Mama’s Boy: A Queer Son’s Love Letter to His Mother

Before proceeding I must warn you, this will seem overwritten, even forced in places, but I am feeling sentimental so I will not hold myself to the rigid rules of language, and instead give in to flowery prose (or, at least what passes for flowery prose in my mind!)

Fewer sons could be as proud of their mothers as I am of mine. She is and remains the most remarkable, resilient, intensely intelligent, and most wickedly witty woman I know. These are just some of the remarkable qualities I have seen in her, and have tried to emulate, as she did from her mother. But my identity as I was growing up threatened an almost idyllic childhood so lovingly provided by her. I shared this and some of my experience in an interview for the Black and Abroad YouTube series hosted by my personal friend and Beijing-based licensed therapist, Kindall Tyson.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

Though my conversation with Tyson was profound and wide-ranging concerning my personal journey with mental health and how that was affected by my identity coupled with my being Kenyan, there is still a great deal that was left out; afterthoughts and moments of clarity after the fact that I could only liken to the perfect comeback that reveals itself while in the shower as one lick’s ones battle wounds after a particularly bitter verbal battle. And even though I have heard it said that some details from one’s life should be hidden away to be revealed when one writes one’s memoir, I also want to hold myself to the motto of living day by day.

 Today, I feel these parts are relevant, and I also do not believe that a truth shared is ever erased or weakened by the ravages of time. If that were the case then the philosophical guiding principles from ancient civilizations upon which our modern ones have been built would have long ceased to hold meaning. But truth, as is the human condition, remains never-changing, and there might be some day in the future when a little child as confused as I was, will find my words and will find meaning in my truth and say to himself, “surely if HE survived back then when things were far worse than now, I can find the strength to carry on, and not only survive but thrive!”

“Imagine, I might really become somebody. Someday.”
― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

So here is my truth. I have never harbored any negative feelings toward my mother. I wouldn’t be the person that I am today were it not for her and her fierce protection of me, however ill-advised it was at times. But as I said in the interview, all any of us want is to be allowed our humanity, and who am I to deny her hers. She was a product of her time, as we are ours. Just like any mother, she wanted to do what was best for her child, and that meant trying to protect me from myself and society, hoping against all hope that I might change, not be this thing that everyone around us had decided was evil.

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At times, as Queer people, we get caught up in our personal traumas, processes of exploration, and establishing our own identities that we forget our journeys to self-acceptance do not happen in a vacuum. In as much as these journeys are personal, they still affect those around us, even if to a lesser extent. I can only imagine what she must have gone through hearing derogatory comments thrown my way within earshot of her. How many bitter memories, worries, fears, and frustrations she stomached and hid from me as she watched, helplessly for the most part, how the world treated her only son. And how, despite my hope and optimism, I would return home each day, dejected, as the world outside our loving home reminded me once more that I didn’t belong or I wasn’t worthy of respect, and at times, threatened my very safety and challenged my right to life

“You said to lean on your arm
And I am leaning
You said to trust in your love
And I am trusting
You said to call on your name
And I am calling
I’m stepping out on your word”
― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

I am not a parent so I am hard-pressed to understand. But I have a perspective as a caring son and friend and know of the anger that would ignite in me watching her be treated as “just a woman” in a largely misogynistic society, as a single mother, when I knew her to be so much more. My mother has been very good at protecting me from the world, without shielding me from the hard truths and realities of life. When she lost her job when I was 10 years old, she worked herself to the bone to afford me the best that money could buy; even better. No one would have guessed that I came from a single-parent home because I was just as well-dressed and well taken care of as my friends from two-parent homes. This shouldn’t have mattered, but it did, and still does in many societies in the world – the taboo of a single woman raising a boy alone and all the things that society believes could possibly go wrong.

Some of her friends resented her seeming success and I saw it, the fact that she would not lay down and give up as was expected of her, and these people who we at first thought were her friends, turned their backs on her since they couldn’t gloat over her corpse. But my identity wasn’t something she could protect or shield me from, no matter how hard she tried, and she had to stand by the wayside and watch as the world relentlessly bashed me, knowing there was little else she could do other than be there at the end of every day to try and breathe back some life into my weary spirit.

Two generations of Karanja women. My grandmother, Grace Wangui Karanja, and my mother, Damaris Ngina Karanja caught in a moment of shared introspection

My interview didn’t do her justice. Responses given without much forethought, in the moment, and straight from the heart often fall short of expressing our deepest desires. I was both nervous and excited to talk to my friend, Tyson. But I also worried, even feared what my mother’s reaction would be once she watched it. Even I underestimate her at times, brush off her worries and remarks as the overactive imagination of women of a particular age and from a particular culture. Yes, they all worry and miss the point that we are grown and independent entirely.

So when I posted the video link along with a short introductory status, I knew she would see it and would be tempted to watch it, and feared I would receive a message akin to, “what will people say?” or a variation of the same, which now I have come to understand as my mother’s way of saying, “I love you, I care for you, I worry for your safety, for your future, for what the world might do to you once they get a hold of this truth you wish to share, and that the damage to you as my child will be more than I can shield you from.”

“There was a possibility that God really did love me, me Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the gravity and grandeur of it all. I knew that if God loved me, then I could do wonderful things, I could try great things, learn anything, achieve anything. For what could stand against me, since one person, with God, constitutes the majority?”
― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter

But she is of her time, so a simple, “You know sometimes I worry,” or “Just make sure so-and-so won’t see it,” to which I smile and do as she asks, because what son doesn’t want to make his mother happy? Plus, that, to me, continues to be the greatest of love letters a mother could ever write to her son, reminding me that, where she might not have been there for me before, she is here now, not to make up for lost time, but to be what she has always been: An excellent mother. Only now, as has always been the case, in our secret Mark-Mom language hefty with thick pearls of laughter and inside jokes, an understood and treasured comradery, and at times, a conspiratorial alliance, she reaffirms her commitment to protecting me to the best of her ability, knowing the world will not.  

And, I ask, what greater love hath a mother for a son?

No, there is no greater love.

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