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Octavia Brown—Parenting Black Children

Listen to more Third Floor Views interviews on topics including talking about race, stress management and more.

Being a mom is not easy. Being a black mother adds many challenges to being a mom.

We spoke Annapolis native Octavia Brown, MSW, LMSW, who joined us for an open discussion about raising black kids, in which she describes with great honesty what parenting black kids is all about.



Podcast Version:


Janet Jefferson (00:01):
Welcome to Third Floor Views, where we at Chesapeake Family Life talk about health, education and living with kids. I’m your host, Janet Jefferson. Here with us today is Octavia Brown. She is a licensed social worker and mental health therapist, the co-founder of Annapolis Coalition of Black Progressives and mother of three. Thank you for being here with us today Octavia.

Octavia Brown (00:38):
Thank you so much for having me.

Janet Jefferson (00:40):
Today we are discussing raising black children. Let’s get started. So first off, what do you want to share about your experience as a mother?

Octavia Brown (00:50):
So I would say it is the happiest, most rewarding role that I could have, but it is also the scariest role that I could have from the time that I had my first child in 2004. And then down to my third child, every birth brought a feeling you can’t describe it. And I think all moms, we looked down at our children and we think about all that. We want to provide the children, those children, the opportunities we want to give those children, but for Black and Brown moms, we also think about how we can keep those children protected and the very stark realization that there is just some things that we don’t have a lot of control over and that we have to prepare our children to not only understand that and learn how to live in this society as a Black and Brown person. But as a parent, we have to always continue to prepare ourselves for if something were to happen to these precious beings that you love with every fiber in your body. So I would say it’s like the best and scariest thing ever.

Janet Jefferson (02:11):
So what do you want other people to know about, about being a black mother? What are things that come to your mind that you just want to share with everyone today?

Octavia Brown (02:22):
So for non people of color, what is important to know is that being a black mother, it comes with a lot of obstacles and it comes with a lot of perils that most non people of color do not ever think about. So for an example, you know, they’re in every thing that you do as a parent, race is always in racial relations is always a part of it. We actually live where the quality of school is one that my kid go to and still being like I made the wrong decision. And for an example, like growing up, I went to schools in Annapolis, Maryland that were typically predominantly African American and those schools looked, the culture of those schools look much different. The teachers were, you know, they did their best, but they didn’t quite understand how to interact with Black and Brown children. They didn’t quite understand the perils that Black and Brown children, parents have and that Black and Brown children have in general. And I can even describe to you, you know, how there would be like tape down the hallways and the children were expected to wear a uniform and children were expected to walk down this straight line. And sometimes even as an adult, when I walked through those schools and inner city schools, where there are lack of resources and a lack of funding, it almost reminds me of a prison. Like you’re preparing these children for prison. And I don’t know if you’ve ever heard about the school to prison pipeline. That is a very real thing. And so being a mother, it was like, okay, where do I send my children to school? You know, and in Anne Arundel County, you either send them to a predominantly Black and Brown school or you send them to a predominantly white school. And so my thought process was of course, you know, okay, I need them to have the best academics possible. I need them to have the most resources. So I’m going to move them into a predominantly white neighborhood and allow them to go up to a predominantly white school. This of course backfired because my children were socialized racially to hate themselves, you know? And so they would come home and my daughter who is darker skin would be like, I hate my skin. I wish that I was lighter. My son who is lighter complected would tell me how he would pass, try to pass as white. You know, he would try to tell his friends that he were white. I remember finding videos in his phone with him as he was, he was a teenager before I inevitably pulled them out to homeschool them. And there was a video of one of his friends making fun of him calling him a slave, you know? And so as a black parent, I want people to understand that we feel like we’re constantly in a lose, lose situation. So while other parents probably don’t think about stuff like that we have to think about it every single day. We have to prepare our children in a much different way. So like my children, especially my black sons, you know, it is important for them to understand that you can’t afford to make mistakes. So while other teenagers can go and do teenage adolescent things, that might cost you your life. And so they are also very much more protected. And the question is as a parent, I had to always ask myself, am I doing the right thing? You know, if I hide them from the realities of this world, when they begin to be an adult and it hits them, it could traumatize them for the rest of their lives. But if I’m real with them, then I’m telling them that the world thinks that you’re nothing. And we have to basically deal with that. You know, we have to deal with that. And so it is an extra layer of responsibility and an extra layer of complication that I’m going to say that probably all parents that are not of color wouldn’t never have to deal with. And I just want people to understand that. I remember, and I know this is kind of personal, but from the time that I had my children, I would have these nightmares, these nightmares that somebody would take them from me, or I made a mistake and forgotten, left them somewhere. And now they’re unprotected. And in my dreams that I would always be rushing back and praying and hoping that my children were okay. You know, certain things my husband will tell you, you know, and I’m going to be very transparent here when we are in front of a group of white people,I don’t say certain things I am concerned about. Well, we can’t yell at the kids because they might think that we’re abusing them and they might call protective services and take our children, or something like that. It didn’t, it wasn’t any better. When I worked for Child Protective Services and I saw that there was a huge overrepresentation of Black and Brown children that are in foster care. And sometimes for reasons, they didn’t need to be in foster care. So there’s this extra layer of being a Black parent that sometimes if we’re not careful, we can get so caught up in parenting, out of fear that we forget to parent and out of love and not out of a survival mentality and just embrace that on my children. I love them. And I’m enjoying motherhood. So, so motherhood for a Black parent is like a win, lose situation. Kind of like, you know, you love being a parent, but you spend from the time that I had children, I had spent my life in so much in anxiety, you know, and anxiousness and nervousness. Then before I had children, my life has definitely altered in a different way.

