Smack In The Middle:
What I Will Tell My Children About Race
September 15 marks the 51st anniversary of the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four girls were killed. This act of terrorism marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of those four girls, Denise McNair, was my cousin.
I never knew Denise because I was born more than a decade after her death. I think I would have loved her because by all accounts, she was a vivacious 11-year-old who carried a bright light wherever she went.
Earlier this year, I was going to watch the beautifully done Spike Lee documentary 4 Little Girls, which chronicles the lives and deaths of Denise and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson. Before I started the DVD, my 7-year-old daughter, Sophia, asked questions about what I was going to watch. When I pointed out her cousin and said in simple terms what happened, Sophia became fascinated with the story and asked even more pointed and astute questions. One question that she asked several times hit me in my core. She said, “But why was she killed? What did she do?”
Of course, there is no good answer to that question for a 7-year-old—or a 70-year-old for that matter. As an adult I know about the 250 years of slavery, the 90 years of Jim Crow, and the 60 years of separate but equal that directly and indirectly led to the Ku Klux Klan planting that incendiary device. There is no adequate way to help a 7-year-old black child to understand that just existing while black is sometimes all that’s needed to justify your death.
It dawned on me for the first time what a mighty responsibility my husband and I have to explain historical and current race relations in America. The weight of it all depressed me.
All parents worry about their children and have to teach them how to get along in this world. It’s negligent at best and abusive at worst to do otherwise. And yet black parents have another layer of lessons regarding race to teach their children. (I should note that going forward, I will speak of race in terms of black and white. Yes, I am aware that there are other minorities besides black people in America. Yes, I know that other races and ethnic groups have experienced atrocities in this country. But, I have been and will always be black, so that’s the only experience I can speak on with a modicum of authority.)
Most black parents will at some point talk to our children about racial insults, things like being followed in a store or being passed over for a promotion that goes to a less-qualified white person. Racial insults are pernicious, but subtle. Sometimes you’re not even sure that race is a factor. The sales clerk may not be following you. She really could be restocking the floor. Still, when one is insulted in such a way many times over the course of months or years or even a lifetime, it is damaging to the soul.
More devastating, though, is black parents’ understanding that we have to talk to our daughters and sons about racial harassment and violence. We have to discuss the fact that there will always be some white people who will hate them because they are black. They don’t know you and don’t want to know you because, in their minds, they see “other” and that’s all they need to know. We have to prepare our children to engage with white police officers who will not give them the benefit of the doubt and who will assume that our children are trying to kill them.
We have to talk about the fact that some white people will only see the color of their skin and not the content of their character. That some white people will see one black person doing something stupid and will paint all black people with the same brush of ignorance because they don’t have examples in their lives to counter their perceptions. That even if they’re in the right place at the right time minding their own business, their very presence could still be perceived as a threat to a white person’s sensibility and safety.
This makes me think about my grandmother who raised 12 children—nine of them boys—in Arkansas in the early and middle part of the last century. She must have had even harder conversations with her children. Surely, she must have constantly worried that her husband or one of her sons would be found swinging from a tree for the tiniest infraction. It grieves me to tears that though I don’t have the exact concerns that my grandmother did 80 years ago, we have the same worries about our children being the victims of racial harassment or violence.
I am an optimist at heart, so these painful conversations with my children will be tempered with productive discussions that will hopefully empower them. I will encourage my children to love passionately and fiercely. To have a boundless love for people that informs everything they do and all their interactions. To love in a way that brings forth their compassion and kindness and brings it out in others. To love in a way that impacts lives and changes hearts. To love others just as much as they love themselves. Love for people, I believe, is a huge step toward creating a better world for all. Love will dominate in my house.
Finally, I will teach my children that no matter what happens in the world, no matter what others think about them, they are valuable and worthy. The words of the great Toni Morrison come to mind: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
My children are enough—just as they are. No explanations necessary. They have good work to do and I’m determined that they be aware of but not distracted by racism. So, when Sophia and I have a complex conversation about Denise, I want her to understand that she comes from a long line of survivors and revolutionaries who loved, even when all was not right with the world.