Friday, September 30, 2011

So why DOES my black son wear pink shoes?

          Earlier this month I learned about the sudden death of an old high school friend.  His family is holding a Celebration of Life in his memory today, and I wish I could be there to remember him with the gaggle of folks who knew him well back in the day.  But even more, I wish I could be there to hear from those who have known him well since, those who will tell me about the part of his life where there was room for him to be himself: to love and be loved.  That’s the story I’m dying to hear.
          My friend was not out in high school, of course.  No one was.  Twelve years after we graduated same-sex marriage was legal in our fair-minded state, and there were Gay Straight Alliances in public schools from Cape Cod to the Berkshires.  But in 1992, in the woods of Central Massachusetts, none of that had happened yet.  There was no room to be gay, so no one was.  Instead, my friend was brilliant.  And creative.  Hilarious.  Really well dressed.  And always that generous stash of biting sarcasm there in his neatly arranged book bag, ready to ward off anyone who got too close. 
          It didn’t take long, once out of the woods, to figure out I was gay, and that he was too.  I never saw him again after graduation, but I’ve worried about this friend who worked so hard to protect himself all those years.  Because once we know enough, we worry about our gay friends.  Those faces of young boys on our internet screens, one after the next, bullied, tormented, then dead.  We worry.  And I knew he was no longer fourteen and in the woods.  I’d heard he was maybe living in New York, maybe had a partner.  And I’ve seen the public service videos.  I have a life of my own.  So I know: “it gets better.”  But sometimes “it gets better” isn’t enough.  Sometimes those bruises run so deep we don’t recover from them even after it does get better.  So I’ve looked for him here and there.  Hoped he might be at a reunion.  Typed in his name on Facebook every few months.  But part of me always worried I would be too late: that the next time I saw his name, he would be dead.
          And he was.  Dead from a car crash in Germany, where he was on vacation with his partner of many years.  The news is horrific.  He is someone’s life love.  He is someone’s child.  Someone’s brother, uncle, friend.  And he is gone.  A nightmare.  To be overseas and have to return home, without your partner; home, where he will never be again; home, to plan his funeral, and figure out how you will keep living each minute, each hour, and then the rest of your life.  And still, as desperately sad as it is, there is a part of me that is choked with teary joy that my friend--my friend with that contagious laugh and protective perimeter--made it through.  He survived long enough to get to the part of his life where it does get better.  Where there is room.
          So I’ve been thinking about this old friend a lot this month.  And in particular I have been remembering him as I consider some of the response to a recent piece of mine called, My Black Son’s Pink Shoes.  It’s about how Moon Boy has these pink sandals that he likes to wear to school, and how the other kids had what to say about it, and how his teacher challenged me to think about the limitations on my black sons’ freedom.  And then I was all mad, and then I learned a little something, and then we got him a pair of black sandals so now he can assess what he’s up to dealing with on any given sandal-wearing day, and choose his footwear accordingly.
          And this comes with mixed feelings.  Because I’m nothing if I’m not a feminist.  I want my kids, boys and girl, to have choices.  I mean I really want them to have choices.  I mean, I want the cells in their brains to form around the notion that anything can be theirs without question: pink sandals, football, baby dolls, the presidency.  Anything.  And I’ve had some teary conversations with white feminist friends who have told me how sad they feel about the pink shoes story.  Because they don’t want to give up this dream either.   And I’ve had black women commenters say, “you have given him important tools going forward and for that I applaud you. Life isn't fair and knowing that makes life a heckuvalot easier.”  And I feel bolstered by both of these communities, by the women who can help me stay focused on these critical aspects of parenting that are at the core of what I want most for my children.
          But there is one comment that keeps reappearing in my mind, especially as I think about my friend who died earlier this month.  And that’s the woman who asked if Moon Boy wears pink sandals because he’s gay. 
          It surprised me.  (Silly, I know.  But it did.)  And I suppose she’s just trying to clarify what I’m getting at.  When I say I want there to be room for my son to wear pink sandals, am I really saying I want there to be room for my son to be gay?  She wants me to be clear on my point.  That’s not so much to ask.  But the stubborn part of me--or maybe the smug part of me--wants to say, “uh… no.”  Or maybe, “did you read the part where I say my son is three, and that he was wearing his sandals at preschool.”  Or how about, “I don’t know if my son is gay!  I know he likes to bang on drums, and dance, and grab things out of his little brother’s hands, and drink rice milk, and wear things that are bright and fun and comfortable like his yellow t-shirt with the monster chomping on an apple or his pink sandals.  How would I know if he’s gay?!”
          But then one day on the way to preschool this fall, Moon Boy helped me figure out the answer to her question.  See I wrote the Pink Shoes story last Spring, at the end of the school year.  And we did indeed get him a pair of black sandals so he could have a second option.  And then we got him another pair because we lost the first.  And then right before school started this Fall the second pair broke.  We gave Moon Boy the choice of wearing Ankle Biter's sandals (blue and orange), which he did for a few days, but then one morning he put on the pink pair.  And now, you know, I’ve published this piece saying I’m committed to making sure he’s ready to handle what comes his way when he wears those pink sandals, so I have something to live up to.  And so on the way to school we did some role-playing:
          “Why are you wearing girls’ shoes?” I asked.
          “Because I want to,” he replied happily.
          I was expecting something a little more political, a little more didactic, a little more defensive. Something like, “They aren't just for girls.” Or, “Anyone can wear pink.” I thought about talking to him about these alternatives, or doing a little feminism 101 review. But luckily, in the time it took me to think of what I might say, I realized the power in the peacefulness of his statement.
          When I picked him up that afternoon a little boy asked me if Moon Boy is a girl or a boy.
          “A boy,” I said. “Are you asking because he's wearing pink sandals?”
          “Yes,” said the child. “Why is he wearing pink sandals?”
          “Because I want to,” Moon Boy said, with the same happiness.
          “Oh,” said the boy. “I like to play with my sister's wand.”
          And that’s when I realized why my son wears pink shoes.  He doesn’t wear pink shoes because he’s gay.  He wears pink shoes because your son might be gay.  My son is making room for yours.  Right?  I mean, my son has two moms whether he wants to or not.  (And he’s black, and Jewish, and adopted.)  He cannot disguise these things.  Room or not.  But your son, your son can blend.  If there’s no room, then fine.  He can wear his hunter green, his navy blue, his burgundy.  He can slide under the radar for a while, but then sooner or later he’s going to need the room.  Because he’s going to stick out.  And it’s my son who will be there, making that room.
          And isn’t that what we all should be doing?  Isn’t that what we’re committing to when we turn our Facebook pictures purple and pass around celebrity It Gets Better video clips.  When we say we are saddened to the core by sissy bullying, and gay bashing, and its deadly consequences.  Isn’t that what we’re committing to, doing what my three year old son is doing: making room? 
          But purple profile pictures or not, it’s hard to unload this baggage we’ve been carrying for a life time.  And so I hear it in on the playground, around the neighborhood, in the hallway at school.  “I’ve got boxes of clothes waiting for you,” one mom says to another.  “I hope your baby’s a girl ‘cause I’ve got so many sweet things I could never put on my son.”   And it’s hard to imagine how we can hold these things in our brains at the same time.  How we can be sticking like crazy to these arbitrary gender rules, even for infants, and then saying we’re committed to ending anti-gay-bullying in schools.  Because that’s what anti-gay bullying is: picking on kids who cross the lines.  And who are the first people to draw those lines?   Who are the first to tell our sons they can’t wear pink?  To insinuate that no boy should wear pink?  We are.  Even before they are born.  Listen carefully while I say that again: we start training our kids to bully their gay peers even before they are born.
          So I get that my kids have a lot at stake.  I get that an African American male has less freedom than most anybody in this country.  And if there is a God, may God grant my black sons the luck to never be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Because black men die YOUNG in my neighborhood.  Young, young, young.  And my boys need options other than pink shoes.
          And I also get this: gay kids die young too.  Because even though equal marriage exists in six states, and even though kids can come out in high school these days, and even though there are Gay Straight Alliances,  and even though everybody from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Joe from New Jersey has made an It Gets Better video: there still isn’t enough room.  Because kids are still dying.
          But then look.  Look at the beauty of my son’s pink sandals.  They made room for another boy to admit he likes playing with his sister’s wand.  And if there’s room in that classroom for a boy with pink sandals and a boy who plays with a wand, then there will be room for something else.  And someday, kids won’t have to live through hell before it gets better.  Because it will be.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Litter Shmitter

          I’ll be taking a few weeks off after this post to prep for the GRE.  If all goes well, then by this time next year I’ll be all fellowshipped and assistantshipped and getting paid to become a better writer.  So I’ll see you in mid-September, just in time for the start of Marching Band Season.  Which is a big deal around here, by the way.  Not just for the Buckeyes who will soon be performing Script Ohio with crisp precision, but for the East High Tigers around the corner with their weekly parades through the neighborhood and, most especially, for my little Moon Boy who has been waiting since the snow melted for the leaves to grow, and then turn color, and then fall, so that he could see the band.  Already we can hear them practicing when it’s cool enough to open the windows.
          In the mean time I still have a few posts due up on Kveller.   And as always, please feel free to share anything you read here or there.  This winter I'll begin peddling my book for real, and the more readers I have, the more publishable I’ll be.  So thanks for your help in that regard.