Janet Jefferson (08:03):
It sounds like your mental load is way beyond what someone who is not in a Black and Brown community, and that there are things that you’re constantly thinking about that are running through your head all of the time. And there’s not a lot of space to have fun and to really find joy. Do you think that’s different being a Black mother opposed to a Black father? And how do you think thinking about yourself compared to your husband, do you think that you have more mental load than he does?

Octavia Brown (08:36):
Yeah, I think it’s different. And I think that women, we mothers have a different role than a father. And so, you know, the father and we always make jokes, cause in my household, my kids know I’m a overthinker. So, you know, when they come to me and they’re like, you can, I do X, Y, and Z. I’m like, Oh, no, I got to do this. Well, I don’t know about that. You know? And you know, what, if this happens, they know if I go to daddy, daddy would be like, whatever. So, there are definitely, probably more protective, in certain areas that I’m thinking about things. But in other situations, my husband is completely alert. So for an example, being that they went to a predominantly white school, the conversation, and again, I’m being completely real and vulnerable with you right now. The conversation came up with our teenager, what if our son’s, because my husband he’s the father of my youngest son, but the stepfather of my oldest two children, but what happens if he wants to date outside of his race? And it’s scary. It’s like we think about the times that if something happened or if there was a conflict in the relationship or the many times that black skinned men were accused of rape and things like that. And to have to sit and try to decipher how to tell your kid, like, what do we tell our kid? Did we tell them, you know, not to date outside of their race because it’s dangerous but if we do that, then that’s not and so these are conversations we have. These are conversations that my husband and I have to navigate. My husband is definitely, he’s very hands on with explaining to our children: This is how you interact with people of an opposite race and most importantly, white people, however, he’s really great at teaching them to stand up for themselves. It’s a fight for social justice. And so our family is big on fighting against racism, but we all know in our household that just doing that could cost all of us our lives. And so there are some times where I’ve organized something that affects a white person’s business because of overt racism, or I have stood up against the politician or someone in power and then the conversation happens at home where it’s like, we got to keep the doors locked. You know, this is what happens. And if I pass away, like when we have a system in place for, for this, something happened to me and my husband, way before that we should even ever think about passing away. But because we are our advocates and active fighters against the system of racism, we know that it could potentially cost us our lives and do we teach our children to do the same, you know? And so, and if we do teach them, we know that we’re putting them right in the limelight, they were right in the line of fire as well. And so my husband is definitely, he’s definitely hands on with educating them about how to fight the system appropriately, what to do, what not to do, how to interact with the police. My son is 15 and he’ll be 15 and nine months in August. And most are excited to go get their permit. My son, after another most recent murder of an innocent black man by the police, he said, I don’t want to get my license, mom. Like it’s unsafe for me and that that’s heartbreaking, but I get it, I understand. I don’t want him to have it either. I don’t know if I can just drive around for the rest of my life. So it’s always a thing where we’re like, are we doing the right thing? And that is a constant conversation between me and my husband and my oldest dude, their father, you know, so we all work together. So we’re constantly battling, how do we handle this? How do we come up about, dealing with this, how do we advise our children? Are we doing it the right way? Is this going to cause them to be in harms way and et cetera. So, yeah, it’s definitely a lot.

