While we imagine many people have been troubled by the rising number of Black people slain by police officers, it’s safe to say that few are as anxious about the loss of life as Black mothers. Psychologist and photographer Elmeka Henderson’s fears for her young son Chris—and her desire for experiences beyond their hometown of Philly—led her to decide on a life abroad in Tokyo.
Henderson tells mater mea how the family of two landed in Japan and what it means to raise a carefree Black boy abroad.
A 2014 study found that black children are seen as older and less innocent than their white peers. This causes them to lose the rights that come along with being a child: the right to make mistakes, the right to be given the benefit of the doubt, and the right to compassion and leniency.
Elmeka Henderson is all too familiar with these facts. It’s why she helped create For Emmett et al, a photo project that garnered national attention from media outlets like CNN.
“It’s a project dedicated to rehumanizing the Black child,” psychologist and photographer Elmeka Henderson explains. “With everything that’s been going on with Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, myself and my friend Nikki Porcher were just insanely moved by the [negative] portrayal of these kids in the media. I have never wept that way [from] reading something the way I did reading about those boys. Especially with Tamir Rice. He was 12. These were kids! They were somebody’s baby. So, we launched this project. We flood the site with photos of children just being children.”
Changing the narrative around Black children is especially important to Henderson, whose son Chris towers over the average 8 year old.
“I have one of those children who looks older than they are,” Henderson says.
Chris’ interactions with law enforcement have already been influenced by the recent rash of police brutality.
“We were traveling and we happened to be in Penn Station. My son had to use the bathroom, so I pointed him in the right direction,” Elmeka Henderson recalls. “I watched him not see it and wander around for bit, before I finally walked up to him and asked him what he was doing. He said he couldn’t find it, and I asked him why he didn’t just ask the cop who was standing nearby. Then he just kinda looked at me. I knew exactly what he meant, and that just broke my heart.”
Elmeka Henderson had already been thinking about a domestic move to San Francisco, but the Tamir Rice case, along with the changes Henderson noticed in her son, ended up being the “tipping point” that drove her to pursue living abroad.
“I always wanted to move abroad, I just had to figure out how,” Henderson says.
(She and Chris were already avid travelers, having adventures in South Africa, China, and Botswana to name a few.)
“I took trips earlier this year to Dubai and India, and prior to those trips I always felt like living out of the country—especially living out of the country with my son—was unattainable. But, while I was traveling, I met a woman who works for General Mills and lives in Mumbai with her two children. Meeting [them] solidified for me that I could do this.
“When I got back,” she continues, “I just put it out into the universe, said this is what I want to do, and it all just took off.”
Elmeka Henderson’s impressive resume led to a number of interviews, and eventually a job offer in Qatar.
“I would have been the head of special ed policy in Doha, Qatar, developing The Center for Special Needs,” Henderson explains. “Everything was going smoothly until we started talking about my contract. They kept wanting to know about Chris’ father and I told them, ‘There is no father.’”
Chris’ birth story is a dramatic one. Elmeka Henderson found out she had been accepted at a graduate school in Philadelphia as she was finishing up her undergraduate education in Arkansas. In the midst of gearing up for the huge move, she got more life-changing news: She was pregnant.
“The first person I called was my mother, [I was] just bawling.” Elmeka Henderson says now. “She said it was ok, and told me I’d be fine. The first thing I was thinking was, I just applied to grad school. What am I going to do? But it all worked out; I had my son during the program, and had to take a year off because I had had a Cesarean. That recovery was not fun. I wish I could say we planned it and it was beautiful, but it was completely traumatic.”
Part of that trauma came when Elmeka Henderson was about six months into her pregnancy and realized that she would be parenting alone, as her relationship with Chris’ father took a turn for the worse.
“I think the kicker was [when] one day he said, ‘I think you love the baby more than me,’ and I looked at him and said, ‘Duh.’ Then the relationship started to go down a violent path. I just thought, Nope, we’re not gonna do that, and we parted ways.”
Elmeka Henderson encountered her fair share of rough patches as a single mom and graduate student.
