It’s 11 years since I’ve written this note. And I daresay despite a global awakening to the Black plight and Black Lives Mattering, the state of race and hatred in America is at an all-time high. This is the world my babies will go out in as College students. I pray for their strength and protection:
Today is the day I tell my precious six-year-old grandchildren that they are Black. Martin Luther King Day discussions in their first-grade classes have made it imperative for me to yank them out of their innocence and let them know that nine times out of ten, they will be judged by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. I must let them know that a post-racial society is just rhetoric. Notwithstanding Obama’s presidency, colorblindness has not trickled down to the common people. I must let my grandson know that his rite of passage as a young black boy/man, living in an urban area, will be when he is stopped and frisked by a police officer, even though he is minding his business, and has not broken the law. I must tell him that for the rest of his life, he will be stopped and humiliated so many times by police officers, that it will affect how he maintains his life outside of the safe confines of his home. I must let my granddaughter know that her hair is good, not bad, and even though it will never be naturally “down” hair” that is fine because the hours spent sitting between her mother, father, and my legs, bonding with her girlfriends, combing her beautiful thick head of nappy (as in the curls are so tight they coil tightly to her head) hair will become fond memories which she can never replace.
Now don’t get me wrong, it is not as though I have not been preparing for this day all their young lives. I have, and their parents have. We have educated them about the grandeur of pre-colonial Africa. We have regaled them with the history of extraordinary and ordinary Black statesmen, actors, artists, musicians, and common sheroes and heroes. They know about such people as Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Ronald McNair, Bob Marley, and Michael Jackson. They “voted” for Obama in mock elections. They laugh at Langston Hughes’ stories of Semple. They love rhythm and blues and jazz. They’ve read “love the hair God gave you” books. I’ve told them personal stories of my own involvement in civil rights struggles to make King Day a holiday, to change the name of our housing projects from Stephen Foster(a slaveholder) to MLK Jr. Towers, to have “Afro-American” history taught in our high school classes, chanting, “Hey, hey kiss my ass, we want soul in our class.” I have even sat down with them and watched Scooby-Doo and told them that the show’s depiction of brown, black, and exotic people as villains is racist. My granddaughter quickly defended her favorite show by saying, “but sometimes the white people are bad too.”
But these are my precious babies, my grandchildren, far more precious than my daughter, and she was very precious! How do I, a protective doting grandmother, end their innocence without breaking their spirit, without causing them the pain that Margaret Walker described more than forty years ago in her poem, For My People, as “the despair when we found out we were black and poor and small and different and nobody cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood.”
At least then we had the hope of the civil rights movement that things would change. Forty years later, we have evidence that things have not changed: the prison industrial complex continues to grow unbridled with numbers of incarcerated Blacks and Latinos higher than the number of prisoners in any industrialized country in the world; the criminalization of everything, which impacts Blacks, Latinos, the poor and disadvantaged disproportionately; the commodification of poverty which allows 90% of the wealth in this country to be held by 3% of our citizens; the end of safety nets for the poor, those who need it most, brought about by Democratic presidency of Clinton under the guise of welfare reform; the villainization of the poor who receive government benefits, while there’s no mention of the billions of dollars of government handouts given to mega farmers and big businesses, which is welfare too.
No, it’s not like I haven’t tried. Last summer, after going to see the imposing sculptures of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas unveiled in Harlem in the last few years, I began to teach them about the underground railroad, skipping over what I perceived to be the more painful parts. But a strange thing happened. Every time I spoke of black people, my grandchildren believed them to be someone other than themselves. You see they believe themselves to be “brown.” Now, these are very intelligent children, with abilities of reason far beyond their numerical years. They both scored in the 99th percentile on the gifted and talented city-wide exam. (I don’t say this as a proponent of testing and weeding out 4-year-olds for giftedness, but only to illustrate my point that they reason well.) And yet, they vehemently protest their being black, having already gleaned from this universe that in the hierarchical tiers of race, it is better to be anything but black. So I brought James Brown to the rescue, “say it loud, hmmph, I am black and I am proud.” But in 2011 the words don’t have the promise they had in 1960. I patiently explained to my grandchildren that although our skin tones range from light bright to deep ebony brown, we are called Black people. “That doesn’t make sense” opined Chloe, “black is not brown!” “Look at my skin, I am not black.” she protested. I could not argue with that logic. Then she said, “well how come white people always get the better things.” Now, you have to know something about Chloe, she is very competitive and living with a twin brother, she will always position herself to her advantage to get the best or the first of everything. So Chloe is not going to automatically agree to place herself in a disadvantaged position. After asking why she thought white was better than black and receiving only a shrug, I then explained that we, Black people have been called by various names since we arrived on American shores. As I went through the litany of names, Chloe remarked on each: “colored” to which she said, “yes people used to put up signs saying no colored at water fountains”; Negro, to which Chloe asked “and what were white people called, and I replied, “Caucasian,” and again Chloe wailed, “not fair! why they always have the best? I was confused. Does Caucasian really sound better than Negro? So I substituted Caucasoid and Negroid, and she still wasn’t happy. Then, even I felt foolish as I said, “Afro-American,” and predictably, Chloe crossed her arms and said, “hmmph that’s a hairdo! Mama has an Afro. You think I’m gullible?” (Gullible is her favorite word presently as in grandma is gullible because she is easily tricked.) I could not support the foolishness of having been called a hairdo either and moved on to African American. Chloe quickly dissected that one and said, “does that mean we are African or are we American, and are white people called E-talian American?” (Italian was on her mind after she had just imitated Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech by saying I have a dream by enunciating each word, as I-a Have-a Dream-a, to which her brother suggested that he sounded Italian like Mario, as in Nintendo.) So I began to explain. African because we were stolen from Africa, enslaved, and brought to America as the property of others. Chloe was having none of this. She said, “why would anyone want to do that?” Wanting to be clear on what she was asking, because Chloe routinely takes things away from her brother that do not belong to her, I asked which part was she referring to. She answered, “why would other people want to steal people from their country?” I took a deep sigh and said for many reasons, but mostly for greed and free labor. Either that was too deep for Chloe or too painful or both, she stopped asking questions and went back to wolfing down her snack.