Janet Jefferson (12:41):
What are you most proud of as a Black mother?

Octavia Brown (12:45):
So I am most proud. I am so I can sit and rant and rave about my children all day, but I was a teenage parent. I got pregnant at 16. I had my son by 17. My daughter, I had her by 18. I didn’t have my youngest until much later, but I was a very young parent trying to raise Black and Brown children in this society. And so I fought really hard to make sure that they had every opportunity afforded to them the best way that I could. And like I said before, I think I failed on multiple areas even though I had the best intentions, but I said to them from the time that they were babies, I just want you to be better than me. That’s the only, I just want you to be better than me. And as I can sit here and say that they’re both, they’re not only better than I was at that age but my son wants to be a lawyer. My daughter is a little social justice fighter in her own way. She is a strong advocate for mental health and the use of service animals. She wants to be a veterinarian and sometimes in front of to get emotional, so emotional. But when I look at that hope in their eyes and knowing the I always say it, no matter what you can do and be anything that you want to be, you know, you can do anything and no matter how many obstacles, no matter how many hindrances are in your way, you can do and be whatever you want to be. And when I look at them and I know that they were so much better in a better place than I was at their age, and they have these dreams that I just never thought about. Like when I sit in front of you today as a licensed social worker, understand that was not supposed to be my plan. I mean, my family, you know, I busted by that all the time. Cause now I got all these student loans, but he was like college. Like I would, I was so off the hook that I never thought that I would be in college, but being able to see my kids live, just live so boldly and really examine their life choices. That, and how it might affect them, it makes me so proud. Like I can’t even begin to tell you how proud I am of them.

Janet Jefferson (15:09):
That’s awesome. It’s really heartwarming. And I think, I think as mothers everywhere, it’s something that we all deeply connect to is seeing the beauty in our children and always hoping for better, for them wanting better. What’s your deepest fear for your children as a mother?

Octavia Brown (15:27):
I can tell you that with the swiftness, because I think about it every day, I think about death. I think about incarceration. And I think about them and that is the scariest thing, trying to teach them to value themselves and this society and in this country, when the whole world is telling them that you’re nothing, for them to believe that about themselves is my worst. I think that’s even scarier to me than death or incarceration or anything like that. It’s important to me that they know who they are and that they know their worth. And they value themselves, which is a feat within itself because the world does not value them the way that I valued them or that I want them to value themselves. So that is probably my worst fear I would say.

Janet Jefferson (16:20):
That’s a big one. Especially as a mother because I feel like at the end of the day, it’s our job as mothers, as parents too, to help raise kids in our eyes, how we want them to be and how they see themselves. So it puts a lot on the role of motherhood. What are you optimistic about?

