When my brother, Clinton Allen, was fatally shot seven times while unarmed by Dallas police officer Clark Staller on March 10, 2013, my life completely changed — in the obvious way, because I had lost my little brother, but also because I became a co-parent to his twin boys who were less than 15 months old at the time. I was 27, single, and about to interview for a writing job on Scandal — but that was all put on hold.
I pressed pause on my television writing career, canceled that interview, and instead of filming my graduate thesis web series, I put the money I had saved up toward activism. I cofounded Mothers Against Police Brutality and doubled down on my family's fight for justice. From the legal one following my brother's death (though it was ruled a homicide, Staller was cleared of any wrongdoing) to the the cultural one (the wholesale police warfare against innocent, unarmed Black boys and men).
When the boys were born, I was so worried that my brother, who was only 24, was too young to be a father. I remember being hard on him about not having waited. But as hard as it was for me to become an additional mom to the twins at 27, stepping up was never a question. Their mother has other children, and not only would she need support, but the twins deserved more parents in the space their father left empty.
It’s hard to explain to friends who don’t have children what it’s like when kids you don't see every day, who aren’t “yours," become a factor in every single decision you make. I had to grow into the role, myself.
I was not someone who ever babysat, so I had to learn on the job with the twins. I moved back home to my mother’s house, where we alternated weeks with the twins’ mother. There were so many times when I put their diapers on backward in those first months, and I had to learn the hard way that babies eat constantly. (I ran out of snacks once when we were at a museum, and the twins tried to steal crackers from another stroller.)
Like so many parents, I turned to Google for advice, but rarely found anything helpful about “how to be a great aunt,” or “co-parenting aunt,” some of my earliest favorite search terms. Is parenting even the right word if you’re not a technical parent? The lack of language around this role, and the many different ways we “mother,” is symptomatic of the lack of discussion around what mothering looks like in the 21st century. This silence can be awkward, even isolating, when trying to describe how kids you didn’t birth mean so much to you.
To me, I know that I feel very much like a mom, even if I’m not sure I’ll ever have children of my own. My budget always includes a vertical for the twins, whether that’s to cover immediate needs, like clothes and shoes, or long-term ones, like tuition for the private school my brother wanted them to attend. I’ve dealt with the fevers, the tantrums, the baby attitudes (how can so much ferocity be packed into a such small square footage?!), and the reminders that they are “big boys now,” at age 5.
It was an adjustment beginning to choose between things that I wanted to splurge on, like travel or fashion, and the things that they needed, like glasses (and wanted, like bicycles). I’m 31 now, so many of my peers are either making these choices for their own kids, or finally using their earnings to indulge in upgrading to real adult furniture or taking vacations with no hostel stays. And like so many “actual” parents, I had to make adjustments to my dating life, too.
I broke up with a serious ex-boyfriend in part because he wasn’t sure that he wanted the responsibility of the boys, and I had no choice but to respect that. Whomever I end up with has to accept the twins, and that the three of us are a package deal. I made that decision at 27, when I barely knew what drawing that line in the sand would mean. Children need to know that we choose them, always, even before they understand the choices we've made to do that.
Together with their mom and great-grandmother, I’m just trying to get everything right for these boys, while worrying that I’m somehow damaging them by being gone long stretches for work, and also struggling to find time for myself. I hear this is parenting-stress 101.
Last year, I spent six months in London creating and preparing to launch Basquiat’s Defacement: The Project. London was the best place for me and my work at the time, but it was hard for all three of us. (“Are you done working on 'Basket' yet?” they asked over WhatsApp.) I recently had to cancel a video shoot to get to a pre-K graduation, because I had promised I’d be there. I feel guilty for all of the milestones I miss, and when I make a point of going to one, it takes extra hustle to keep up with the work I miss instead. I know lots of parents who struggle with this balance. But some aspects of life with the twins are more unique to our situation.
Because we speak publicly against police brutality, especially in our home state of Texas, which is deeply conservative and pro-police, my mother and I receive death threats. In the early days of Mothers Against Police Brutality, we alternated attending protests and meetings, so that someone could be home with the boys, and there for them in the worst-case scenario that something happened to one of us. We wanted activism to be a part of the twins' lives from the get-go, but we've always had to pick and choose the safer events for them to come along.
It’s hard to believe that America will change for the better, but it’s my job to do my best to help create a country that is better for my boys. When we look at the humanitarian crisis of the sanctioned police brutality in America, my family's void is too familiar. Father’s Day will be painful for too many like us, who've lost loved ones to state violence. I'm kind of relieved that the twins don’t yet understand what the holiday really means; this year, I'll be away from them again, doing "Basket" work. I don’t know what I’ll say as they get older, and the enormity and unfairness sink in.
As for me, I haven't gone back to my career in television yet. Instead, I became the first to write about police brutality in a mainstream women’s magazine, Elle, which influenced peer publications to finally cover the issue. I understood back in 2013 that we were in a pivotal moment in America’s history, and I wanted to be a part of it. I’ve since combined my activism and 13 years of art historical research to create groundbreaking scholarship on American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and his most important painting, Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart). It, too, is a commentary on police brutality, and I feel incredibly lucky to lead that conversation, while honoring my brother Clinton through my work.
My success is because of him, and the twins, and the changes I've made since they came into my life. They have been my inspiration and my biggest point of pride. When they get old enough understand what “Chaegy” does, I will proudly explain how much of it I owe to them.
And Clinton, know that your big sister’s got your babies. Always.
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