Raising Strong, Proud, and Beautiful People
BY: Emily Weitz
JUNE 13, 2021
When Jodie Patterson first began her journey into motherhood, she had already forged a strong identity. Raised in a proud, black family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, she respected her parents and grandparents for their unapologetic stances on who they were, and what they deserved. Her grandmother was dubbed “Ms. Revolution” by Dr. King, for her work in the Civil Rights era. Her uncle, Gil Scott Heron, wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Her father started the first black brokerage firm on Wall Street. So, with strong examples of leadership and success coming from both the masculine and feminine sides, Ms. Patterson came to define herself.
“I identify as a native New Yorker from the Upper West Side,” she said.
“I identify as black, as a woman, and also as Southern, because my mother and grandmother were from the South. I am a feminist and a revolutionary.”
With her identity intact, she began the journey of motherhood. Now she has five kids, and with all those individuals striving to find their own place in one household, she’s learned a lot about identity that she didn’t know before.
The member of the household that pushed it to the forefront was young Penelope, a trans kid who identifies as a boy. When he was little, he struggled to be heard. This is what Patterson chronicles in her articulate children’s book, “Born Ready: A Boy Named Penelope.” Illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, the story captures the nuances of the family.
“I liked working with Charnelle because she listened and took in all the details that mattered to my kids and me,” said Patterson. “It’s all in the detail. Our different skin tones, hair textures, clothing styles. In so many ways, we are individuals, non-conforming. All of us, not just Penelope. I needed the artist to appreciate and express our individualism in the art.” Each of their identities plays off the other, and sometimes collide, in the book, as in life. “A decade ago, I noticed the collision,” said Patterson, “most prominently between myself and my kid who is trans. I wasn’t seeing him, my own child. Someone I loved and birthed.”
There’s a page in “Born Ready” when Penel refuses to go unseen a moment longer.
“I don’t feel like a boy, Mama,” he said. “I am a boy.”
“That was a light switch,” said Patterson. “It was a realization that I didn’t know someone very important in this world. With all the privilege, education, global travel, all the stuff, there were things in this world I didn’t know. If my daughter was actually my son, what else didn’t I know?”
She began a journey to decode gender and learn about gender identity in a way that wasn’t full of bias. She started to think afresh about the way people were oppressed because of their gender identity.
“I had understood self-determination, but I didn’t apply that to everyone. I was a black revolutionary and a feminist, but now I became a trans advocate also.” It was a different journey for Penel’s dad – another page of the children’s book is devoted to that powerful interaction.
“Well, P,” he said, “If you want me to call you a boy, you’ll have to tell me yourself.”
Even though Patterson felt some resistance to her partner’s reaction, she realized that it was an important moment for all of them.
“It was a moment when Penel had to stand up to the biggest person in his life,” she said. “That experience prepared him to live, not in a fantasy, but to understand the reality of life. Penel isn’t the only one who has to prove himself - I’m raising five black kids.”
Even though it took time for the family to come to a place of understanding and acceptance, in the end Patterson realized that all these forms of allyship, and advocacy, are the same thing.
“It’s about honoring all people, with no caveats,” she said.
What she also realized was that accepting her trans son was essential to her own self-liberation. As Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “Nobody's free until everyone is free.”
“When I look at how people have been oppressed,” said Patterson, “it all smells the same to me. It took me time to connect the dots. If I couldn’t digest that Penel is trans, in some deep way it was holding back my own liberation. That’s why accepting Penel was so primary to my own self. That’s when I recognized how deep human acceptance was. If I couldn’t help my own son, then I couldn’t liberate my own self.”
Penel may have had the most pressing identity issues, but with five kids in their house, there were plenty of other identities to be affirmed.
“Our identities collide,” said Patterson. “There are multiple worlds existing at the same time, and we are often blind to the other world. We don’t fully see the other.”
The dominant culture, she says, is often blind to the marginalized. Now that Penel has gained the world’s attention, the other kids in the household have to work to find their place.
“I’ve tried so hard so my trans child doesn’t go unseen, because that is America’s weakness.
Now that we are out of the weeds, however, and he is stabilized and soaring academically and socially, I have to refocus on my other children, and allot time for them to be seen as well. The parent hack is when you can take an idea that trans kids are worthy, and then say that all kids are worthy.”
Penel’s boldness around his identity inspired the rest of the household to dare to be true to themselves. Once everyone is standing firmly in their own being, there will be collisions, says Patterson.
“Now I look for the collisions more often,” she explained. “I see them between young and old, different races. One of my kids is an atheist and a scientist. That is not my perspective, and our world’s conflict. He gives me data and he wants me to give him data. We often collide with our children, and that’s not to be avoided. That is the impetus to change.”
Photograph by: @gab