“My parents live in Kansas, and I would have to send him to my mother sometimes during finals,” Henderson explains. “That was the hardest thing, to be away from him for like three weeks. He was 9 or 10 months the first time. I went through my master’s and then I had to go through my certification as an educational specialist, so that was three more years. It took me five years to graduate so that I could practice psychology. I think that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
When she made it to her graduation, she finally allowed herself to feel what had been building up over the last five years.
“I broke down,” she recalls now, “Sitting there, I just started reflecting on everything. There’s this crazy picture; the photographer got me bawling just as I was getting hooded. It was hilarious—I had the ugly cry [face] and everything. That is my most amazing accomplishment to date, to be raising a child—an infant actually—and graduate.”
Since then Elmeka Henderson has raised her son on her own while working as an independently contracted psychologist for charter schools in Philadelphia. But the human resources department in Qatar didn’t fully appreciate her accomplishments.
“They just kept saying there has to be a father,” she says. “I didn’t hear anything from them for about a week. The director of the program went back and spoke to HR again, but they ended up telling me they had to rescind my offer because Qatari policy prevents them from hiring single parents.
“That knocked me back for a few weeks,” she admits. “I didn’t really want to put myself out there anymore, because I was afraid someone would ask about Chris’ father. But after a little while, and with some encouragement from friends, I got back into it.”
Elmeka Henderson soon received a job offer to work as a special needs coordinator and special education teacher in Cambodia, but ultimately decided to take a position as a psychologist at a girls’ Catholic international school in Tokyo, Japan. (Chris will attend the institution’s brother school in the upcoming school year.) But even though they’re both excited for the move, Henderson’s already thinking about their next destination.
“I don’t think we’ll be here long-term. I’ve been traveling in Africa a lot lately and I think that’s where I want to settle. A lot of the schools I applied to in Africa told me they loved my resume, except for the fact that I didn’t have any international experience. So my goal is to work in Tokyo for maybe two years, and then transfer to some place in Africa—Zanzibar, Zimbabwe, or Botswana in particular.”
Wherever the Hendersons go, one thing is certain: They’ll have each other—and a few enviable stamps in their passports.
(If you’d like to keep up with Elmeka and Chris’ adventures abroad, you can follow their journey on Elmeka’s blog Adventures in Raising a Vagabond.)
HOW DOES YOUR SON FEEL ABOUT MOVING ABROAD?
He’s more excited about moving to Tokyo than he was about moving to San Francisco. He fought me tooth and nail every time I brought up San Francisco. He would say, “I don’t want to go. All my friends are here. I don’t know how I’m going to keep in touch with them.” But then when I shifted the focus to moving abroad, he was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” I asked him why he didn’t put up a little bit more of a fight about moving abroad, and he said “Cuz I get to use my passport.” I think he just feels like this is one big vacation.
HOW HAVE YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS REACTED TO YOUR PLANS TO MOVE ABROAD?
They’re terrified that I’m moving abroad because “anything can happen.” I had to be very clear with my family than anything can happen here, [too]. I told them that I honestly feel safer when I’m out of the country.
HOW DO YOU THINK MOVING TO TOKYO WILL CHANGE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR SON?
When I thought we were moving to Cambodia, I was looking forward to living simply with him. This won’t be the case in Tokyo. [It’s] still possible, but it’s challenging when the school requires him to have an iPad.
I hope that we will learn how to rely on one another better. It’s just us and has been us forever, but we’ve always had friends and family. We won’t initially in Tokyo, so I hope we are able to focus on our relationship for a bit and strengthen that during this transition. With all the craziness with the move, he’s had to be more independent while I was working more hours and he was at school [and] in before- and after-school care. I hope that we’re able to re-establish our connection and build on it without all the stress we had here.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR SON GETTING A CHANCE TO BE A CHILD NOW THAT YOU’RE MOVING TO JAPAN?
