Kids are capable of making realistic connections whether we use a protective narrative with them or not.
Once, before my husband finally sold his small, 40-year-old, spit-and-tape sealed sailboat, we considered joining a yacht club at our local lake. An acquaintance who was a member invited us to a party at the club so we could check it out. When we arrived with Jr, our 5-year-old son, he was eager to gnaw on a piece of corn and search for rocks along the shore. Our host was running late, so we headed for the check-in table at the door. As I pushed our baby in his pram I felt nervous because I hadn’t seen a familiar face. My husband walked ahead of us and told the ladies working the table that we were guests of a member who was caught in traffic. The leader of the check-in pack smiled at him, then glanced over at Jr. and me, her eyes turning from warmth to shock as she realized that this multicolored group was a single family.
“You can’t come in,” she said quickly. “And we don’t have any food for you, anyway.”
Aaron tried to explain and plead for Jr to at least be allowed to use the restroom while we waited for our host, but the woman was unmoved. I was becoming red-faced and furious, and Jr. began to whimper. The truth of the situation was sinking in more slowly for Aaron than for me, and it took a while for me to convince him to give up and leave.
Later, seated within the first pizza restaurant we could find, we tried to soften the details of the event for my son, basically leaving it at the fact that the women at the table just weren’t very nice. He seemed to accept that, much to my relief, as I was still struggling to figure out how to explain the juxtaposition of our multiracial family living in the South against a history that has yet to reconcile with itself.
We didn’t bring up the yacht club incident again once everyone had a full belly. Summer continued to stretch into a pastel haze of disconnected days as it does for small children, and we were sure the incident had been forgotten.
Later that summer, a few days before Jr started kindergarten, we cuddled on the bed to read Dave the Potter before he went to sleep.
it is just dirt,
the ground we walk on…
But to Dave
it was clay,
the plain and basic stuff
upon which he formed a life
as a slave nearly 200 years ago.”
“What’s a slave?” Jr asked.
Oh boy. I took a deep breath and tried to find words suitable for a preschooler who was descended from slaves, white and black slaveowners, sharecroppers, William the Conqueror (according to unconfirmed family lore on my side), and whose ancestors fought alongside William Wallace (according to confirmed family lore on my husband’s side). How could I possibly bring such a complicated history to Jr’s level when I couldn’t begin to comprehend it, myself?
“A long time ago,” I said, “There were people who owned a lot of land here in the South. A lot of the people who owned that land had white skin.”
“They grew a lot of things on that land, like cotton, rice, tea, and vegetables. It was too much for them to farm themselves, so they had to get other people to do it for them. The people they got to do it had brown skin and came from Africa. The people who owned the land thought that their dark skin made them less important, and so they didn’t pay them for their work and were very mean to them.”
The oversimplification of all this was making me dizzy.
Jr furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. Then he said, “Mommy, that’s kind of like when we were at the yacht club that time, and that mean lady said, ‘we don’t have any food for you,’ isn’t it?”
Dave The Potter literally fell from my hands. I wasn’t sure whether to be devastated that he was able to connect the dots at such a young age, or if I should be proud of his ability to analyze and compare.
“Yes, baby,” I said. “It is a bit like that, in a way. Do you want to talk about it or keep reading?”
Thankfully, he opted to keep reading, but I knew I had a long road of explanatory moments coming over the years.
When we had this very black and white conversation about the convoluted history between blacks and whites, Jr had been attending private school for a year. He and his classmates were still innocent enough for the varying shades of skin in the room to go unnoticed. But the next year I often pulled into the carpool line afraid that I’d have to come up with comforting, comprehensible words because a child from a less worldly family had said something negative about my first grader’s skin Or my skin. Or his grandfather’s skin. The day did not arrive.
As the protests and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, pressed closer to the beginning of Jr’s second grade year, I knew I’d have to have the talk, which I was now dreading even more than “the talk” about sex that every parent has to eventually face. I still put it off until the news coverage started clustering around the impending grand jury decision regarding Officer Darren Wilson’s actions against Michael Brown. Finally, several days before the grand jury’s announcement, I climbed into bed next to my curly-headed child and asked him if any of the kids at school had been talking about the things happening in Missouri.
“Not really,” he shrugged, which told me that he’d heard something. There was at least one kid in his class who tended to see and discuss much more news coverage than made me comfortable.
“Well,” I sighed. “Let me tell you a little bit about what’s going on, just so that if someone brings it up you’ll know what they’re talking about. But if you have questions about it or someone says something hurtful to you about it, talk to me or to your teacher. Now isn’t the time to talk about this with your friends unless a grownup is around, OK?”
I love hearing Jr and his friends get into fiery debates over whether Pluto is a planet or if scientific findings indicate that there is one Bigfoot or many throughout North America. But the Ferguson unrest presented yet another opportunity for disgruntled, socially segregated Americans to mouth off at the dinner table, and I was afraid of what comments some classmates might borrow from their parents.
I told Jr that a black teenage boy had gotten into some trouble with a white police officer and had died. I said that some people thought the police officer had done something really bad and wasn’t going to get in trouble for it. I told him that many people thought this had happened because the boy was black and the officer was white, and that America was trying to sort it all out. Then I told him that there were some white people who thought that black people were causing too much trouble, and that because some of the protesters had done some bad things it meant that all black people thought like the few who were doing the bad things. On the flip side, I said that there were also some black people who thought that all white people think they’re better than black people, and that there were a lot of really confused grownups doing a lot of talking lately.
