A Half Century of Being Black in America: A letter to my children

shutterstock_190290857My babies:

Today, I turn 50 years old. I have just come from turning off your lights, placing Doc McStuffins in the bed, and fretting over if this will be a ‘dry night’.

I can’t believe that I am writing this to you. Just three months ago, you weren’t in my life. You were a prayer, myth, and point of incompletion. Your absence somehow seemed to be an indictment of my ambition and drive toward excellence. My punishment for listening to the tapes of a world that despised my very existence and my seeking to drive them out with an obsession with achievement.

See, I was what was called an Affirmative Action Baby. Mine was the first generation of children to go to integrated schools from birth. Your grandparents, (who grew up thinking that their first name was Damn and their last name was Nigger) believed that for their daughters to survive, they would have to excel, and we could only do that if we learned the ‘game’ that white people played. And there it began, my complicated dance of being Black in America. It really wasn’t a dance as much as it was a painful pas de deux. A partnership in which one was never sure if your partner sought your success or utter destruction.

Your Daddy sometimes wonders why I am so protective about taking you to the church where we serve or into the world beyond our close friends. I know I seem over protective but I just want to avoid that painful day when you come home and ask me what a nigger is or I have to see the pain in your eyes when someone you thought was your friend will find it politically expedient to disinvite you to the birthday party because their other friends don’t like “those people”. See my babies, even though your father, grandparents, and entire paternal lineage is white, the world will only know you for your skin. I had hoped by now, that things would be better but indeed they are worse.

I wish I could just say like so many well-meaning white people, that it is just a bunch of ignorant hillbillies who are underexposed to ‘diversity.’ God, how I wish that were true. But it’s not. See the so-called hillbillies are just pawns in the same game. No babies, the game of destroying your esteem and future in America is not about ignorance as much as it is about an evil so entrenched, so systemic, it is an ideology that shapes every interaction you will have.

Son, you won’t know this for quite some time but the system said that you were developmentally challenged and labeled you autistic. Because you were in foster care and black, there was no way that you would ever fully thrive. Yes, they said that. You were consigned to special education classes, even in Pre-K. When you claimed that you were bored, they wrote that were disruptive and had ADHD. These were labels they intended to follow you forever, designed to shape your self-image and thus your future.

But I thank God for resources. The boy THEY labeled autistic, was really a genius who was bored. 124 IQ, reading on a 4th-grade level and math on a second grade level at 6 years old, we were able to change the narrative of your skin because we had money and access. But as happy as I am for you Le Petite Prince, I think about all of those countless black boys, bright, energetic, and labeled. Consigned to a hell on earth because it is easier to categorize them than it is to challenge them. Doomed to a bad life because the mere nature of their skin color makes them public enemy number 1. How many of these boys are in prison? How many of their mothers, doing what I do with a nanny and a maid, by themselves have held their son’s body knowing that if only she didn’t have get those hours at work to pay the rent she might have been able to be at home to make him do that homework?

While I laugh at how you freak out every time you see a policeman, I cry a little inside at the irony. Somehow you have figured out that these men and women who are supposed to protect you actually might be dangerous to your health. Son, that’s why you don’t own one shirt with hood on it. Girls, that’s why Mama demands obedience first and confrontation later. I am not trying to break your spirit, I am attempting to save your lives. I want you to defend your rights, I want you to speak your piece but I don’t want to bury you because you did so.

I am trying to figure out how to tell you that every white person is not like Daddy, or Grammy and Grampy or Brother Michael. That they will not embrace you and spoil you like Auntie Sandy or Uncle Bear, or pray for you as hard as Uncle Mitch and Aunt Wyndee. I want to wait but you all will be in Montessori next year and I have already seen how some of the parents look at you when you are playing with their children. I have watched them change their tune when they find out that I am a professor at SMU. It’s as if somehow the blackness of your skin is somewhat more tolerable because it is middle class.

I want to explain to you the terrible guilt you will feel every time you feel disconnected from other black people by your education, social class, or external circumstances. When you sit down at the table and they call you names like Oreo or wannabe I know how bad it will hurt because all you wanted was the safety of the familiar. But my lovely children, that’s the price we pay–hated in one world and despised in another. I want to help you negotiate that awful place of feeling like an outcast in two different worlds.

But babies in spite of all this you are blessed. Your Mom is one of the 5%. In the entirety of the United States, only 5% of African Americans have a Ph.D. Even less are tenured and published. In one sense it is not a big deal, heck it is my job but in another, it explains the reality that access and education remain unequal. But with all my education it hasn’t stopped me from being pulled over, followed in a store, accused of incompetence by an 18-year-old freshman who argues that my junior colleague is a ‘better’ professor, or paid less for doing as much or more. It hasn’t stopped the bank teller from refusing to DEPOSIT my brokerage check because she thought it was forged–but who can blame her? Because after all, as she pointed out, “it is highly unlikely that someone like me would have a check from the Royal Bank of Scotland.”

You will be disappointed by the silence of your friends on issues of justice. You will be angered by the slow and backward march of progress. You will be scared every time you hear a presidential candidate talk about rounding people up or making race a determinant of who is an enemy of the state. And you will be downright terrified that some of the people who swear they love you will not be able to see that supporting policies like those only undermines their claims of care for you.

But none of this will be an excuse for anything less than excellence. It will tick you off every time you hear me say, you must be twice as good to be thought of as equal but it is a reality that you will grasp. You will not be able to do, go, or say everything you want because your very presence is a threat to someone’s notion of America. But you will EXCEL. You will achieve. Our success as a people, as slow as it is, is that we have never given up in spite of odds that no Vegas bookie would take in a lifetime.

Yes, it will be challenging and depending who wins the election this year, it might get worse. But, you are loved. You are loved by an entire community. Don’t let the Orange man with the bad hair make you think that all white people are bad. They are not. Remember love is found in every race as is evil. But this is America and you will have to be on your toes every day not to lose your faith in God when the evil of racism comes to your door.

Yet, like my mother who has gone on to Glory, I send you out into this world each morning with a blessing for peace and protection. I believe that my kisses will protect you from cooties and from labels others will try to affix. I fight for other children knowing that if I fight for them, you will remember the charge you have to fight for them as well.

Your grandmother said this to me when I was about 8 years old and it has served me well the last 42 years of my life:

“There will be days that the circumstances will be unfair. You will be accused unjustly, you will be disinvited, disowned, and disavowed. They will call you names that are not on your birth certificate and the pain will threaten to drown you. But do not let them see you cry. Go to the bathroom and weep there like so many of us have had to do. Weep there, silently with hot tears running down your face. But then get your ass up, wash your face, and get back out there knowing that God loves you and so do I. Open that door and come out fighting.”

I love you, you little short people. Thanks for being my best birthday gift ever.

Mommy

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

 

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