           But for now I give you:  Litter Shmitter.

* * * * *

          I was raised to have a Puritanical disdain for litter.  I was the child stretching forward in a full body lunge to keep the candy wrappers falling out of my friends’ careless hands from reaching the ground.  And not just at the innocent ages of six or eight.  No.  I was still risking knee bruises at eleven and thirteen when I should have cared more how my friends thought of me than I did about the planet.  And it’s not that I didn’t care what they thought of me.  I did.  My neck and ears flushed red with embarrassment as I made the dive to the pavement, but I could not stop myself.  I would not stand idle in the face of litter.
          And fortunately I found me a good wife who shares this virtue.  Alongside a collective disgust for household pets, and a coincidental mutual disinterest in alcohol, our shared intolerance for litter completes the holy trinity of our union.  On a dull afternoon back before we had children and could spend our time lolling about in day dreams, Darling Virgo and I found ourselves in a heated discussion of what-ifs about our someday kids.  It started off fanciful, of course, but quickly moved into the dreary.
          “What if they aren’t feminists?” Darling Virgo asked me wide eyed.
          “They will be feminists.  We will raise them to be feminists.”
          “But what if they aren’t?” she pressed. 
          I hadn’t thought of this: that they might have minds of their own.  It was a shadowy path to peer down.
          “What if they’re Republicans”  I wondered allowed.  “Will we disown them, you think?”
          D.V. considered this for a minute, unsure.  And then her mouth fell open.  When she recaptured her breath she began speaking again.
          “What,” she paused, gathering the strength to name the evil that had choked her good soul.  “What if they’re litter bugs?”
          This is the fervor with which we have raised our children.  Cautious, always cautious, that they understand the power of women, have a healthy appreciation for the merits of big government, and a complete revulsion for the treatment of the Earth’s surface as a wastebasket.  And by all measures we’re doing pretty well.
          So when we arrived in our new neighborhood, in our new city, in our new state one year ago this week, we were a little surprised by all the litter.  To give the full picture I must explain the trash collection system in our neighborhood, which is like none my sheltered little eyes have seen before.  Between each street there are alleys through which we access our parking and take short cuts to the park and learn to ride bikes, etc.  And the alleys are lined with enormous green trash barrels.  The barrels easily stand as high as my shoulders and are probably four feet in diameter at the bottom and six feet at the top.  There is no charge to use the barrels and the city empties them weekly.  So with an enormous public trash barrel behind every other building (and a quarter of the apartments unoccupied) you’d think there’d be ample space for the elimination of trash.  But not so.  There are often even big piles of trash beside the barrels.  Sidewalks covered with broken bottles.  Whole bags of fast food waste, decorating the sides of the streets. 
          There is an empty elementary school building a block from our apartment.  Last year was its first non-functioning year, so it was only just getting used to its status as abandoned when we arrived.  Out back on the playground knee-high plants sprouted up from beneath the woodchips, tickling my sons’ armpits.  The black top surrounding the play structures glinted with shards of glass.  And it was clear that the swing set had been a popular neighborhood hangout that summer, the ground beneath literally covered with empty “pop” bottles and crinkled up Hot Cheetos bags. 
          Hot Shot and I spent a an afternoon alone on that playground a few days into the last school year.  She was heavy with transition and needed some one-on-one mom time.  So she climbed out her angst a little bit.  And made herself laugh by performing daring stunts on high perches in an attempt to make me lose my cool.  And then we spent a little time on the swings.
          As we leaned our bodies forward with each backward swing, we couldn’t help but notice the sea of litter that lay below us.
          “Why do people do that?”  Hot Shot asked.  “It’s so bad!”
          I talked to her a little about my take, something right out of the Pity 101 textbook, you know: people feel bad about where they live, so they don’t take care of it and then the trashier it is the more people don’t think twice about throwing down more.
          Hot Shot wondered if the police might be able to do something about it.  I asked her if maybe there was something we could do about it.  And that was all it took.  We made a plan then and there.  Labor day weekend was coming up, we would celebrate my favorite holiday with trash bags and gloves and spades and rakes and… wait a minute.  Hot Shot was ready to weed the entire playground.  I thought maybe we better focus on just the trash and see if we could get that part of the job done.
          So we did. The five of us (the boys at that time not quite two and three yet) filled up two trash bags of little candy wrappers and swept up piles and piles of broken glass.  And, as I had hypothesized, now that the place was a little cleaner, the trash didn't collect so quickly.  Or maybe it just seemed that way.  Maybe we were just getting a little used to it.
          Because there’s still trash on the streets.  And glass everywhere.  “Stay away from the glass,” I’m always shrieking at Moon Boy and Ankle Biter.  “Walk around!  Don’t touch it.  You'll bleed!”
          “Don’t touch it, don’t touch it,” Ankle Biter repeats as he leans over and picks up a piece.
          “No! No! No!” Moon Boy yells, mimicking my constant shrieks.  “You going to get a big cut and go to the hospital!”
          But little Ankle Biter is confident.  “Yook, Mommy,” he approaches holding out to the sparkly shard like a gift.  “It’s bootifull.”
          Nothing I tried quelled his attraction to glass.  And the more times Ankle Biter successfully picked up a piece of glass without ending up dead, the more Moon Boy became interested as well.  And I started feeling a little foolish for all my shrieking.  So D.V. and I threw out the “don’t touch it” rule and replaced it with a new one: always hold glass with an open palm.
          Then a couple of weeks ago, after days and days of 95 degree heat and extreme humidity, there was a cool gray morning that wanted to rain, but mostly did not.  I was thrilled to get out of the a.c. and revive our old morning walks.  So the boys each grabbed a stick (for pretend trumpet playing, or poking at poop, or whacking out marching band rhythms to keep us all in step) and led the way to the playground behind the old school.  But when we got there most of the playground was gone.
          It had been done carefully.  There weren’t spikes of sharp metal sticking up out of the ground waiting to execute a tripping toddler.  But neither were there slides or climbers or fire poles.  I was sad to see it gone though I had rarely seen anyone but us use it.  I hoped it had been put back together at a school where piles of children would climb all over it at recess.
          The boys climbed on the small section of playground still left there for us, weaving around the weeds now grown taller than their heads.  But eventually they made their way to the expanse of upturned dirt and woodchips where the bigger play structure had been.  There were dramatic grooves and mounds of dirt, perhaps left from whatever piece of equipment had been used to accomplish the removal, and big rocks uncovered by the upheaval.  Ankle Biter laughed and ran up and down the “mountains” and Moon Boy set to work collecting a big pile of rocks.
          I watched Moon Boy’s thoughtfulness, putting together a layer of rocks just-so in order to balance a triangular rock between them, and I thought about how I’ve kind of given up on getting him to try drawing or writing or much of anything artistic.  And how I feel all guilty about boxing my kids into their obvious interests at such a young age, but it’s just so much work to corral my small crowd into anything other than what they’re naturally drawn to.  Yet here he was, drum sticks forgotten, lost in the act of creation.
          “You’re making a sculpture,” I called to him, from my perch on a railroad tie. 
          “What’s a scupchuh?” he asked.
          “Something to look at and enjoy,” I began.  “It’s a kind of art.  Only instead of drawing or painting it on paper, you build it out of stuff you can hold in your hand.”
          “Oh!”  he said, moon eyes all round and shiny, “I’m making a scupchuh!”
          And he was content there in his art making for quite a while until Ankle Biter happened on a large soft drink cup and began making me some “doop.”
          “What are you going to put in the soup?” I asked him.
          “Cauwiflowah, and geen beans, and fish, and booberries!” he called to me as he gripped his cup and began running through a ditch.  Moon Boy was quick on his tail and eager to relieve him of his pot.
          “Woah, woah,” I called, jumping up and grabbing Moon Boy out of the chase.  “There’s plenty of trash around.  Let’s see if we can find you a pot too.”  Which of course we did.  A plastic drink bottle with a wide mouth served the purpose well enough and soon there were two soups brewing for my pleasure.
          So that’s how the morning went on.  We may have been there two hours, playing in the remains of our old playground, making use of the trash that blew around our feet.  And as I watched them, in their first peaceful, non-indoors play in weeks, it occurred to me it might just be time to let my guard down on litter.  You know, it’s so shiny, and fun, and useful, when you let it be.  I didn’t have to haul any toys to this big dirt pile.  No buckets, no shovels, no toy trucks.  And if I had they would have fought over them.  Instead, we looked around, and the neighborhood provided: cups for cooking, lids for serving, big hunks of loose cement fared well as the bases for sculptures.   Whatever we needed, it was there.  And I looked out on the pavement that surrounded this former playground, and out beyond to the alleys with their big trash barrels, and the streets and the parking lots, and I thought: what have I been so worried about, the planet is paved.  Paved!  At least our part of it.  The patches where actual life grows up through ground are just that: patches.  And what’s beneath that?  An underground world of sewer pipes and I don’t even know what all.  But not Earth.  I’ve peeked down my share of open manholes; I know the Earth is a long way down.  And as much as I’d like to say picking up two big bags of candy wrappers made a little impact on the planet, I’m not so sure it did.  Not even a little. 
          And for the first time ever (ever!) in my big, bleeding, benevolent, pitiful heart I thought, maybe neighborhoods are not trashy because people don’t like where they live, maybe neighborhoods are trashy because people know where they live: in the middle of a paved city.  They don’t need to pretend otherwise with fancy landscaping and irrigated lawns.  They can throw their “Church’s Chicken” box on the road and know it will never, in a million years, have actual contact with the planet for which I feign such unyielding concern. 
          So the plastic factory on the other side of I-670, belching out toxins on the kids as they ride their buses passed to that school we thought about sending Hot Shot to; and the freight car after freight car after freight car piled high with coal, the ones we watch go by the park ever day, many times a day;  and the trains and planes and trucks filling our grocery store with “fresh” produce from God knows where when the farms begin about an inch beyond the city limits and stretch on for miles and miles and miles.  Those, I would say, have some impact on our planet.  But that Wendy’s bag blowing down the road.  Or even ten of them, or twenty, or a hundred?  Maybe not so much.
          Litter shmitter.  That’s what I’ve got to say.

