An African-American Mom’s Lament
October 2, 2009
I know their day is coming. It is as certain as wet rain, as sure as the yellow in the sun.
They are, after all, African American girls in America. Home of the free. Land of the brave. Where a black man is the president, but Confederate flags still snap in the Fall winds. It’s only a matter of time. Surely, someone will curl that ugly, searing, poisonous word around the tongue and launch it in my babies’ direction.
I wonder under what circumstance they’ll hear it -- if it’ll be on the school bus or at the playground. Maybe it’ll be a grown-up, too ugly and nasty and cruel to care about how the word will forever sear my children.
I go over and over again in my mind how I’ll explain the vitriol -- the contempt -- that’ll surely be heaped on them by some stranger too ignorant/angry/pathetic to see through blinding stereotypes. I see such innocence in my girls’ faces; at ages seven and 10, they don’t know much about the harsh lessons black children faced over the years right here in our country. Selma. Four Little Girls. Ruby Bridges. Back of the bus. Separate and unequal. Those babies? They wore the armor, see.
But not my babies. This much, to them, is true: The most powerful leader on the planet is a black man with two daughters who look just like them. And in their little worlds, it’s not a thing for little black girls to have white friends and Asian friends and Muslim friends, because what really matters is not so much the color of one’s skin but the content of their character, the kind of person you are. Their expectations of others are pure.
They can just…be.
Even here in Georgia, in the seat of the confederacy, where just a generation ago, children who looked like them witnessed unspeakable atrocity.
Still, it’s hard for me to claim racial progress with a whole heart. My memories won’t allow it. See, I’ve had that word lobbed in my direction way too many times to forget. The first time, I was 11 years old and brand new -- the child of southerners who, in integrating a virtually all-white, working-class Long Island neighborhood, thought it more prudent to embrace racial progress than harp on painful pasts. No one had told me that the word was supposed to hurt, and so I didn’t sweat it when our neighbor, with whom I enjoyed playing, said it as simple as “pass the salt” or “may I have another slice of apple pie” -- “My mom said we can’t play with niggers, so…” he mumbled. I was more sad about the 8-ft fence my neighbor’s mother had built around their house and her orders to her children to stay away from me and my brother than some word whose meaning was still tenuous and blurry to kids like us.
The meaning and the sentiment behind it was crystal clear, though, the next time I heard it. I was riding my bike one block over from my parents’ house when the daughter of my Girl Scout troop leader shouted out from her front lawn full of friends, “Nigger want a watermelon?” I was 12. I never went back on that block or to another Girl Scouts meeting -- not ever. That’s how I dealt with that. And years later, when a fellow student barged into my dorm room, shouting about how “the nigger down at the front desk” wouldn’t let her in without showing I.D., I was too scared to do anything other than accept her apology. I’d only been on that college campus for about 30 minutes, and the word “nigger” was already ringing in my ears.
I had a few choice words and a couple middle fingers for the people who called me the “N” word once I grew up and got some mettle -- for the guy at the CVS who thought he should get to skip the line where I was waiting to buy Pampers for my baby; for the guy in the parking lot of the Best Buy, who thought I should pull out into oncoming traffic because he was in a rush; for the angry Puerto Rican who cursed me in Spanish but knew enough English to call me “nigger” after I almost accidentally rear-ended his car trying to avoid hitting a stalled one in my lane.
I remember every…last…time.
And each incident still makes my blood boil.
Still, as a mother, I’m desperate to let my black butterflies enjoy the innocence -- to avoid having to put on the armor just a little while longer. They deserve, at least, that peace.
For now, my beautiful chocolate butterflies deserve to just…be.