week summer vacation in August 1997 and then announced a week later that he was...

  4. Witness to the telling
    (pp. 11-18)

    I was, of course, relieved to see that schools were making a way for Adrian so few days before school was going to start. And I was relieved when a progressive school founded on principles of nonviolence not only accepted him, but offered a financial aid package that I could live with for a year—if I lived paycheck to paycheck and was able to let down my I-am-afraid-to-ask-for-help guard and accept the generous monthly help from Hannah, a friend who had been family to me for over a decade and with whom I had recently become lovers. Of the...

  5. Limb from limb
    (pp. 19-26)

    A white antiracist poet friend of mine writes me a treasured letter, in a time when E mail and phones make letters infrequent. She writes of much news in her life, and a paragraph about how, in a recent visit together, “my way of walking through the world” somehow taught her something about balance. I read her words, grateful for the support, and surprised that she saw me as “in balance” in my body. It feels like such a struggle to me. Because of the early trauma I lived through and the noise of the world that seems nearly impossible...

  6. Telling, not telling, still hurting
    (pp. 27-28)

    Andrea called tonight to tell me that she had spoken with her mother, Grace, who has gone back to live with her husband, Damion—the man who had beaten and abused Adrian since he was a baby. Grace told Andrea that she just couldn’t stand living in the homeless shelter anymore. Damion had also threatened that if she didn’t move back in with him, he would find ways to hurt her and her two youngest children.

    I guess I should have thought more before I told Adrian that his mother was no longer in a shelter and was back with...

  7. What part of the story do I tell?
    (pp. 29-40)

    Adrian comes up to my study to ask me if I like the new airplane he has made with his Legos. I praise the sleek yellow, black, and silver air glider he is flying around the room. As I watch him, I wish silently that he would stick with Legos and Beanie Babies rather than his recent acquisition—action figures. All fall he asked for action figures, which, naive childless person that I have been, I assumed were simply figures that could move. So, when Christmas came, I told people of his request, which meant that he was given three...

  8. Heart on the table, in my hands
    (pp. 41-52)

    I have an hour and a half before I go to Bob the Chef’s, a soul food restaurant in the South End in Boston, to celebrate with the African American studies faculty the change from program to department status at the college where I teach. Soon, it will be one of the few departments of African American studies at small liberal arts schools in the United States—a major leap forward in giving African American studies faculty hiring autonomy and the room to build a cohesive curriculum. Adrian is with his chosen aunt and uncle, Kerry and Kayode, for the...

  9. In the age of no innocence
    (pp. 53-66)

    The most I have done so far with my quandary about Adrian’s toys, specifically the action figures, is to quietly separate the electric chair/Nautilus machine from its Hulk figure, burying the machine under a bunch of sheets in his closet. (Wondering, is it my place to throw it out? It isn’t my toy—it is his. But I don’t want him to have it, so it stays in limbo.) So far, Adrian hasn’t seemed to notice that the plastic piece that constrains Hulk is missing.

    But that grotesque piece of bright pink and lime green plastic keeps calling to me,...

  10. Lost time, in time, on time, with time
    (pp. 67-78)

    Having seen the title of this book on my desk, Adrian turns to me, seemingly out of the blue, at the breakfast table and asks, “If what you are writing is called ‘Mothering without a Compass,’ does that mean you don’t know what you are doing?”

    A quick easy laugh comes out of my body with a big smile. So smart he is. So quick. So to the point. I take a big breath while, inside, two opposite answers in equally clear voices chant to each other: “Of course, I know what I am doing. No, I definitely don’t know...

  11. In the gaze, in the tone of the voice
    (pp. 79-92)

    Part of what i am seeking is a livable space between taking on African American culture as if it were my own and not naming the way it has so changed me. Is it possible for a white woman to say that she is deeply indebted to African American culture (with the understanding that there is no single Black culture)—as shown partly by how she is raising her son—without making it sound like some kind of commodity that can be tried on and worn like a piece of clothing? It feels taboo to even raise these questions. Yet,...

  12. Much of the script, already written
    (pp. 93-104)

    Adrian is in the last stages of preparing his oral presentation at Silver Street on Malcolm X’s life. In the fall, we had read a book together on Malcolm X and Adrian had read another, more advanced book at school during the winter. So, when it came time for the children to decide which famous person to focus on for their sixweek project, Adrian chose Malcolm X. I was glad that the teachers knew enough about Malcolm to put him on the list of possible choices. And I was happy that Adrian chose him of his own volition—that he...

  13. Father love
    (pp. 105-112)

    It’s nine in the morning and I am already weary from the day, wondering whether there is any stand I can take that would represent a place of justice. I don’t think so. Life feels vexed from every direction.

    After driving Adrian and his six-year-old friend to school this morning, listening to them make up stories about Beanie Babies that could catapult into other realities, I noticed a person on the side of the road stooped over. At first I could barely make out whether the person was a man or a woman. The sun streaming into my window forced...

  14. Mother love
    (pp. 113-124)

    It is the end of april, in the midst of springtime, and I am just now starting to grieve for the life I had before Adrian came. These first several months—August, September, October, November, December, January, February, March—have been so full and intense: enrolling Adrian in school, going to a doctor and a dentist, meeting a new family of friends, borrowing a computer, buying toys, books, a warm comforter, shoes and boots, and the list goes on. I haven’t had a moment to remember any time before he came. I squint inside to try to remember if I...

  15. Sex education in the 1990s
    (pp. 125-136)

    Sex education began in this family in the fall, when Adrian and I were eating breakfast with Hannah and her daughter, Diana, at a local diner in Brookline—the Busy Bee, known for its fast short-order cooks, home fries made with real potatoes, and caustic and fearless waitresses. Once Adrian came, Hannah and I often took the kids to breakfast on Saturday mornings, partly to avoid having to cook or clean up. Mostly, though, we went after having realized that over meals, especially at restaurants, Adrian tended to bring up the hard stuff, raise the real issues, and offer the...

  16. So grown
    (pp. 137-148)

    “He’ll need a men’s size nine sneakers,” the shoe salesman tells me as I look at Adrian’s feet aghast. I begin chasing him around the store, accusing him of deliberately refusing to take his shrinking medicine regularly. He gallops away from me, dodging the Foot Locker displays, clearly enjoying the latest in a series of public announcements that he is growing very fast. About two months after he came, I started to feel deep pangs about all that I had missed, wondering what he had looked like when he was three years old, when he first got a full head...

  17. Sand beneath my feet, the tide takes its turn
    (pp. 149-162)

    From the time Adrian came to live with me a little over a year ago until I got the permanent guardianship papers, I often had to talk myself out of feeling panic at the possibility of losing him. Until I had the permanent guardianship, anyone from Adrian’s family—his mother, Grace, or his stepfather, or his grandmother, or his uncle, David—could come get him any time and I could do nothing to stop them. To calm myself, I would go over the many reasons that would probably not happen.

    Adrian’s grandmother, Grace’s mother, had protested loudly to Grace before...

  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 163-166)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 167-168)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 169-169)