Identity is a complex word. As children, our identity is somewhat fastened to that of our parents, but the world eventually finds a way to tell us who we are based on our roles, appearance, gender, and past experiences. Many would likely argue that what the world says doesn’t matter. After all, as believers, our identity in Christ is all that matters. But Jasmine Holmes reminds us how that is precisely the opposite attitude for a large population of America.
In her new book, Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope, Holmes brings readers into a mother’s world—full of love, insight, fear, and all of the vulnerable thoughts intrinsic to motherhood. Her book consists of letters written to her young son, Wynn. Through them, she communicates her desire to prepare him for the labels he will receive from the world as a black man, while also reminding him of the importance of rooting his identity in Christ.
Overall, Holmes is able to balance a gospel-centered view of life and the future, while maintaining the reality and integrity of the black experience in America. These letters give readers a glimpse into what it means to be a young black mother who desperately loves the Lord and battles concern for her son’s life as he grows into a young man.
The first half of the book is truly a mother’s ode. She expounds on the joy of pregnancy, the anxiety of being young and in love, and how deep a love she has for her son. She also takes the time to introduce her son to the idea of belonging to God and the deep-rooted heritage of faith laid by his grandparents—a point that seems of utmost importance considering her own identity struggles as the daughter of popular preacher Voddie Baucham.
Her goal in these chapters is to show Wynn just how complex the idea of identity is. The latter half of the book is made up of Holmes challenging her son to be bigger and better than any circumstance he faces—motherly advice about what and what not to do when he finds himself grown up and making his own decisions.
Some readers may wonder at certain disclaimers she gives to her son, like when she writes: “But because of your brown skin . . . your exuberance will sometimes be mistaken for recklessness, your passion for anger. Your affection will make some people nervous, especially if your flirtation veers in the direction of the wrong white man’s daughter.” Her warnings aren’t meant to jade him, instill fear, or confuse him, but to offer up the unfortunate reality that he cannot navigate this world in the same way as others.
Without overtly stating it, Holmes bids readers to see the uniqueness of black motherhood—a lifetime of instilling the idea into her small children that they can’t just be. From birth, there is a secret rule book inscribed on the hearts of minority populations that others aren’t aware of. And they must be prepared at all times to endure the repercussions of passed down suffering.
Letters for a Scary World
Mother to Son may be a collection of personal letters written specifically to Wynn, but through it Holmes invites readers to engage with her innermost thoughts, allowing members of every race or creed to learn from the lessons she is trying to plant. Holmes’s book is a breath of fresh air and just as personal to me as I consider my own experience as a black woman.
The same concerns she expresses to her son I carry for the men in my family on the daily. They are the same concerns I’ve carried for myself as long as I’ve been alive. The conversation she is trying to have with her young son is the same one my parents had with me time and time again, wanting me to thrive as a young woman bought by Christ while knowing others would identify me based on the color of my skin. I needed to learn it up front in order to adapt.
Jasmine’s words recall memories for a large percentage of black Americans who have had to sit down with their parents and have “the talk,” which consists of wise words such as:
Don’t wear a hoodie in public.
Change your voice when speaking to a police officer.
Don’t go into that part of town by yourself.
All the more reason for people to understand why names such as Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, and the thousands of others subjected to police brutality are mourned so passionately by the black community as a whole. We take on the burden of each death as a community because we all share that same burden the heritage of America has forced upon us.
By allowing us to hear her heartfelt letters, Holmes not only offers a peek into a mother’s love for her child, but she also shows the real dynamic of raising a black boy in America today. She humanizes America’s black children through a sheer display of a mother’s concern for her child—something that all people can understand whether or not they have children of their own.
Mother to Son takes readers on a heartfelt journey filled with subtle statements sure to linger and convict. By urging Wynn to be strong and courageous in a scary world, Holmes issues a challenge for us to do the same. To never let the world decide who you are. To believe that you belong to God. To know—no matter how much it costs—that being black is beautiful.
Cover image by Frank McKenna.
Sign Up Today
You don’t have to miss anything. We send out weekly notifications when we publish a new issue. We like you—so we won’t sell your info to Google or the NSA or even advertisers, they probably already have it anyway.