Now this conversation took place in the car and Chloe’s brother who was present the whole time had not really weighed in, other than to lament that Chloe’s imitation of King sounded Italian. This is pretty typical of the way he has approached racial issues. In nursery school, they were in a multi-ethnic school with all kinds of children learning to speak Spanish. For pre-school, they were in an environment with mostly black and Latino children. In kindergarten, Elijah was the only black boy in his class, and one of a handful in all of kindergarten. Along with kindergarten supplies, we thought we had armed him with a sense of himself as a black/brown boy so that he could withstand any cruel or insensitive attacks from others. Thankfully, If they came, he was oblivious to it and never complained about it. But the pain we found out came from within. Towards the end of the school year, Elijah confided to us that he had been “nervous” when he first went to that school because he thought people would laugh at him because he was brown. When we pressed him about why he felt that way, he could not exactly put it into words. His best friend for two years now has been Ezekiel, his clone. They are both nerdy, laugh a lot, have very evolved senses of humor, and get along quite well. Ezekiel has Asian parents from China. Elijah gets very upset if Ezekiel is referred to as anything but American. He once told us that someone called Ezekiel Chinese. We explained why, but Elijah was adamant that Ezekiel was not Chinese, that he is just a “regular boy like everyone else.” Elijah’s protestations about Ezekiel give us a glimpse as to how Elijah also wants to be identified-” just a regular boy like everyone else.”
Even Chloe with her assertive-which will do her well as an adult, but now is sometimes a bit much to bear-attitude has succumbed to culturalized notions of race and privilege. She came home from school one day to tell us that she was playing with a playmate at school and that she was the maid. Not one to believe that being a maid has less virtue or value than any other work, I was curious as to how this position came about, so I questioned her further. I found out that the playmate who suggested she be a maid was white and only Chloe and another Black kid in her class had the roles of the maid. &^%$@#! went the over-protective, over-reacting grandmother. I suggested to Chloe that she and the playmate take turns being maids so each of them could figure out how to be the best maid they could be. Too eagerly, I awaited Chloe’s report the next day. She said that the playmate “didn’t wanna be the maid” and, in fact, told her that if she did not bring her “a hundred bucks” to school tomorrow, she would not play with her anymore. Certainly a capitalist, definitely privileged, too young to be racist, this child was only acting out in pretend play, what our culture has taught her-maids are Black. This did not ease my mind. I was a Brownie as a kid and still live by the motto, “Be Prepared,” so I set out to arm Chloe with situational responses to such incidents, when I quickly realized that I could not possibly prepare her for every incident of race insensitivity that she will encounter as a Black child. So I gave up and told her some basic things about roles and race and privilege.
So, here goes, today is the day. I will sit down with my babies and tell them that they are Black. Brown complected, yes, but considered Black people or African American, if they like. Because they are at the age where bad words are attractive to them and they will laugh behind hands over mouths when a bad word is read or said, I will also explain the word nigger to them, that although its origins were hurtful and harmful it has been reclaimed by folks wishing to absolve it of its sting, but that it can still be derogatory if wielded with vitriol and hatred. I will dust off the underground railroad books and fill in the gaps about pre-colonized Africa. I will tell them of Amistad and Denmark Vesey and Toussant. I will tell them of common people who willingly took their lives rather than being enslaved in a foreign land. I will tell them about the Kandake Warrior Queens of Kush who kept the Romans away for their 400-year rule. I will tell them that we are not immigrants as the social studies teachers of my youth led us to believe, that we came here in chains, unwillingly, and although my great-great-grandfather was working on the railroad laying tracks when freedom came, freedom has not translated to equality. I will them what my mother told me, that I had to work harder and be smarter just to keep up. I will tell them about the civil rights movement, about Addie Mae Collins and the other three girls who were killed when their church was bombed in Birmingham by hateful white men. I will tell them about Malcolm and Lady CJ Walker, I will tell them about Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa Movement. I will tell them that they are beautiful in every way and have a right to be all they can be, that they should never allow anyone’s opinion of them to define who they are or what they can accomplish. I will tell them that they are God’s children, as all children are. I will tell them that even though they will do their best to keep King’s hope and legacy alive that others will not, but that it is no reflection on them. I will tell them about the ugliness of racism, and how it feels to feel invisible at times. I will read them James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and McKay’s Manchild In the Promised Man. I will tell them about white privilege and how just by virtue of being born white, one carries a knapsack of unearned and unmerited advantages that are typically taken for granted.
I will tell them…Oh no, not again, I am getting that headache that I get when things become too painful to even think about. Okay, so maybe not today. At least, not everything. I’ll start slowly. But you, my dear friends, can help. When you see a Black boy or black girl think of them as juju’s babies. Think of them as the kids next door, or your very own grandchildren, and treat them accordingly. The most important lesson I learned in law school by getting to really know and bond with people of many different ethnicities is that we are truly all the same. We laugh, we cry, we care about our families and friends. If you pledge to do your part, if you would treat my babies and all like them, as you treat your own children and grandchildren, then I promise I will do my part. I will tell my babies that they are Black. Today!
Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 17, 2011