Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Color of Rose

Complexion is fascinating.

I’m about as dark as Michelle Obama. My husband, who is Irish- and German-American, tans well in the summer, but basically has the complexion of a movie extra from The Town. (Don’t ask me to produce  his long-form birth certificate unless you want to see me get pissed.)

Our two boys are moods of mocha; look at them side by side and you can almost see their parents’ gene pools swirling. Then, there’s Rose. I used to wonder what happened to the coffee in her cream, but then I realized: She loves bacon, sardines, guacamole and the crispy skin on baked buttermilk chicken.

In short, she is my daughter.


Black Kanga

People sometimes ask us if we live on a farm. We don’t, but we do have some of the things people on farms have. For example, we have chickens and guinea hens and a shed where the chickens and guinea hens live. We almost always have fresh eggs, whose yolks aren’t so much yellow as they are blood orange, and they’re spectacular. The chickens were my husband’s idea. He brought them home one night in the dead of winter, crowded in a shoebox as little chicks. I was deeply skeptical about this back-to-the-land plan; in Haiti, where my family is from, animals are often associated with disease, and as soon as Brian mentioned chickens, the first thought that popped into my head was chicken shit. But he was right: On a regular basis, I get to watch three exuberant little bodies hunting around for eggs in our backyard, and now I associate that blood-orange color with pure joy.

For a while we had a rooster, a birthday present from a close friend to Sky on his 5th birthday. (If you care about sleeping past 4:45 a.m. on a regular basis, roosters aren’t for you). After some thought, Sky named the rooster Bing Bing Silly. We’re not sure what happened to him, but we suspect he got taken out by a coyote. In order to avoid any more talk about death (see blog post below), we tell Sky that Bing Bing Silly went exploring and will be back someday.

And then, there are the goats. We have two of them, which my husband inherited from an uncle in the next town over after he passed away. Incredibly, and somewhat appropriately for us here on Maple Street, one goat is jet black and the other is snowy white. Kanga and Charlotte.

We learned a few things about these goats soon after they arrived. Charlotte is the friendly goat that kids who come over are encouraged to pet and play with. Kanga, as it turns out, is the mean goat that children and adults get warned not to get too close to. Sky pretty much knows that the way to deal with Kanga is with a loud voice and a large stick, letting him know at all times who is boss. Ever since Kanga up and tried to escape through the back field a couple years ago, Sky has exercised that show of force with even more gusto.

Well. Can anybody see where I’m going with this? I realize it’s 2011. I realize that we have a black president (and in Massachusetts, a black governor). But there’s something weird about telling people who come over for the first time to stay away from the black goat because he’s dangerous. And there’s something even weirder about watching your biracial son treat a white goat like a fluffy storybook farm animal, and then turn into a pint-sized plantation overseer with the tragic black Kanga. Maybe it has something to do with living in a town where farm animals far outnumber people of color. It’s a daily, lived experience of color consciousness almost nobody coming and going around me has ever felt or tried to imagine — although you can get some idea of what it might entail when you think about an ordinarily sensible, well-adjusted woman starting to identify with a goat trying to scale the fences.

Sometimes I watch Kanga and Charlotte go about their business — eating grass, locking horns, crossing the stream that runs through the back field — and I feel a deep sense of envy. If people were goats, we would know what it felt like to be black and aggressive, or white and nonthreatening, and have it be completely empty of meaning. Unfortunately, people are a lot weirder than goats. At a family gathering a number of years ago, I watched my father-in-law twist himself into a pretzel to avoid referring to a coffee mug he wanted brought over to him by its most obvious feature: its black color. He avoided calling it black because I was standing there.

For years after that, I mocked him behind his back. But then I started having children, and developed an eerily similar tendency. Sure, I can point to a black mug and call it black. But my husband and I rarely ever use the words ‘black’ or ‘white’ to refer to people in front of our children. In our house, those words get spelled out, a lot. It’s a trick we won’t be able to get away with for much longer, now that Sky is starting to spell and read. But I find myself clinging to it almost desperately. I want to keep them in a world where skin color is as straightforward and unburdened as goat hair. I want to keep them there for as long as possible, and at the same time, I want to be the one to walk them out of that world and into reality. I want to be there holding their hand when they become aware for the first time that their skin color has meaning, and a deeply painful history, so that when they meet it in the outside world, they can stand their ground and not feel any need to run. 

Children Ask Why

Lately, my 3-year-old daughter has been asking the same question over and over. I thought I’d run clean out of answers when she was 2, and she would ask, “Mama, why?” Now, I’ve got real problems, because here’s what my little girl wants to know: “Mama, why did Martin Luther King die?”

What does a 3-year-old know about dying or a man named King? Absolutely nothing. But she knows a lot about mimicking her older brother. And ever since January, when my 6-year-old son celebrated his first real Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday at his elementary school, that question has been at the forefront of his kindergarten mind.

Sky, our first-born, can’t yet read a clock or a calendar. But he had figured out a few things about this particular birthday celebration. He knew that the man people called Doctor had dark skin like his mother. And he knew that King’s killer — “the guy with three names” — had light skin like his father, my husband Brian. But this wasn’t just a question of race. And it also wasn’t just about finding the right way to answer the question for a child of mixed race. This was about any number of bubbles parents build to shield their kids from reality, and realizing we had reached the point when we would have a hand in popping one of those bubbles open.

Up until recently, Brian and I had our son convinced that people die only after they get old and really, really sick. Seeing King’s face, hearing his electrified voice, Sky knew instantly that mommy and daddy had been playing tricks. People could die young. And they could die in other ways besides getting sick. They could die by meeting a bullet.

I have no idea how much of the rapid-fire interrogations going on in our house have to do with little minds trying to grasp death, or little minds trying to grasp that someone would have to die — whatever dying means — over skin color. One seems almost as incomprehensible as the other. But here on Maple Street, we always try to answer the question that is asked. And today (and yesterday, and very likely tomorrow), the question is not why do people die. The question is, why did he die?

Because some people don’t like change, we say.
Because some people are really mean.
Because some people’s brains are just messed up.
Because some people weren’t hugged enough by their parents.
Because back then, some people were afraid of people with dark skin going to the same school or sitting next to them at a lunch counter.

Which people were afraid?

People with light skin.

People like daddy?

Yes, buddy. People like daddy.


Because dark-skinned and light-skinned people couldn’t really know each other back then. And sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t know.
Does that make sense?

Yea. But why did Martin Luther King have to die?

After a while, my husband got worried about the message we were sending – not with any particular explanation, but with the constant effort to answer the question every single time it was asked. We may have been confusing Sky or we may have been clearing up confusion. But either way, we were making the focus of Martin Luther King’s life about his death. And we knew we didn’t want that.

Figuring out exactly what we do want to say, and how to say it, is another matter, one that will require ongoing reflection, action, and cutting ourselves some slack. Six-year-olds are pretty smart; with a 3-year-old, it’s a little easier. (It’s definitely the chicken way out, and usually involves a lollipop or going upstairs to try on a new fuscia tutu.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., died on April 4, 1968. Why did he die? For a lot of reasons, including this one: so my husband and I could meet, marry, and make babies who would make us think hard about the meaning of this question.
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