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.


  1. Oh Hot Shot--Game On (love the name!) and I are so honored to be learning and taking on the world with you, near you,far from you, and always knowing how connected we all are. Great post Mama, as always. I'll never see seaweed the same way again!

  2. Now Hot Shot sounds like she has a really strong sense of self! Did she have any experiences like this when Portland was your home? Since moving to a less white area, do you think that Hot Shot feels like she has to be more on alert in all white areas? Like, what do you think her reaction would have been if those girls treated her the same way, but were kids of color?

  3. Barbara, thanks for your questions. I love thinking about them. Here's what I'll say. When we lived in Portland there were often times when she felt "other." There were times when she was in a more racially diverse setting (like our last year there when she was in Kindergarten) but most of the time that wasn't the case and she grew tired of people asking about her hair, wanting to touch it, touching it without asking, looking at her during the Martin Luther King day activities. These were things she talked about and we talked about the why's and strategies for managing it when she was with us and when she was on her own. Not experiences of hatred, so much as experiences of unfamiliarity. Of being under the microscope. Which gets old. When we lived in Portland, she didn't know any other way of feeling, but still it didn't feel right. The adjustment to our new community has been bumpy. Plenty of things haven't come easy, but there has been an ease in letting go of that part of her former life: the part where she stands out and is watched and questioned. So my guess is, that day on the beach, she was jarred by that old feeling already, and so the girls' attack felt racially charged. And, my guess is that those girls are not Klan members. They were trying to make themselves feel better by picking on someone else. I don't think it's a surprise that they chose someone who looked different or stood out.

    What if it had been a black girl in her class? Well, she generally approaches that sort of thing from the perspective of "why?" Why would this girl be picking on me? What is it about me that she wants, or is jealous of, or doesn't like, or doesn't understand? This happened last Friday at school (she goes to a public year round school). I think it's the same sort of evaluation she went through on the beach, she just didn't have to look as far to find the characteristic that set her apart from the rest.

    Your thoughts?

  4. Wow. I wasn't there, so of course I don't know... but damn, it sounds like Hot Shot has some warped view of race relations and "white people vs black people." Were these *little kids* really being racist? Maybe they were just bossy little pains in the asses. I think that's more likely... not too many children these days are really, truly racist... Is she going to assume that everyone who talks down to her or is rude to her is doing it because she's *black*? Racism is where you see it- rise above people, rise above.

  5. @ Anon: I'm trying to think how best to respond to you because I can tell we have very different definitions of racism and understandings of its manifestations. So maybe the best thing to do is ask and listen, rather than respond. How do you define racism? Where do you come by the estimation that most children are not "really, truly racist." What does race look like in your community? How do you experience it? I'm curious.

    And, by way of explanation, my writing on this blog and elsewhere is really about me and my own musings, growth, observations, stumblings, etc. My intention is for my children to show up as characters when they help illustrate my own revelations or mistakes, but not as the subjects of the discussion. Your comment makes me realize I strayed from that purpose in answering Barbara's question above. I'm thankful for that reminder.