          (Oh, and in case you were wondering, my Darling Virgo does not share this litter revelation, but I think our marriage can survive the rift.)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hot Shot's Island

          We traveled back to Maine last month to surround ourselves with family and wonderful old friends and wade into the Atlantic.  And of course we were peering around like TV spies, collecting evidence that we’d made the right decision to move, to leave behind this beautiful land that smells of salt air and sweet pizza.   Our last evening in Portland was the only cool one of the week, but it didn’t keep us from the ocean.  Darling Virgo and I arrived at Willard Beach with our brood and Game On, a young friend whose Mama and little brother would arrive a while later.
          We had no beach toys with us, having driven all the way from Ohio, but Game On didn’t care, he was quickly engaged in everyone else’s fun.  At six, he’s a year younger than our Hot Shot; they have known each other since they were babies and couldn’t be less alike.  We weren’t on the beach a minute before he had turned someone else’s game of catch into Monkey in the Middle, and he wasn’t the monkey.  And then he was playing Frisbee with another family.  Hot Shot, meanwhile, was wandering around trying to find her groove, looking for a shell, or a rock, or a stick, or something that would spark her interest, give her an idea of what she could do, what she could make, on this chilly beach night.  But nothing turned up, so she and Darling Virgo made their way over to the playground.
          I’m not used to parenting a child like Game On and I wondered if I should be checking in with the other people and making sure he wasn’t bothering them.  But everyone seemed happy enough, so I trailed my little boys who were equally as interested in everyone else’s toys but not as skillful as their big-boy friend at getting in the game.
          So there I am at Willard Beach, following the boys and weighing the trade off.  The four children in my care are not just the only African Americans on the beach, they are the only people of color.  And it’s a cool afternoon, so it’s not like we’ve got a sample of hundreds.  Maybe not even fifty.  And then, as a few more people arrive, our kids are not the only people of color.  But I can count (and believe me I am counting) the rest on one hand.  There’s a part of me that looks at all the nice white people and sighs at how familiar they feel.  They're so, so, what is it?  Oh, right.  They’re so sloppy.  They’re windblown and loose fitting and without make-up, and getting all dirty.  They are, without doubt, my people.   But comfortable as I am, I cannot shake a growing feeling that my kids are a spectacle.  I feel it in a different way than I did when we lived here.  When we lived here I was busy scoping out multiracial families and trying to sit near them and then looking around for more, so my view of the community, even though I knew it was very white, was focused on the not-so-white parts.  But now, coming back, I see a sparsely attended beach of easy-breezy white folks, and four brown children.  Our presence feels huge.  Like we have arrived at the beach, the six of us, each playing a tuba, or leading a parade of elephants behind.  I feel watched.  And when my boys run over to other families and try to snatch their buckets, I cringe at how my giggling little thieves must be perceived on this sandy white beach. 
          It’s the kind of moment my spies eyes were looking for.  The kind of moment I was secretly hoping to celebrate with a little victory dance.  But I didn’t feel like celebrating.  I felt like finding a way to reengage my boys.  And quick!
          So I fed the little bucket-snatchers a pint of blueberries and then demonstrated how they could make castles out of the cardboard container until it got soggy. 
          And I knew the feeling there at the beach was my own.  Little Ankle Biter and Moon Boy were not feeling watched.  Moon Boy was full of giggles and mischief, and Ankle Biter, who I think could pass the Princess and the Pea test, was trying take off his swim trunks every other minute because they’d gotten a little wet or a smudged with sand.  So the self-consciousness was mine entirely.   Not theirs.  I was feeling watched on their behalf.  And I know it’s me who has to be satisfied with our decision to leave behind the ocean and the friends.  Because I am the grown up.  I am the one who has to see the big picture and make the calls.  But I could tell there, on the beach, I was looking for more.  I was waiting for my children to tell me they agreed--to give some sign that they saw the wisdom in our decision.  Like maybe Moon Boy could stop for a minute and say, “hey Mom, I love finding crabs in the tide pools here with all these unkempt white folks, but really I prefer picking up shards of broken glass back in the ‘hood with my people.”  Was it really so much to ask?
          Mama C arrived just as my city boys were experimenting with seagull chasing which they learned is less satisfying than goose chasing because the gulls prefer flight as a form of retreat where the geese make that terrific sploosh into the duck pond.  Darling Virgo came back from the playground to greet our friend, followed by Hot Shot who started building a castle right at the edge of the water.  She soon saw her mistake, with the incoming tide, and began collecting seaweed to build a protective wall around the castle, and then to cover the castle, and then was having so much fun she just made a huge pile of seaweed which she stood on top of and let the tide come in around her.  In case it isn’t obvious, I’ll tell you: this isn’t something you can do in Columbus, Ohio.  She screamed and laughed every time another wave crashed and her island remained in tact.
          I loved her so much I began running around, scooping up seaweed myself and adding it to her pile.  Wanting to prove to her she had my attention and appreciation.  And she gladly accepted, sending me out for more each time I came to her with an offering.  And so I was maybe ten feet away from Hot Shot, on her island--arms open ready to catch a big clump of seaweed that was washing in--when a little girl, maybe a year or two younger than Hot Shot, approached me. 
          “You can’t take all the seaweed,” she said to me all snarly and entirely entitled.  “We’re using it over here to decorate our mermaids.” 
          I looked up and down the shoreline at the piles of kelp gathered along the waters edge and the endless supply brought in by the tide, then looked over at Hot Shot in disbelief.  She was steaming.  More than I would have expected from this petty intrusion.  I turned back to the girl and told her I thought there was enough seaweed on the beach for each of our projects and didn’t she think so too?  As soon as the girl turned her back, Hot Shot spilled it.
          “She was mean to me on the monkey bars too!” She told me.  She yelled to me over the crashing waves, knowing that the girl could probably hear her as well.  This isn’t characteristic for Hot Shot.  Usually anger at friends shows up in sobbing tirades after the fact.  Not while the offender is still present.  But she wasn’t sobbing.  She was mad.  “She told me I wasn’t doing the monkey bars right.  She and her sister.  Ouuugghhh!” 
          She was disgusted.  Revolted. Standing on top of her island yelling, groaning, obviously trying to emit this feeling from her body.  Why had they been so mean?  Talking to her as if she didn’t know anything?  She despised the feeling and roared it out of herself. 
          “They told me there was only one way to do it and they should teach me how,” she yelled.  “Oogghh!  And they said it mean.” 
          And then it came. 
          “And I think it was because of my RACE!”
          This she yelled the loudest, punching out the word “race,” and looking over at the girls who had begun balancing on some rocks newly surrounded by the incoming waves.
          “It’s like they think I don’t know anything,” she hollered.  “It’s like the enslavement days!”  This she said wide-eyed in disbelief at their stupidity.
          I watched her sort it all out.  Scream it all out and I believed her.  I believed every ounce of her anger.  Because I know how it is.  Because I am a woman, and I know when I am being talked down to.  Because I’m a lesbian, and I know when people think I’m disgusting.  And so I was sure she was right.  I was sure she would know. 
          “What do you want to do about it?” I asked her.  I was bending over to add more seaweed to her pile, so our faces were inches from each other.  And I was there.  I was in it.  My adrenaline was going and she could tell I was with her.
          It didn’t take her a second to respond.  “GET THEM BACK!” she yelled. 
          And it was all I could do to keep from smiling.  Smiling?  Really?  But yes, it’s true: I was filled, at that moment, with a sudden surge of happiness, of joy, of pride.  My little girl was the victim of racism and there I was experiencing rapture.  I couldn’t explain it, but I disguised it and kept listening and collecting. 
          “Look at them!”  she yelled.  She was laughing a bit now herself, full of irony and disgust.  And she pointed at the girls balancing on their rock islands.  “Just look!  Now they’re copying me!”
          And that’s when I got it.  Why my rapture.  She was not the four-year-old coming home from preschool devastated that the other girls said she couldn’t be Little Red Riding Hood because Little Red doesn’t have brown skin.  There was no sad or sulky on this beach.  Only anger.  And a complete understanding that those girls were wrong as hell.  My girl knew it was not her who had the problem.  She was no victim.
           “This is why we moved.  Isn’t it?” She asked.  But it wasn’t really a question.  More of a confirmation.
          And luckily that’s how I took it.  So I didn’t answer.  Even though I felt as if this was the gold star I was waiting for my children to hand me.  I didn’t say, YES! YES! YES! This is why we moved!  See, wasn’t it worth it?  Wasn’t it worth leaving everyone you love to go to a place where everyone yells at you?  Wasn’t it?
          Because by the end of the night when we were snuggled in Mama C’s big comfy chair, I had to remember, again: there is no final grade. 
           “How did you know?”  I asked her.  “How could you tell those girls were being mean because you’re black?”
          She was thoughtful for a few minutes, really trying to figure it out.  “I just can’t imagine anyone talking to a white person that way,”  she said.  “Like they had to teach me everything or else I wouldn’t know.”
           And I tried to bring up her question again: is this why we moved.  I told her the answer was “yes and no.”  I told her the “yes” part was that for sure, people in Portland have a lot fewer chances to meet black people, so they don’t know as much.  So they’re not as familiar.  So sometimes they ask dumb questions about your hair and treat you like you don’t know anything on the monkey bars.  That’s the “yes” part.
          But Hot Shot interrupted me before I could get the “no” part out.   She was ready to say good night.  To hop up into the top bunk with Game On and listen to Mama C read one of those great books Mama C always finds.  She said we could talk more about it tomorrow.  Not right now.  She would wait another day before she had to hear me tell her what she already knows: we didn’t leave racism when we left Portland.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Middle Passage

