Creative Nonfiction: A Black Mama’s Breathwork, or, the First Time I Had “The Talk” with My Daughter by DW McKinney

I (inhaled, then) exhaled pain into my daughter’s hair. It wasn’t my plan. My husband was supposed to be sitting in my place, his legs open, a red plastic chair squeezed between them with our four year-old sitting atop the seat. And while he moisturized and detangled her curly puff ponytail, I was going to sit in our bedroom closet, lights off and body hugged against the stinking laundry bag, to weep. But plans, like they tend to, changed. And so I sat with my legs open, wide-tooth comb in one hand and a spray bottle in the other, and (inhaled, then) exhaled pain into my daughter’s hair.

I (inhaled, then) exhaled and said, “You know about the virus, right? [She nodded and said yes.] Well, there’s other things going on too.” I inhaled thinking that would stop whatever it was I was going to say, the damage I was about to do. I held my breath and imagined my father sitting next to me as he inhaled the world and exhaled, “You know your ABCs right? [I did.] But do you know ‘em backwards? See, baby, you gotta be prepared because some cop’ll pull you over and have you saying the ABCs backward, trying to trip you up and haul your ass off to jail.” And I remembered his angry, raggedy breathing as we recited the ABCs backward as we sat on the living room couch, and as he drove us in his Volvo down the highway and he asked me to keep an eye out for the police, and as we sat in the car later eating ice cream from Thrifty’s.

I exhaled that memory and more pain came out of me than I wanted. I breathed a fraught life into existence and it nestled in my daughter’s curls. I had to get it out of me, of her. More than anything, I just wanted to get out of here—this world. “People are marching in the street. They’re angry. [She asked why people were angry.] Some people out there hate Mama’s skin.” And because folks on the Internet, doctors and psychologists, said parents should be specific when informing their children, I (inhaled, then) exhaled my pain into the ragged parts I had made in my daughter’s hair with the rat-tail comb and specifically cut the innocence from her throat as I said, “People hate Mama’s skin because she’s Black. I’m Black. You know you’re Black, too, right? [She nodded and asked which people hated me. Was it the bad people?] Yes, the bad people.” Then she wondered if it was the bad people we saw on the bus. Before the virus, we’d always see the black and white bus taking “bad guys” to the local lock-up by our house. These were the bad guys she knew. They probably looked like cartoons in her mind. I couldn’t quite tell her that some of those bad people were also driving the bus and running the lock up. But it didn’t matter. Bad guys wanted to hurt Mama. And bad guys wanted to hurt her.

Then my daughter (inhaled, then) exhaled pain too. I held my breath when she said she’d protect me. She’d beat up the bad guys. I didn’t say a word. Couldn’t. I didn’t want to cut more of that innocence from her throat. “Thank you,” I said and kept (inhaling, then exhaling and) combing and twisting her hair.

And so while my white husband was upstairs in the rocking chair, cradling our youngest daughter, cradling her sleepy head with ease, without the pain of running into closets to weep into a pile of dirty laundry, I was downstairs with our oldest daughter. The both of us inhaled and exhaled pain in silence as we stared out at the sheet of night beyond the sliding glass window, our bodies rigid, our hair parted.

DW McKinney is in the middle of her fiction writing residency with The New Southern Fugitives, and she is the reviews editor for Linden Avenue Literary Journal. Her work has published recently in The Hellebore, wigleaf, crepe & penn, Granada, and is forthcoming in Memoir Mixtapes. She lives and gardens in Nevada. Say hello at

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