Octavia Brown (16:46):
I am optimistic now. I feel like I am so blessed and honored to be living at this time of history where I have walked side by side with hundreds of non people of color who have declared that they are standing in solidarity of Black lives. I have, and I’m trying not to get emotional. I have when I was a little girl, my grandmother, well, let me go back a little bit. I am biracial. My mother is white. My father is black. My mother side of the family comes from Pasadena, Maryland. Pasadena is probably one of the most overt, racist and dangerous areas in the entire County. And my family when my mother and my father was dating, they were absolutely against my mother and dating a black and Brown person to the point where my mom would share stories of when she was pregnant with me. You know, that her grandfather, which would be my great grandfather had told her if that baby is black, either you go or the baby goes, and that baby was me. And so growing up, I ended up being with my grandfather on my father’s side, but my mother’s told me that her plan was to put me up for adoption. She could not bring a black baby home. And so when she went through labor and she had me, she said that my grandfather took one look at me, my great grandfather, the same one that said, you better not bring no black babies in here. And he said that it doesn’t matter what your parents do. It’s not your fault. And I was accepted immediately. And the importance of that was that I was born to make change, right? Like I was born to make change. So I ended up, my mom didn’t end up raising me. I ended up being raised by my father’s side of the family and my father’s side of the family. They gave me an identity. And being biracial is even tougher because you’re as being biracial, the white community does not accept you at all. Like, it’s not like they don’t look at you and say, Hey, you’re white. No, they see black. Right. But then you’re not also fully accepted by the black community as well. And so a lot of biracial people have a lot of identity issues and things like that. But my family, I had such a support with my family that they gave me an identity. From the time that I was a little girl, my grandparents said the world sees you as black. And so I’m going to give you an identity. And this is what you need to know about our people. And she sat me down probably at the young age of like five or six and showed me Roots. And she’s passed away now. But she always joked because she was like, that was the worst thing I made the decision I made because I was so angry, like so angry. But it was at that moment that I knew my life’s work was dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering Black and Brown people and helping to try to unify the world. And so as I look back at that time and all the work that I have done from when I did go to school, of course my focus was social work, but I did Africana studies and all of my academic was focused on building up the Black community and racism. Right. And so when I say that I have Waited my whole life for this moment, I have done the work for so long. And if I remembered there was some points in my journey that I would just be so discouraged and be like, this is never going to change. Like nothing is ever going to happen. I’m tired of doing this work. I’m burnt out. You know, this is never going to happen. And then to see a new decade, right. So 2020 starts a whole period of newness. Right. And a lot of people look at it like, Oh my God is 2020 is a worst year ever. But I see it as the best year ever for change. Right. And so you have the coronavirus that have it. And so you got people forced to spend time with their family and their loved ones and things like that. And then because of the coronavirus, we had all the stimulus checks, that’s where people, I think about people who would not have normally had that income who had now been able to get cars fixed or get stuff done because they had that extra stimulus check. And then I think about George Floyd, who passed away at the hands of racism, because that’s what it is. He passed away at the hands of racism, but his death was not in vain. And it almost makes him a martyr for a movement that I never ever thought that I would see. And so the most moving part of this movement, right, is when they had the March in Pasadena. And I cried because that was personal for me because I had family in Pasadena who never fully accepted me because of the color of my skin. Right. And so when I marched in Pasadena, alongside of hundreds and hundreds of allies, it was probably the most emotional moment that I could have ever had. And I am so for the first time, so optimistic at where our country can head. If we keep this movement at the forefront of our lives, that we don’t fall back asleep and ignore that these things are happening. If we continue to be angry about racism and fight this together side by side, I am so optimistic about what the lives of my grandchildren might look like, or my great grandchildren will look like, and I’m so sorry that our ancestors did not get to experience that optimism but I am so grateful that my children do and that my grandchildren will, and that my great grandchildren will. And I’m so hopeful for change we have noticed in the Annapolis community.

Janet Jefferson (23:47):
So we’ve talked a little bit about Pasadena, but thinking about your experience as a black mother, what has that been like in Annapolis community? And you talked a little bit about the struggles with school and trying to find the school that was the best fit for your children, to the point of feeling like that there’s not an option and pulling them out and homeschooling. Have things changed? How do you feel overall about the Annapolis community and what it’s providing your children?