          I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to teach our children about enslavement.  A lot of time, like since I was about six.  I don’t actually remember when I learned about enslavement.  When the line between knowing and not knowing was drawn.  I don’t remember if I was surprised or if I’d had a hunch something pretty bad had happened.  But I do remember, as a kid, wondering what it felt like to learn about enslavement if you were black.
           I knew fewer than five black kids in my childhood, but I knew it must feel different.  To be sitting there on the carpet square in February, listening to the story about the little girl who has to run away from hound dogs, choosing freedom over being “sold” away from her family to another “owner,” and to know that little girl looks more like you than any of the other kids sitting on their carpet squares.  I wondered if a black girl listening to that story felt a little like a “slave” herself.  If she felt dirty, or ashamed.  And as I got older I wondered about the ethics of white teachers teaching black students about enslavement.  I wondered if it was fair, since the teachers couldn’t possibly know how it would feel to be a black child learning that white people bought and sold, whipped and raped their great, great, great, great, great grandparents.  And then I wondered if white teachers should even be allowed to teach us white kids about enslavement.  Because think of all the connotations, the assumptions, the underlying messages we don’t even realize are embedded in the language and the stories.  The romanticized half-truths.  Like how all the stories are about escaping enslavement.  Or about getting news of the Emancipation Proclamation (which is itself mostly mythology).  When of course most people who were enslaved were born into it, lived their entire lives beneath it, and died by thirty-five from the weight of it.  Or even the very words “slave” and “slavery” just the use of which feel to me like they condone enslavement, or at the very least take the enslaver completely out of the story.  How can we risk embedding these malformed messages into the brains of each new generation?
          But then I suppose it doesn’t seem fair to make black folks responsible for teaching our nation of children about enslavement, now does it?  So I have done it.  I, a white woman, have taught white kids and African American kids, and African kids about enslavement.  Not a lot of kids.  But I have done it.  And that’s good, because when the time came for us white moms to teach our black daughter about enslavement, it wasn’t my first time.
          And I thought it probably wasn’t ideal.  Or at least part of me felt that way.  Part of me remembered how I used to think white teachers shouldn’t teach black kids about enslavement.  But we were it.  We were what she had.  And secretly, even though part of me knew better, I was glad it was us who would get to her first because I believed I could do it well.  I wanted the first messages encoded in her brain, the ones that catch and sift all future information, to be our messages.  So that enslavers would be as present in the telling as those they had enslaved.  So that she would understand the era of enslavement to be defined not by the intellect of the founders and the tragic lives of their chattel, but by the wisdom and passions of all the humans who lived and thought during that time.  So that someday when some white teacher described Washington and Jefferson  as “men of their time” she would recognize it for the bloody-handed excuse that it is, because there were all those other men--black men--and all those black women, who surely, in that same time, understood that enslavement was immoral.
          And so beginning around age three (because that’s when we realized, oh no if we wait any longer we won’t be the first) that’s what we did.  And that’s what we’ve done for the last four and a half years.  We didn’t lay it all out from the beginning.  We talked about what it means to be able to make decisions for your own body and your own family and what it would feel like if you couldn’t.  We talked about the use of violence as a method of making decisions for other people.  We didn’t get into bloody details right away.  We left rape for another time.  But we allowed no romanticizing.  No colorful storybooks.  Just talk.  And over the years she’s brought home enslavement-related school work, assigned by white teachers.  It’s usually about Harriet Tubman, you know, because she’s a pretty kick-ass inspiring woman, and she escaped, and she helped a lot of other people escape, so it feels good to learn about her.  And we’ve watched Hot Shot’s brain sift through all the material and felt satisfied with the base we worked with her to build there.  And last year when we read the letters of Charlotte Forten and she talked of the thousands of enslaved people that had crossed the Ohio River to freedom Hot Shot said, “I wish the river could talk.”  And Darling Virgo asked her why.  And she said “because I want to ask it what that looked like.”
          But then this summer when Hot Shot came home from the second day of camp at the MLK Arts Complex talking about the “dark hallway,” we got a little worried.
          “We’re going on a tour of the building tomorrow,” Hot Shot said all atwitter.  “And we’re going through the dark hallway.”  She explained that the counselors keep telling them to stop calling it “the dark hallway.”  It’s really called “The Middle Passage.”
          We were aware of The Middle Passage exhibit in the building.  I’d seen some photos online, and heard a little girl who went to camp last year talking about it.  “You go down in the basement and there’s a room that feels like your in the bottom of a slave ship, and there are hands reaching out” this girl had said, solemn and wide-eyed, in answer to my cheerful question, “how did you like camp?”  Hot Shot herself had heard about this hallway and gotten a glimpse of it at the camp orientation.  She’d immediately asked Darling Virgo if they could please go down a different hallway and avoid it.  Which they did.
          But here she was asking, begging, “Can I please go though it?  Can I please go though it?”
          I wondered if other families were having this same conversation that night.  If all the other kids (black kids) had gone home to their parents (black parents) and told them that tomorrow was the day they would walk through The Middle Passage.  I wondered if the parents were discussing it.  “Is it the right time for Rashawn?  Is Precious ready for this yet?”  Did it occur to the rest of the kids to ask their parents for permission?
          My guess was probably not most.  Most of the other kids were not home talking this over.  But we are lesbians; we talk everything over.  I was glad Hot Shot knew to bring it up, even though it was strange she was begging for something she had been too scared to do only a few days before.  But she’s allowed to be of two minds.  To want to fit in, and to want to be spared.
          I was ready to let her go through it.  Because, you know, I wanted her to fit in too.  And I wanted us to fit in.  I didn’t want to be the only family in the camp with two white parents and also the only family in the camp that didn’t let their child through the Middle Passage exhibit.  (Isn’t that just like white folks?)  And here she was, begging us to let her go though it, right?  So why not?
          Darling Virgo was wiser.  “She had three weeks of nightmares after 101 Dalmatians!” she gently reminded me.  “She’s asking so that we’ll say ‘no’ for her.”
          And I knew she was right.  We know our child best.  We know what she can handle.  We excused her from fire prevention videos for the same reason.  We forbade her from watching PG movies at school.  (Why are schools showing first graders PG movies anyway?)  She would not sleep for weeks if she walked down that hallway.  This is truth.  She wasn’t ready.  And when she was ready, we would go through it with her so that we could experience it together, and answer her questions, and hold her when it was time to fall asleep.
          So the next morning after dropping Hot Shot off in the cafeteria, Darling Virgo (likely the only white person in the whole building) quietly asked Hot Shot’s counselors to please allow our daughter to skip The Middle Passage part of the tour.  Hot Shot and Darling Virgo were relieved.  And so was I.  Well … partly.  I was relieved that the two of them were able to make the decision I couldn’t make.  But I’m allowed to be of two minds too, right?  And I was.  Because there I was, so clear, all these years, so steadfast and knowledgeable: no quaint images of enslavement for us thanks.  Only the horrible facts.  And there I was looking over her worksheets about Harriet Tubman with a smug little chuckle at her white teachers.  And there I was at six, and twelve, and seventeen, and thirty five knowing enough to wonder if it was even ethical for a white person to teach a black person about enslavement.  Knowing that no white person, not even me, her mother, would know what if felt like to be the survivors of enslavement, of the middle passage.  And here I was, now, saying to her black teachers (her first black teachers), “Thanks so much for teaching her The Wobble, but we’ve got enslavement covered.”
          I’m not sure how the choreography went, but Hot Shot’s teachers arranged it so that she was waiting for her class at the end of The Middle Passage hall when the rest of her group came out.
          “They were all shaking,” she told me later.  “And I saw the hands.  I’m glad you didn’t let me go through.”
          And of course I was glad too.  I know my daughter and I know what she can handle.  She doesn’t need cutesy storybook pictures and she doesn’t need graphic depictions.  She is knowledgeable and thoughtful and the images she creates in her mind will be at the level she is ready for.  I know that.
          But then, what about the part that I don’t know?  What about the part where I let my daughter experience a powerful and sophisticated portrayal of the horrors of the middle passage while surrounded by trusted mentors and shaking friends, all of whom know what I don’t: what it feels like to be a black person learning about enslavement?  What about that part?
          How will I know when she’s ready?  How will I know when I am?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Big Report Card in the Sky