I think that we’ll be able to find some distance [from] the violence against people of color that is happening in the States while in Japan. We will definitely be a minority, that’s no question, but our differences are more appreciated there. From those I’ve spoken with who live there, there is definitely some uncomfortable curiosity or even some form of discrimination happening to those of color, but a foreigner is a foreigner to them and there aren’t really acts of violence happening there. I think this move will give Chris some space to relax a bit and enjoy being a kid, learn a new language, and travel.
I think raising a Black son in Japan will come with some of the same struggles as raising him in America, with relation to finding images in mass media that look like him. I think we will be able to connect with expats and children from several countries outside of the U.S. and Japan who will continue to expose him to other cultures, which I feel also helps him grow a sense of self. In all our travels, he finds himself in every country by connecting in some way. I hope he continues this in Japan.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU OFFER ANOTHER MOM WHO’S CONSIDERING MOVING ABROAD WITH HER CHILD?
First, abandon what you think it means, or how you think it has to be. I thought living abroad would mean a certain thing—I had this idea in my head of what it would look like—and it’s completely not that. So first do that and second, stop listening to other people. Follow your gut. If you feel like it’s a good fit for you to move or travel, just do it. Definitely have a little bit of a plan, but go for it, and do what’s best for you and your family. I would also say it’s never too late to have the life you always wanted.
HOW DO YOU JUGGLE BEING A PRESENT MOM WITH YOUR CAREERS?
I really suck at it sometimes. I’m always going and I’m always doing stuff; there are a lot of late nights and early mornings. Sometimes it takes him actually saying, “I feel like I haven’t been spending a lot of time with you.” When he actually voices that, then I know I need to stop, and I do.
We like going on adventures, as he calls them. Every Sunday we have “Sonday,” where we do stuff or we cook something [or] we have a lazy Sunday where we’re just kinda sitting in the house in our underwear. I’m trying to maintain some kind of consistency with him. I do notice behavioral changes in him when he doesn’t have that time. Sometimes I feel like I’m failing, but I do make a point [to] acknowledge and change it when he voices it.
WHAT IS YOUR PARENTING PHILOSOPHY?
I just really want to raise a thinking child. I want him to challenge things that don’t make sense, even if I tell it to him. I want him to be open to new foods, new cultures, new experiences. We have this thing called a “courtesy bite.” We use it for everything. Anything you’re gonna try, take two courtesy bites—so that’s two lessons, or two months of it, or literally two bites of it, so you can say, “Ok, I’m going to make an informed decision about this thing [and] not be immediately turned off by the idea of it.”
We have a lot of conversations. A lot of people crack up when they hear us talk. I always make everything a learning experience. I was that annoying mom in the store, pushing her toddler around saying, “Oh, that’s yellow!” or “You see those bananas! What letter does banana start with?” One of those moms people give the side eye to. But I never wanted to speak baby talk to him. He’s a budding adult, he’s insanely intelligent, and I never wanted to insult that. So we talk a lot about everything. I challenge him. I ask him, “Well, why do you like that? Do you only like that because your friend likes it?” I don’t want him to jump on bandwagons. I want him [to be] thinking about things and challenging them.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR SON’S PERSONALITY?
He is a rumbling ball of energy. He cannot sit still, even for things he loves doing. He’s always moving. He’s always talking. He’s always eating. He’s always singing or playing or making kung fu noises. He’s always doing something.
He is also this incredibly loving and generous kid. He gives the best hugs, and seems to know exactly when to give them. He’s just a very genuine kid. He loves people and he loves talking to people. He’s an insanely loveable kid.
WHAT KIND OF PERSON DO YOU HOPE HE BECOMES?
I hope he becomes an even more developed person than he is right now. He is awesome, and I hope he maintains that. There’s so much negative stuff that changes people, and I hope he hangs on to the essence of who he is. I understand he’s going to change—he’s going to grow and he’s going to have different interests—but I just really work on maintaining that essence, and [helping him be] that kid who just sees awesome things all the time. He is Mr. Silver Lining. I just want him to hold onto that and not become this glass half-empty kind of kid.
Read more about Elmeka’s experience in Japan, The One Thing I Wasn’t Prepared For When I Moved To Japan