“But mom, we’re not black,” Jr said softly.
I’m 99% sure that my head flew back like I was getting whiplash. My inner voice snapped, Hold up. What did he just say? He didn’t really just say that, right?”
My actual voice asked Jr if he really believed that.
“What color is my skin?” I asked as I held out my arm.
“What color is Pop-Pop’s skin?” I asked, referring to my father.
“What color is your skin?”
“It’s brown,” he said.
I miss the days when he used to say his daddy’s skin was “pink” or “beige.” As a family, we tend to fall into a more nuanced vernacular of skin color. I’m not sure when this started, but I’ve always felt an inherent aggression in calling someone simply “black” or “white,” so I find that this habit creates a safe space in which to talk about race and appearance in our home.
“Aren’t all of those colors a part of you? And aren’t Pop-Pop and I a part of you?” I asked.
“So yes, sweetie, you are black. And white. And you’re so lucky to have so many different kinds of family members who love you.” Sometimes this stuff comes out of my mouth and I can’t believe that I’m not the wooden dummy of some wise and loving ventriloquist.
“Well, yeah,” Jr was snuggling beneath my arm now, batting his heavy lids at me. “You and I are black, but…” he didn’t know the vocabulary he needed to finish his sentence. I felt confident that he knew what I meant, so I didn’t push anymore and kissed him goodnight. But ever since then I’ve wondered why my child would say he isn’t black.
Six months later the media is struggling to comprehend and translate what’s happening in Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody. One day Wolf Blitzer seems insistent upon framing the events as an unprecedentedly modern racial story. The next, NPR and the Washington Post are saying that the protests and riots are not about race, but about class, though they fail to directly address why the losing class, in this case, is predominantly black. The temptation to use the same narrative for the city’s 2015 riots that was used for the 1968 race riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination is too strong and opaque to see the real story.
Baltimore is a complex city. The people who remain there—whether or not by choice—have an intense familial relationship with the other residents, the city’s progress, and the lack thereof. No news outlet is going to get this story right unless it has been embedded in Baltimore’s complicated history. Gross generalizations fail in a blaze of dismissal in a place like Baltimore, where citizens were cleaning up from last week’s riots before they were even over, and every public library remained open on the days the schools were shut down.
Baltimore hasn’t forgiven itself for the race riots of 1968. The city has only recently been able to really consider putting a healing salve on the scars that turned 47-years-old on April 6. Few have ventured to remove the boards from inner city buildings that have been shuttered since the early 1970s, but until now there was a growing sense that the time to rebuild was coming.
As the Baltimore events grew more tense, I set up a Google Chat to check in with my friend Jennifer Cooper, a writer and blogger who’s based there. She and her husband, Dave, recently started a blog called South of Brooklyn that highlights the creative entrepreneurial efforts of people who aren’t tied to the fad-tinged “maker” theme of New York. Naturally, the spirit of the blog is very much tied up with the couple’s hopes for the city they call home.
Jennifer was visibly frustrated as we spoke through our computer screens. She, like many white and black residents interviewed lately, was hesitant to label the unrest as “racial.” When she alluded to the problem being related to class, she admitted that it was complicated because many of Baltimore’s poor are, in fact, people of color. Like others, she wasn’t entirely sure how to succinctly describe the root of the problem. Like others, her loss for words only added to her frustration.
While Jennifer and I were chatting my mind kept skipping back to the conversation I’d had with Jr six months before, when he couldn’t figure out how to tell me that we weren’t the same as the people fighting on TV. It finally dawned on me that my son was recognizing a class struggle that he wasn’t a part of. Somehow, his 7-year-old mind knew that the little bit he’d seen and heard about Ferguson had to do with people who had harder lives and fewer opportunities than he did, and his eyes saw that most of those people were black. Jr wasn’t rejecting his heritage. We’ve spoken to him about race and ethnicity far more often than we have about socioeconomics, so when I explained the unrest in terms of “black people” and “white people” he saw that there were two teams, and one team seemed to have far less power and fewer resources than the other. What team were we on?
Perhaps the personal lesson here is that I’ve been watering down my talks with Jr about the nation’s events a bit too far. He’s capable of making realistic connections whether I use a protective narrative with him or not. Perhaps, our national conversation has been watered down to meaningless confusion, as well. Just as we want to protect our kids from the ugliness outside of the cushy, protective bubbles we’ve built, we don’t want to spare ourselves any comfort, either. As a result, we’ve placed ourselves into “teams” of black and white, rich and poor, educated and uneducated.
If we get real instead of hanging onto our own sound bites, perhaps we can address problems like our national income gap, the deterioration of race relations, and our fear of each other through an acknowledgement of the human complexities that truly create our diversity.
Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist. She writes about the arts, culture, and race while attempting to figure out why Americans find “diversity” to be a scary word. Her essays have appeared in Equals, Vol. 1, and State of the Heart, Vol. 2: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love (Fall 2015, USC Press). Shani is writing a memoir while also performing the duties of homework-checker, boo-boo kisser, and dog cuddler. Find her at ShaniGilchrist.com, and on Facebook. Her Twitter handle is @ShaniRGilchrist.