          Just back from a trip to New England where we saw wonderful old friends and surrounded ourselves with family.  But the best news is that when we returned to Columbus, I actually felt like I was coming home.  Aaaahhh!  More on that and our trip to come, I’m sure.  But for now a story from June:

         Hot Shot spent three weeks of summer camp at the King Arts Complex last month.  The Complex is an African American museum, theater, gallery, Head Start, education center, you name it.  Totally cool.  It’s located in the area of town that was once the heart of African American culture in Columbus.  The murals that peel off the walls of boarded up buildings along Mt. Vernon and Long Street offer images of what this part of town used to look like.  With big bands and dance halls and lots of heads flattened down with lye.  It doesn’t look much like that anymore.  There are attempts here and there to stir up the ghosts that once lindyhopped on these streets.  And some are successful.  The King Arts Complex is one.  And there’s the Lincoln Theatre down the street.  And Urban Spirit coffee shop, where I have high hopes of becoming a regular.  And the book store next door.  Forgive me if I’ve missed one or two; I’m still new here.  But I think that’s pretty much it.
          Anyway, when we first told Hot Shot about the camp a few months ago, she was sad it would not be Camp Ketcha back in Scarborough, Maine, which will always have a special place in her heart because it represents so many firsts: first school bus ride, longest days away from home, first hikes through the woods without moms to let you rest or make you drink your water or tie your shoes or whatever else we know best.  So like many things this year, learning about her new camp was a moment of loss.  But we had her attention when we started telling about the visiting artists at her new camp.  “You’ll have dance and art and music and drama every day,” I promised.  “With real professional artists.”  And she couldn’t help but love that.  Hot Shot is, above all else, a creator at her core. 
          So she was already starting to get a little excited and then Darling Virgo told her a bit about the King Arts Complex.  How it’s a building that’s all about celebrating African American History and art and culture and all that, and Hot Shot grew a big grin, showing off that beautiful gap she got from her father, right there between her two front teeth.  “Ohio’s all about African American pride,” she said, all starry eyed.
          And then we laughed.  (Don’t laugh at your children!  Don’t laugh at your children!  Don’t laugh at your children!)  But we laughed, picturing as we did the cornfields that surround our city and all the good white folks who grow all that corn and go to Bob Evan’s for brunch after church on Sunday mornings.  And Hot Shot’s eyes were suddenly full of questions.  That’s why we moved here right?  Because there are more black people?  Because you wanted me to live someplace where I would be with black people?   She had learned our rhetoric and was returning it to us, wasn’t she? Why had we laughed?
          Darling Virgo was quick and full of care.  “Is that how you feel here?”  She asked Hot Shot.  “Does it make you feel proud of being African American?”
          And then our girl considered the question given back to her.  Forgoing, for a minute, the two scripts she has in her head.  The first being her allegiance to Maine.  The second being the words we have taught her to explain our decisions.  But she seemed to be letting go of these and actually considered how she felt about her blackness, here at the nine-month mark of our sojourn. 
          “Well,” she said.  “I guess I’m starting to feel normal.”
          And yes, though we did laugh earlier when we weren’t supposed to, here we managed to contain ourselves while in her presence.  But let it be known that minutes later, safely secluded in the kitchen, Darling Virgo and I offered up a small dance of joy, letting ourselves believe, for a tiny second, that this was it.  The big gold star.  The verdict.  The final report card in the sky.
          But of course this is not the final report card.  Maybe it’s a mid-term progress report.  Or a little note home from the teacher saying it was a pretty good day.  Because, alas, there will never be a final report card in the sky; this is a grading period that will never end.  There have been signs along the way and there will be more--moments that tell us we’re on the right track or we better get our act together--but never a final grade.
          So we took it for the joyous second that it was.  And moved on.
          But when the end of school came and Hot Shot started camp, it wasn’t everything we hoped for.  There weren’t as many different art and dance and drama classes as I had told her.  And it was mostly the camp counselors, not guest artists, who were leading the activities.  And it was kind of like school in that, well, there was a lot of yelling.
          Yelling has been one of the unforseen challenges of our move.  And none of us are ready to put our finger on why.  But there’s more yelling here and we’re not used to it.  Parents yelling at kids.  Teachers yelling at kids.  Bus drivers yelling at kids.  Lots of yelling at kids.  It was the hardest part of Hot Shot’s transition to her new school last Fall.  “All the yelling,” she would say.  “The more the yelling the more the disrespect.  The more the disrespect the more the yelling.”  She came home from school unraveled by the angst of it all.  And it didn’t take her long to hypothesize that the yelling difference ran along racial lines.  She saw some parents in our mostly black neighborhood yelling at kids.  And she heard her mostly black friends at school talking about getting spanked.  And her afternoon bus driver was black.  And the disciplinarian from her school who had to ride the bus because it was so out of control was black.  And they were both yellers.  So she decided she didn’t want to go over any one’s house if their parents were black.  And here was another one of grades on the big report card.  We didn’t run into the kitchen and do a happy dance, but we weren’t surprised either.  That’s why we moved here right?  Because we don’t know enough African Americans.
          It reminded me of the afternoon years ago when Hot Shot was pretending to run a vegetarian restaurant and announced that Christians were not allowed.  You know, because they eat meat.  We spent some time sorting out the Jews and the Christians we knew and examined their eating habits.  And now here we were doing the same with the whites and the blacks and the yelling.
          “What about your principal?”  I asked.  “Does she yell?”
          “And she’s white.  Right?  And what about your teacher?”
          “She yells all day!”
          “And she’s white.  And what about Kanisha’s mom?  And Mr. Chat?  And Ms. Ruby down the alley.  Do they yell?”
          “Noooo,” she groaned.  “Okay, okay I get it, they’re black and they don’t yell.  Enough!”  
          So it seemed as though the change was regional, maybe.  That back in New England where everyone’s all free-speech, closed-curtains, and democracy, we make room for our kids to have feelings and opinions and don’t dare impose authoritarian rules and regulations just because we happen to be parents.  And then here in the Midwest where everyone’s all stop-crying, here’s-a-Twinkie, go-Bucks, it’s pretty clear that the expectation of adulthood is to call the shots.  And it’s not like her teachers and principals back in Maine didn’t hold or wield authority.  But it’s definitely a different flavor of authority.  And so it’s taking some getting used to.
          For the first few days of camp I felt reluctant.  I was supposed to be sending her off to a happy land of creative discovery where all the good fairy artists were black and waiting to discover her talent and take her in as an apprentice, and….  Instead I felt guilty for sending her away when she could just as well be at home with me and Moon Boy and Ankle Biter, complaining that she’s the b-word (bored) and feeling like I should stop spending my time refereeing the boys’ wrestling matches and start building actual electronic robots out of the contents of our recycle bin and a few sticks from the back yard.  We would see how camp went.  Give it a week before deciding for sure if we sent her back for more. 
           And then, of course, Hot Shot taught us (and herself) how much she's learned about adaptation.  That, yes, there was yelling, but there were also popsicle stick collages, and paper mache Earths, and friends who know the same hand clap games as she does, and friends who taught her some new ones.  And she learned that the best part was recess, when one of her teachers would bring a boombox out to the playground and teach the kids dances like the Cupid Shuffle, and the Cha Cha Slide, and (Hot Shot’s favorite) the Wobble.  I got to see some of the dancing at the second recess when Moon Boy, Ankle Biter, and I arrived to pick her up every afternoon.  “Be appropriate!” her teacher would yell when the music for the Wobble came on.  And then thirty girls with cornrowed heads and bouncing ballies would pump their hips forward and giggle with the delight that is the line between appropriate and not.
          So I’m learning, little by little, what it means when I say I want my kids to know (actually know, not just experience) how to be part of their community.  I want them to be able to attend a camp where all the teachers and all the kids are black...  and feel welcome. And at home.  And like they belong.  Normal.  Right?  Isn’t that the thing we want most for our kids?  Just plain normal.  So even though I wanted it to be the best, most enriching arts experience ever, and even though it wasn’t, there is my girl: doing the Wobble, surrounded by proud friends (black friends) and smiling teachers (black teachers), and I remember that if I want her to know other ways of being I have to loosen the reigns on my own ways just a little.  So I dismount off the back of my attachment parenting high horse and take a look at the view from the ground.  I see a girl who has learned she can handle it.  She knows now, at least for today, that people who yell are also kind, and fun, and good at making art out of trash, and can teach you the Wobble.
          And I think about that big report card in the sky.  I’m always checking it to see how she’s doing.  How the boys are doing.  How’s their body image?  Their racial identity development?  Are they happy?  As if my work, the work of surrounding my family with our children’s people, will only manifest in their development, not my own.  I'm expecting them to be my yardstick, when all the time I’ve got plenty of room to grow myself.  So I look up at that big report card in the sky and decide to send home a little note to myself today: it’s been a pretty good day. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