Octavia Brown (24:15):
So Annapolis, Maryland has a special history. I am from Annapolis, Maryland. I am the seventh generation. My children make the eighth generation of Browns to live in Annapolis, Maryland. We’re from the Parole area. So I know Annapolis and the history of Annapolis very well. And we have a special history because right, downtown Annapolis, where the Alex Haley stadium is, was a slave port where slaves arrived on boats in that exact area right here in our city. And so the difference between Pasadena, Maryland and in Annapolis, Maryland is one clear thing. Pasadena is overt racism and Annapolis is more hidden. And so what it’s for you to be able to see the racism, you have to really pay attention to the structures of Annapolis and the systems of Annapolis. So when you look at the school systems and what they look like, how they differ from schools that are predominantly white, you’ll see racism. When you look at how the communities are segregated and they are, I mean, when I say that there are literally two Annapolis’s, you have white Annapolis and you have black Annapolis and they literally do not intersect. And so when you look at the communities in Annapolis, Maryland, they have historically been uninhabitable. We have an issues right now with the mold issues, but these are not new issues. These have historically been happening in Annapolis, Maryland for years, when there was a separate where there was segregation that was in place in Annapolis, Maryland, you had thriving black communities, thriving, black businesses, host integration. There are none or very, very little, you see, you know, the effects of, what living in a very systemic racist city looks like. But when you look at the lack of opportunities for Black and Brown people in the city, when you look in the school systems and you see the very disproportionate number of black teachers, that are in the school system, when you see how the students are handled, how they are disciplined, you will see that racism is very alive and thriving here in Annapolis, Maryland, but it’s more under the radar. You know, you don’t really see it because when people think of Annapolis, all they think about is the water and the boats and the yachts. And all of the things that we as Black and Brown people, that those things are not what we think about when we think about Annapolis. And so I have, with all of that being said, with this movement, there has been an influx of more overt racist, you know, individuals. So we look at things like the Eastport Annapolis forum, where our neighborhood or Annapolis moms, where because these systemic issues were never challenged or addressed they remain quiet in the background, right. But when these issues present themselves and there comes a time where you have to either stand in solidarity or you’re on the other side, you see so many people who are on the other side and are now like angry at speaking out their truth. Right. But the thing that is most optimistic to me is that there are way more allies and individuals who stood in solidarity. Then there were individuals who said, I’m not standing in solidarity and I’m not for black lives, you know? And so I have such hope and optimism for my city. We’ve been talking to my co-leaders in the city, friends of us who have grown up in a city and we all feel that the environment is different. There’s a shift in the environment. And we are so optimistic to see a new side of Annapolis that is truly one Annapolis and not so divided and so discriminatory. We are just really hopeful to see a new side of Annapolis.

Janet Jefferson (28:29):
So last question, what’s next for you? I feel it too. We’re at this, I’m fingers crossed this moment of change, but as you said, we can’t let it go. We can’t let it slip through our fingers. We have so much work to do. And that includes everybody, but for you and your family as a black mother, what’s next?

Octavia Brown (28:50):
So with what’s next for us is a lot. So we know that we’re taking full advantage of the opportunity to be able to allow our voices to be heard and to do what we do as social workers do best, we advocate. We try to implement and develop and push policies that are progressive. And we try to eliminate policies that are discriminatory. I just passed my test for my clinical license. So sometime next week I will be an officially licensed, an officially licensed clinical social workers, sorry, that’s a tongue twister. And I absolutely am starting the phases of opening up a practice here in Annapolis that will offer not only regular mental health services, but specifically offer our mental health services and racial trauma and healing from racial trauma. So it’s like now it’s time to heal right now that we’re addressing, because you can’t begin the process of change until you actually get knowledge that there is a problem. So now we have finally acknowledged Annapolis had finally acknowledged the country has finally acknowledged that racism is a serious public health crisis, right? It is a serious public health issue. So now that we’ve actually gotten the acknowledgement now it’s time to heal. It’s time to heal. It’s time to put that work in it’s time to revamp policies. It’s time to hold elected officials accountable. It’s time to get new and progressive elected officials in office. It’s time to do the work. It’s time to do the work. Now we can actually get the work done, and I feel that we actually have a space and an openness to get it done. So that’s what’s next for the Browns. That’s a lot, but I can’t wait. And I can’t wait for the whole Annapolis community to really pitch in and do the work because there’s a lot of work to be done.

Janet Jefferson (30:47):
It is. Thank you so much Octavia Brown for being here with us today and sharing some of your thoughts about what it’s like to be a black mother and Annapolis, what it’s like raising black children and how 2020 is maybe hopefully a really good year. We love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you enjoyed what you heard today, check out more at thirdfloorviews.com. I’m Janet Jefferson. This is Third Floor Views. Thank you for listening.

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