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. 

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