It takes practice

          It was apparent to me, immediately upon my arrival in Columbus, that I was out of practice living in an integrated community.  Okay, let me be a little bit more bold and a little bit more accurate: I was out of practice living in a predominately African American community.  If I needed confirmation that we had made a good decision to move, this was it.  Right?  I mean, I’m raising three black children whom I love and adore, I can’t be unfamiliar with what it feels like to live with black people, now can I?
          It reminded me a little of what it was like to attend a women’s college.  How even though I was already a feminist, the experience of living in a community where women did everything, helped reshape my brain a little bit.  Women led the student government, women cooked in the kitchens, women drove the security van.  They were the EMTs and the comedians, the athletes and the scholars.  Of course I had already known women could do all these things in turn, but the experience left me with the expectation that they would do them every turn.  If someone was going to give a rally speech to demand the college stop buying Coke products until the company divested in South Africa, it would be a woman.  If someone was going to set a new conference shot put record, it was going to be a woman.  If someone was going to run the lighting and sound board in the campus theater, it was going to be a woman.
          I thought of this experience as I walked the streets of our new neighborhood, noting the architecture of the buildings, the landscaping, the upkeep, or the lack thereof.  And I listened as my brain fought with itself.  Part of it could not conceive that a block of houses across from the park--banked with beautiful gardens overlooked by generous porches--that they might actually be inhabited by black people.  I turned the corner onto another kind of block altogether--50 percent abandoned, boarded-up buildings--and I thought, oh no, what if this is where the black people live and those houses around the corner are all full of white folks.  How will I ever forgive myself for landing us in the middle of this racially stratified disaster?
          I thought of this some more when we were overwhelmed by warnings to lock our windows and doors.  If we’re upstairs we shouldn’t have the downstairs windows open, they told us.  No, there are no windows to air out the basement, we had to block them in, they said.  These warnings came as much from our gay, white landlords as they did from our friendly black neighbors.  We are generally a leave-everything-open kind of family.  If you want to steal something and the car's locked you’re going to bash in the window, and then I'll need a new window.  That’s how I see it.  But the warnings were so persistent I had to consider them.  I kept close watch on our moving van.  I fastidiously locked and unlocked the bikes.  Even the tricycle!  But I felt so self conscious.  I mean here I was, living in a black neighborhood for the first time in my life, and becoming a lock freak for the first time in my life.  My kids had never seen me lock a door before, shut a window when I went upstairs, leave on the radio as we headed out to the grocery store.  What kind of message was I sending them?  And what kind of message was I sending myself?  This is not how I wanted the retraining of my brain to go.  My brain was supposed to be working on expecting the people walking out of those beautiful banked houses down on Franklin Park South to be black.  It wasn’t supposed to develop a new fear of break-ins.
          And then lo and behold, there were a few break-ins.  Not our house, but a couple of neighbors' across the street and another three doors down.  The weird thing was, now that there were some actual break-ins, everyone was saying how nothing like this had happened here for years.  Ten years some said.  More than that even, said others.  They talked to each other a bit about the burglaries and surmised it was someone right here on the block.  Someone who was around during the day, who could see the comings and goings and get in at opportune but unexpected moments when they knew no one would be around.  It must have been someone new to the block; why else would there be a rash all of a sudden?  I’m not sure my writing skills are good enough to convey to you how relieved I was to hear that everyone (white, black, gay, straight) suspected the passel of young, gay, white men who lived diagonally across the way.  Apparently unemployed, they spent a lot of the day on the second floor porch, smoking and laughing.  I hoped and hoped and hoped that the suspicions were right.  Never in my life have I wished so ill of my gay brethren.  But I really wanted this one to go down the way my brain needed it to.
          And, thank God, a few weeks after the patrol cars started circling, the gay boys got the jitters and were never seen again.  That was the last of the break-ins.  Eight months later, I’m proud to say that I’m just as dumb as I used to be: leaving the car doors open, the bikes strewn about, downstairs windows carelessly taking in the Ohio breeze.  And on Halloween when we went trick or treating down Franklin Park South, well, I’ll just let you guess who answered the doors.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

