I am intrigued by things that are slightly or even absurdly out of place. A guy who rides my train wears old school, black, high-top Converse gym shoes with his tailored business suit. This makes me smile because depending on how you look at it, either his shoes or his suit is unexpected. My office used to be located near Oak Street in Chicago. Amidst the super wealthy shoppers there was a man who would dress up as Jesus and carry an enormous wooden cross up and down the street all day. Sometimes he came face to face with the roller-blader who had a pet boa constrictor wrapped around his neck. And if it were a really lucky day, these two would cross paths with the petite socialite carrying her tiny dog in her oversized purse. It felt like the beginning of a joke. I loved the juxtaposition of these wildly different people co-existing on the same street for a few moments of their lives. We don’t fit neatly together but we share space and I find these odd relationships intriguing.
Naively I look for this confluence of the dissimilar as a source of amusement. This summer I’ve had to confront a different sort of juxtaposition.
My kids are now physically able and mentally focused enough to join me on longer bike rides. When the weather isn’t too hot or too cold or too windy, we get on the bike trail in one suburb and ride seven miles to another suburb. We have lunch at the farmers’ market there and then bike back. Along the path is a well-shaded playground tucked into a fairly affluent neighborhood. Sometimes we stop there to give the kids a rest. That’s what I like to say anyway. In reality Peyton sets the sprint-like pace of the bike ride and this respite allows me to catch my breath.
As I was cheering on Bennett as he proved he could complete 10 chin-ups on the monkey bars at the playground, I looked over at the rock-climbing wall to my right. I gasped when I saw the graffiti. It was a gasp that came from all the air being sucked from my lungs. It felt like someone landed a full force kick square to my stomach.
In black permanent marker someone had drawn a tree, a noose, a Black person hanging and a White person laughing. The caption said “Die Nigger!” I don’t want to type that word. It is painful to see it on a page and know that it came from my keystrokes. But there is a different sort of impact in seeing it. It seems more correct to replace the middle of the word with a series of symbols. That somehow softens the blow. There is a foul tasting bile that spews from that word. I am not part of the group who thinks using the word allows someone to “own it” or lessen its sting. No matter how you try to defend or reframe, that word will always be the last sound someone heard before they were hanged. It will be the word that was used to push down, keep out and separate.
Peyton heard my gasp and thinking perhaps I’d discovered an interesting bug, she ran over to investigate. I covered the graffiti with my hands and instructed her and the rest of the family to get on their bikes immediately.
As I waited for everyone to strap on their helmets and retrieve their bikes, I stared at the image through my hands. To my children, my hands are what applies band-aids and sunscreen. And my hands became the crude cover to shield my children from what is absolutely horrific.
A long bike ride isn’t conducive to constant conversation. I can be with people but I can also retreat into my head. It is a blessing and curse. I had several miles left that day, plenty of time to relive the moment, to see the image again and again, to feel the air sucked from my lungs and to nurture my own hatred.
I started by hating the suburb where the playground is located. I hated the maker of permanent markers. I even toyed with hating God for demanding that I love a person who could do this.
Instead of seeing this as “a moment in time” interaction between wildly different people, I started to see an ugly world that produced the person who drew this image and the world no longer felt safe for my family.
As a parent I join in the chorus when we say that we feel our children’s pain. I am convinced that I feel their vaccinations and dentist appointments. I feel their disappointment. I feel their heartache. But I cannot feel their experience in this situation. I can feel angry. I can feel the shame of being part of a race that allowed slavery and fought against civil rights. But, I can never know what it feels like to have this sort of evil hurled at me simply because of the color of my skin. I am their mother in the deepest level of my being and yet, this is something I cannot experience with them.
Eventually, not quickly but eventually I began to see the graffitist as human. I wondered if they sensed the irony of using a child’s playground, a paragon of innocence, as a canvas for their repugnant ideas. I started to imagine that someone had once held their small hand. I wonder if it were that same person who taught them to hate what is different. Then I wondered who was continuing this idea that race-based violence is the logical conclusion to our differences. I wondered what would it take to make it stop? Even though we are wildly different there is something that intertwines us. I love my children too much to nurture hate in them.
At some point I will need to pull my hands away and allow my children to see this sort of ugliness. I guess, given my choice, I’d rather be there when my children see these images. And, they will see these images at some point. I want to be the one guiding them through the feelings that come with this. Really I want to be a coward and pretend that this sort of thing doesn’t exist. But it does and I need to be the one to help frame this experience. I need to allow them space to feel anger, to feel the bile of hate-filled words, to feel scared, to feel betrayed, to feel hatred. And, then I need to provide the space to allow healing because we don’t fit neatly together and yet we have to figure out how to share space.
Note: I took a picture of the graffiti. When we got home I emailed it to the park district and suggested that it be cleaned immediately. I received a note back thanking me for the information and letting me know that someone was in the process of removing it.
Andrea Denney is a middle-aged, mini-van driving, Sunday school teaching, softball-coaching mother of three (Peyton-9, Bennett-6 ½ and Emerson-3) who lives in the south suburbs of Chicago. When she isn’t extracting petrified chicken nuggets and fermented juice boxes from the back of her van, she is the Vice President of Operations and Finance for a qualitative market research company. In her spare time she is pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree from Chicago Theological Seminary and falls into bed each night hoping to muster just enough energy to recap the day with Beth, her partner of 23 years.