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Black, Southern, & Transgender—Jodie Patterson On Her Family’s Journey

Written by Jodie Patterson

Photography by Photographed by Heather Moore for Doen Journal

Jodie Patterson is a mother of five, advocate for the transgender community, and as of today, an author. Her new book, The Bold World, is a poetic memoir in which she reaches deep into her family’s past in order to more clearly understand her family’s present—specifically, the journey of her third child Penelope, who was born biologically female but revealed that he was actually a boy, right around his third birthday. We are sure that you will want your own copy after getting a taste via this excerpt, below. 

Tonight’s task: hide the stitching. You hunch over a pile of clothes on your knees with a permanent marker, blacking out the pink stitching on a pair of Penelope’s corduroys. She’s boycotted all pink in any of her clothes. Although you’ve tried to duplicate her brother’s wardrobe as best you can from the girls’ section, she’s spotted pink on the inside label of one of her shirts, and now she refuses to wear anything in her wardrobe. But you refuse to throw it all away. You look over at Joe, who’s chuckling at the absurdity of the situation. “No one ever sees the stitching anyway,” he says into a pair of khakis. “Why does she care so much?”

“I don’t freakin’ know, just do it!” you snap. Pause. Breathe. “Please.” You can hear how mean you sound. Your nerves are shot. You’re scared Penelope will walk in and discover the two of you trying to pacify her with a Magic Marker.

Joe somehow feels it’s your fault, that perhaps you’ve indulged the kids too much and allowed them to express themselves too freely. Maybe they’re feeling in control, and you need to take back the reins.

“You do too much talking, Jodie. You need to—” “What, Joe? What haven’t I done? What should I do more of? Tell me and I’ll do it. I tried spanking for a month straight, but it didn’t solve a thing.” Silence. You shake your head. “Just color over the damn pink stitching, please.”

Heads down, for hours the two of you go through Penelope’s clothes, piece by piece, pulling everything out for examination with a ruthlessness that verges on maniacal. Hunting for suspect stitching, for that offending color. Running the ink over every single stitch, every single label, until all traces of pink are blotted out. Handled, you think.

You do this because you know what will happen if you don’t. The tantrums that will rattle the whole house. You do this to make Penelope happy. And mostly, you do this just so you can make it out the damn door the next morning.

Today, after a week of begging us to “cut it into a Mohawk, like Papa’s!” Joe takes clippers to Penelope’s halo of blond curls.

Six months ago, Joe decided to leave his job—the office politics he’d been navigating had become ridiculous at best, insurmountable at worst. Plus, he now has other things on his mind. He’s vowed to run a marathon, master woodworking, and get to know the philosophy of Eckhart Tolle. He moved all of his blue suits into an infrequently used closet, replaced them with jeans and T-shirts, and cut his hair into a drastic and defiant Mohawk. This is the Mohawk that Penelope wants, too.

She’s been so restless these days, as though she’s uncomfortable in every place she stands. Your closest friend from high school comes over for the day, visiting from Florida, and her oldest daughter, barely eight, relays to her after they leave, “Penelope doesn’t like her skin.”

When you first heard Penelope say “Cut off my hair,” you froze. The prospect of cutting it short wasn’t the issue. Remember your Spelman days. It also wasn’t an issue for Joe. Growing up in Ghana, most young schoolgirls wear short Afros. No, it was the way of Penelope’s declaration, the absolute clarity of it that stopped you short. She’d said it with so much determination in her voice that it caught you off guard. What could be so urgent that she’s trying to say? She’s only three years old, but she’s willing to go against what everyone around her sees as “normal.” It’s as though she knows something, a truth that she’s not willing to back down from. You and Joe looked at each other when she first made her demand, searching for answers. But the answers didn’t come, so you just walked away. Away from each other, away from Penelope. Away from the confusion you still feel.

You think Joe understands more now that he’s home every day. He sees her unrest and tries to fix it. When his snuggles don’t work—when nothing he tries works—his face starts to have the same look on it that yours has had for months. Defeat.

Baby’s suffering has become your suffering. The tantrums, the tears, the constant disruptions. The tension in the moments leading up to picking out an outfit for the day, or preparing for a bath at night. The agitation with her body, as if she’s ready to jump out of her skin. Clearly her hair, like so many other things, has been getting in the way of her joy.

So, after she asks you for the third time to cut it off, you and Joe both know what you have to do. It just feels right. In fact, you realize that it’s the first good-feeling decision you’ve made together in a while. You don’t do it for convenience, or for your needs. You tune in and do it, simply, for her.

Standing in the doorway, you watch as Joe leads Penelope into the bathroom and begins slowly cutting off row after row of her curls. In less than fifteen minutes the deed is done, and a smiling, glorious child emerges. She walks out of the bathroom with a lightness you’ve never seen before; it swirls around her, eventually spreading throughout the entire house like incense.

A lightness you want to bottle up and preserve for her so that she’d never be without it again.

Get your copy of The Bold World (Random House, 2019) right here

To find out more about Jodie Patterson, read our Mother profile on her, as well as her guide on How To Talk To Kids About Gender.

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