It doesn't get old

          So, as the heading of my blog indicates, there was a reason we up and moved from Portland, Maine (one of the most beautiful places on the planet) to Columbus, Ohio (where everyone asks me: why did you move here?).  And, as indicated above, it’s a long story that could be a short story, but in any case: it’s a story.  And oddly, it’s a story I haven’t been all that forthright about on these pages.  Partly because I know some of my readers are folks back in Portland: people I care about, people who are parenting across race like we are, people who share my values, people who have made a different decision.  And the one thing I know about parenting alongside people who share your values is this: it feels reeeeeeally good when you make similar decisions; and reeeeeeally bad when you don’t.  That’s when it starts to feel a little less like camaraderie and a little more like the j-word.  Judgment.
          And I don’t want to be that person.  I don’t want to be the person who makes a major parenting decision that’s maybe bigger, and maybe more dramatic, and maybe more splashy than all those good folks I care about, who are intentional, kind, loving parents in their own right and who don’t need to hear me going on and on about our move and how glad I am that we did it.  So I’ve shied away from this part of the story, told it in little bits here and there, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes by making hyperbolic remarks about Portland in ways that, I am gently told, hurt those back home.
          So instead of being shy (because let’s face it, there’s no room for shy in the blogosphere), and instead of making little comments like: there are more African Americans working at the DMV than there are living in all of Portland, Maine … Instead of all that, maybe I’ll try to tell a medium-sized version of the story.
          Here goes.
          I guess the story starts when we checked the box next to African American on our adoption application, because that’s when I knew we would someday leave Portland, Maine.  I knew this even though my desk at Learning Works looked out onto an elementary school playground where more than half the students climbing up the ladder to the slide were children of color.  Collectively those students spoke more than forty languages.  They were from Somalia, and Sudan, and the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam, and Cambodia.  And a few of them were African American.  But not many.
          And I knew it again when the kids came over to Learning Works after school, and the visiting artist went around the room and asked each kid to name their culture or ethnicity, and they, each in turn, said, “Somali,” or “Congolese,” or “Croatian,” except when we got to the biracial girl, a fifth grader raised by her white father, who paused in confusion before answering: “English, I guess.”  It was clear to me that in a school where most of the children of color spent their time in ESL classes, culture, ethnicity, and race were defined by language.  So who are you if you have brown skin and were raised to speak English?
          But we weren’t ready yet.  Even once baby Hot Shot arrived and we became adoring first time parents flashing her picture eight times each minute, we weren’t quite ready to move.  We imagined Boston would be our destination and we knew it would take a different kind of lifestyle to afford it.  Long hours.  Maybe lengthy commutes.  How could we?  We wanted to spend our days gazing into that little girl’s eyes.  Steadying her when she faltered.  Stimulating her with contrasting colors, and Sweet Honey In The Rock, and good old fashioned love.  So we decided to wait.  Until Darling Virgo finished her nursing degree, maybe.  Until Hot Shot was ready to start public school, maybe.  Until we were ready.
          But I thought about it all the time.  I thought about it when I scanned the checkout lines at the grocery store, looking to see if there were any brown-skinned cashiers or baggers.  I thought about it when I picked those lines, even when they were the longest, even though I had a disgruntled toddler in tow, because I wanted my kid to see a couple of brown faces this week.  I thought about it when I wheeled the grocery cart out to the car and kicked myself for not getting the phone number of that friendly Congolese bagger who might have made a good babysitter.
          And I thought about it again when I listened to the stories of the people around me who were parenting a generation ahead.  People who had raised their brown skinned children in Maine.  People whose kids were (can I say this?) messed up: drug addicted, mentally unstable, unable to parent children they’d given birth to, dead.  Dead!  People whose children had attempted to take their own lives and, in some cases, had.  Say what you will about the stakes as I felt them.  Call them dramatic, call them exaggerated, call them weighted by fear, but don’t say they don’t get your attention.  Don’t say they don’t make you think maybe you might want to move someplace where your kids would fit in a little bit more.  Like when you weigh the options you don’t wonder if uprooting--moving, leaving behind your family and your community, and the people who know you and forgive you and want the best for you--if all that might not be so much of a sacrifice.  Not when you compare it to the alternatives.  
          And I knew Portland was changing.  That it was browner than it had been twenty years ago.  But I knew that all the searching and all the counting and all the stalking and all the desperate attempts at friendship would never add up to what I wanted for my family.  I wanted us to have black neighbors without having to strategize about which block on which street we had to move to in order to achieve it.  I wanted my kids to have African American playmates, African American teachers, African American doctors, African American firefighters, African American mail carriers, even African American bureaucrats at the DMV.  And I looked out the window at that playground and I thought, really?  Am I really saying to my Somali neighbors, “you are not black enough for my black daughter.”  Because of course I wanted my kid to go to that elementary school and grow up among the cultures of the world.  Knowing the smell of Somali cooking, recognizing the intricate braids in the Sudanese girls’ hair.  Of course.  But the one thing I had in common with those kids’ parents was that neither of us could be African American for Hot Shot.  Though we each knew our own oppression, none of us knew what it was to be descended from the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
          So, we talked about moving for years.  Boston had felt expensive as it was and then suddenly we had two more babies (that’s another long story) in addition to our school girl.  We started looking elsewhere.  Searched for gay-friendly cities and black-friendly cities and Jew-friendly cities.  We took Google Earth walks down virtual streets in Philly and Baltimore, Atlanta and Charlotte.  We courted Durham, North Carolina for while.  But jobs were as hard to find there as anywhere.  Even for a new nurse.  There’s a recession on, you know?  Hospitals were feeling it as much as anyone and had stopped hiring people who needed training.  And then Darling Virgo got an offer in Portland.  And it felt good to have some resolution.  It felt good that we didn’t have to leave our families and friends, people we had worked so hard to collect.
          But my biggest fear was that even though I wanted more than anything to leave, we never would.  There would always be something.  A job.  A new black friend.  A playground with a view of the ocean.  Always something that would seem too ideal, too hopeful, too irreplaceable to let go of.  And so we would never do it.  Year after year after year would go by and we would still be there.
          But we aren’t.  Something happened.  One June we decided not to up and move to Durham, and the next June we paid a security deposit on an apartment in Columbus.  It was resolve I guess.  And a realization that it was never, never, never going to feel easy.  And there were always, always, always going to be reasons to stay.  So we just needed to do it.  And Columbus?  Why not?  It showed up on all the right lists and we hadn’t researched it enough to know what we didn’t like about it.  And it was cheap.
          So, no job, three kids, and my dad in the hospital after heart surgery.  We said teary goodbyes to everyone we knew, and drove off in a truck bigger than any self-respecting minimalist would have looked twice at.
          And it’s been hard.  Some days really hard.  I’ve moved to new cities before.  But I was working and didn’t have children to take care of.  So meeting people was easy, and I didn’t need them as much as I do now.  I stare at my kids' emergency forms and wonder who I can possibly write in as a contact.  When I see an incoming call with the Columbus area code I rush to accept it thinking maybe it’s someone who wants to get to know me.  And a couple of times in ten months it has been.  But not usually.  Usually it’s the school nurse, (who, by the way, I like a lot and would happily befriend in a second).
          But you know what?  So what if it’s hard on me?  I’m the one who checked the damn box next to African American.  The burden of our mismatched skin should be on my back.  Not theirs.  In Portland it was them who got the attention.  Who felt people staring at them.  Who listened as passers by ogled at their hair or asked me where they came from and if they could speak English.  And here?  Here it is me they look at.  In the grocery store, on the sidewalk, waiting for the bus.  Friendly, more often than not, sometimes folks even thank and hug me, which I don’t really deserve or need, though I’ll take.  But when I tell the boys to stop and they keep running?  They aren’t the ones who get the looks, it’s the white lady who’s raising them.  And that’s how it should be.
          So even though the move’s been maybe harder than anything I’ve ever done, I cannot overstate how glad I am we did it.
          Because all the things that used to be hard, are now easy.  Because when neighbors come over to play, there’s no question but that they will be African American.  And when we carpool to Hot Shot’s school?  And when Moon Boy had to go to the hospital?  And when Ankle Biter needs to get out and run around?  That’s right.  I don’t have to call ahead and ask if there are any black nurses, or spend a lot of time figuring out which playground to walk to.
          And there are so many things I didn’t know.  Like marching bands.  My kids love marching bands.  Few days go by without a marching band drumming it’s way proudly through my kitchen.  They love bands because their god-like teenage cousins are in the marching band back in Massachusetts at my old high school.  But here in Columbus where the high school across the street from our apartment has a 97 percent black student population?  Marching band means something completely different than the one back home.  And I had no idea.  Because--shame on me--I’d never seen the movie Drumline.  Or watched Jackson State.  Or Howard University.  But the beauty of it is, I didn’t need to see Drumline.  I didn’t need to be the one who knew about black marching bands.  All I needed to do was move 700 miles from everything familiar, and suddenly I’m off the hook.  Suddenly, when my kids play marching band, they play black marching band.  Because they know what it is and they love it.
          And there is no feeling I like more than dropping off Hot Shot at double dutch practice or art camp--giving her a hug, turning around, and closing the door behind me--knowing that once I’m gone everyone in the room will be black.  It scares me a little that she was seven before she had this experience.  But I breathe deep and low when I think to myself, she will never have to do it for the first time again.  From here, it will only get more and more familiar.
          So I walk into the DMV and I think, “it doesn’t get old.”  And I walk into the grocery store, and I think, “nope, it doesn’t get old.”  And I watch my boys run next door to pester Mr. Chat, and he says, “come over here and play with my tools; if you play with tools you won’t have to play with guns,” and I think, “sure enough, it doesn’t get old.”  Because it doesn’t and it doesn’t and it doesn’t.
          I don’t believe there is just one way to be African American.  I don’t believe there are just ten ways to be African American.  But I do believe it’s my job to let my kids learn as many ways as they can, so that someday, when he is 5,  or she is 12, or he is 17, or she is 23, they will not find themselves in some situation where they feel completely out of place.  Maybe a little out of place.  Maybe a lot out of place.  But not completely.  And my job just got a whole lot easier.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Color Commentary

          Good news from Columbus: festival season is here and thus far we’ve not been disappointed.  A few weekends ago we attended the Dragon Boat races downtown on the Scioto River.  They served as the kick-off to a week of Asian Festival events culminating in the actual Asian Festival weekend at none other than good old Franklin Park (site of the suspiciously-abandoned-stroller-by-the-duck-pond incident).  When I drove the boys by the park on the way to preschool that Friday morning we were excited to see all the tents up, getting ready for the festival.  I mean we were really excited.  Like the kind of excited you get when they set up the tent for your graduation or your wedding, which is to say: we felt they were setting up the festival tents expressly for us. 
          Because we love festivals.  By the end of the last summer every time we left the house Moon Boy asked,  “are we going to a festival?”  And usually the answer was “yes.”
          So the Asian Festival was fantastic.  For many reasons.  First: it was big.  Three stages, with acts every half hour, all day for two days.  Tons of great smelling food.  (I’m guessing it was great tasting food too, but I didn’t get to taste most of it, so I can only vouch for the smell.)  Rows and rows of vendors and demonstrations.  Second: it was just plain fun.  My favorite act was the Punjabi dancers, dressed in traditional garb, dancing to modern techno music, getting the crowd to gather in front of the stage and learn their steps which were not very difficult but a ton of fun and a great aerobic workout, especially with a thirty pound kid on your hip.
          Third: because of who was there. 
          I don’t know if  I’ve revealed as much on these pages, but for me, race is everything.  I’m always thinking about race.  In fact, everything I write could have a whole other storyline of “color commentary” running constantly through my brain.  But there’s so much to say that sometimes I have to leave all that out.   Like for example, in Birth Gender and the DMV, I didn’t say my first thought upon entering the DMV was about race.  See, there was a bank of about twenty registry workers, taking people out of the queue, doing all the things registry workers do, and more than half of them were African American.  And I was thinking how this is why we moved here, how there aren’t even this many African Americans in all of Portland, Maine, and how these are decent, if boring, jobs and that hopefully they will be able to keep their health insurance after Senate Bill Five passes.  And then I was thinking about my white privilege and their presumed straight privilege as they were conferring about my birth gender.  And then I was thinking despite tons of evidence to the contrary I have totally bought into the myth that black people don’t like gay people.  And then as I sighed and quietly played up my annoyance, I saw how I was leaning back on my whiteness.  How I was saying, sorry about that gender confusion and all but don’t forget: I’m white.  And then they gave me my license.
         Anyway, that’s me.  I’m always thinking about race.  So my favorite thing about the Asian festival was that there was no “normal” in the crowd.  I mean, if I were to tell you I met a new friend at the Asian festival you could make absolutely no assumptions about the race of my new friend based on probability and statistics.  I would say those in attendance were something close to equal parts Asian, black, and white, with a smaller set of Latinos.  And those performing were mostly Asian, of course, but not exclusively.  That was the brilliant thing.  This was a huge festival drawing acts from around the country and the world.  There was no onus on local Asian Americans to be the culture bearers, to be the experts in the various and broad aspects of Asian art and culture.  It was not their role to educate the rest of us about their lives.  That job was reserved for professional performers: people who devote themselves to the study of a particular kind of drumming or dance or instrument, who traveled from New York, London, Toronto, and Pittsburg to entertain and teach us. 
          One of my favorite moments of the Asian festival was when were walking back from the playground, through the artisan booths to the main stage, and we passed a table where two people were playing that ancient Asian game--you may have heard of it--it’s called “chess.”  One of players was a twenty-ish white man.  The other was a young black girl, maybe twelve years old.  They both looked possessed.  What am I saying, they both were possessed.  They were completely entranced, completely focused on the board, clearly thinking two, three, ten, fifteen moves ahead.  When we got to the table where they were playing, they were maybe a third of the way into the game with about ten people stopped to watch.  By the end of the game there were at least fifty of us circled around them: entranced by their entrancement.  And we were all people.  We were children, and parents, and teens, and elders, and young twenty somethings whom I resent for their carefree childless lifestyle.  We were white, and black, and Asian, and Latino.  Some of us knew something about chess, some of us couldn’t tell who won in the end.  Because there was no final buzzer.  No score board.  No king getting dramatically swept off the board.  Because the players didn’t need that.  They knew who had won, long before it happened.  And they were both so good-natured about it, so appreciative of the other’s prowess, that there was no emotional read on the outcome.  No way to tell the winner by his elation, or her disappointment.  We all stuck around there for a while after the game had ended, wanting more.  Wanting it to keep going.  So we could see the great magnitude of human potential as manifested in these two people’s highly functioning brains.
          But the most breathtaking moment for me came on the second day of the festival.  We returned Sunday afternoon.  The crowds were smaller and more intimate.  We went inside the Adventure Center (a field house of sorts) which was blissfully air-conditioned and were watching some kind of drumming demonstration when I saw, in the audience, a little Nepali boy who was the image of a child we know back in Portland.  The boy in the crowd was younger, less than two, probably about the age our friend was when we first met him.  Back when his parents adopted him, when he hadn’t learned to walk, or understand English, or trust that these people who were showering him with all this love would be the ones he could count on forever. 
          I watched the little boy for a while, more taken with him than the performance, remembering when he and Hot Shot were little toddlers together.  How little and cute they had been.  It was like having a visit with our old friend, watching this stranger across the crowd.  And then I thought to look around and identify his parents.  It was not hard.  He was sitting on his mother’s lap of course. I had just been so consumed with him that I hadn’t noticed her.  But there she was.  And beside her, his father.  And they took my breath away, those two people.  Here was this little child, such a striking resemblance to our little friend.  And here were his parents.  His birth parents.  This is what they looked like.  I tell you, it took my breath. 
          The truth is, there was a part of me that was shocked his parents were not white.  Weird, I know, because I’m not surprised when I meet black kids with black parents, even though my kids are black and I’m white.  I live in a neighborhood full of black kids with black parents.  I understand this to be the norm.  As are Nepali kids with Nepali parents.  But there was something about the likeness of this stranger to our little friend.  It was so striking.  Striking in a way we are used to ignoring in adoptive families.  Because there is no expectation that anyone will look like anyone else.  No time spent ogling over who has whose nose, or dimple, or overbite.  We exist together as a family without all that to define us.  But here was this kid looking so much like our little friend.  So many distinct aspects of his face rang so true.  And our little friend will never know his birth parents.  There is almost no chance he will ever so much as see a picture of them, and so these two people, birth parents of our little friend’s identical twin, they took my breath because they were, to me, like ghosts.  They were something I’m not supposed to see.  Something none of us ever expected to see.  But there they were.
          And immediately I was grieving.  Grieving for our friend and the life he doesn’t have.  Grieving for my own children and the life they will never have.  And I am not romanticizing that life.  There are reasons why people choose adoption.  I know that.  Often those reasons are complicated and include, at their root, things like systematic oppression (racism, classism, colonialism, sexism) but still, they are reasons.  Real live reasons that would have made for challenging lives at best.  So it’s not that I think our kids would have been, necessarily, better off with their birth parents.  Nothing so complex could ever be boiled down to an equation this simple.  But what I do know is, for better or for worse, it will never be theirs.  They will never get told a thousand times how much they look like their mother.  How they have her smile, or his cheekbones, or her hips, or his walk. And this?  This is just the tiniest part of the life that will never be theirs.  The life where they never have to wonder why? and what if? and do they love me?
          I looked at that family across the crowd, and I thought, this kid has something my kids will never have.  And he has no idea.
          And then, in a matter of seconds, it was over.  I was chasing Ankle Biter though a maze of tables, and helping Moon Boy keep himself from his intense urge to touch this ancient lute sort of thing.  And we were back to living.  Which is what you do, right?  You have a tense go ‘round about your birth gender and then you sit in front of a monitor and take your driver’s license test.  You look up at the annoyed white woman sighing all over your counter, you check her documents, you say, “fine, go ahead,” and then you help the next person in line.  You tell your friends that, yes that is your mom and yes she does have white skin because she is your adoptive mom (obviously!) and then you get back to your subtraction worksheet.
          The commentary keeps going.  And so do you.