Monthly Archives: June 2011

Cleanliness Is Next to —————.

The summer after my junior year in college, I went to Paris to research what I thought was going to be my senior thesis topic: the art of the French Revolution. It was late June 1991, 20 years ago almost to the day. I had gotten caught up in the whole beheading thing, and in one painting in particular  — The Death of Marat. It memorializes the Jacobin hero Jean-Paul Marat, lying in a pool of his own blood following his murder in 1793. Marat had a skin condition that caused bouts of violent itching and required cold baths. He was taking a bath when his asssassin entered his room, pulled a knife and stabbed him clean through the heart.

I had my fellowship money, my department-approved proposal, my ridiculous Paris apartment that no 20-year-old should have. Then one day, while researching hygiene rituals from the period in a library, I stumbled onto something. It was another image of a figure bathing. At first, I didn’t know how to process what I was seeing; it didn’t look quite like anything I’d seen before. But after a couple more hours of digging, I called my adviser to tell him I wasn’t going to be writing about the French Revolution. Here was an ad for laundry bleach (one of hundreds I would later find) whose premise rested on the idea that it could tackle the most stubborn dirt imaginable: the skin of a black person.

What do ads for 19th-century detergent have to do with raising biracial kids in a small town in 2011? I’m not really sure, but I found myself pulling out my thesis two decades later, realizing how much this picture speaks to ideas about whiteness and blackness, especially in a child’s mind. Being dark(er) in a light world means getting the idea early on that your darkness is a ‘thing’ — not just that it’s less good, which our kids will inevitably be made to feel at some point, but that’s it’s some kind of layer, something that demands some kind of explanation. Something that, in this country and in this environment especially, people will react to continually, one way or another.

A few months ago, my oldest said to his dad, “Daddy, I wish I was white.” When Brian asked why, Sky’s answer was pretty straightforward: “Because everything would be easier.” Indeed. I remember feeling that way as a little girl myself. I remember thinking: What if, somehow, I could wash it off? Wouldn’t that make me just the luckiest dark girl in this white world?

Shake Rattle and Roll

The antidote to Maple Street can be summed up in one word: Brooklyn.

When I say antidote, I don’t mean that our life of bubbling brooks and shingled barns is somehow poisonous, of course.  But whether or not people who live here realize it, it is an extreme. Any place where llammas outnumber black people by at least two to one qualifies as an extreme environment. When the extremism of a town like ours starts to feel like the real world — and when day-trip adventures in a remarkably still-segregated Boston just aren’t cutting it — New York is medicine. It’s the remedy, the counteragent, the elixir. The fix.

This weekend, Sky and I got to call Brooklyn home. For his (long overdue) birthday present, we rented a place in Brooklyn Heights — a lovely apartment we hardly got to know because we used it purely to rest our heads, brush our teeth, and store our stuff while we hit four out of the five boroughs. I’d have to sit down and calculate this, but it’s very possible that we spent as much time on the subway as we did in our actual accommodations. Sky was in heaven: To a 6 year old, the F or the Q or the 4 or the 7 aren’t just ways to get to and from the Lego store, the Staten Island Ferry, the Teacup Ride at Coney Island, the 100-year-old great-grandmother at the end of the line in Flushing, Queens. They’re destinations all by themselves.

Things happen in New York that don’t happen anywhere else. For example, you catch an uptown train at Whitehall Street and four guys who sound like they could be an award-winning doo-wop quartet break out into a rendition of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” You go to Junior’s in Brooklyn on a Sunday morning, order a plate of silver dollars, look up and realize that Spike Lee and five of his closest friends are sitting three tables away from you.

Which is weird, because I was thinking about Spike Lee last week. Specifically, I was thinking about Señor Love Daddy, the local DJ from Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing. (If you’re reading this post and have never seen Do The Right Thing, you are uneducated about one of just five movies in the history of American film to be chosen for preservation at the Library of Congress in its first year of eligibility.) I was thinking about Love Daddy’s parting question, which is really more like a challenge: “Are we gonna live together? Together, are we gonna live?” Sunday night, as I pass the grazing deer on country roads that wind back home, I realize it’s a question that could just as easily be asked of a semi-rural New England town as it was of Lee’s fictitious Bed-Stuy, engulfed in flames on a hot summer night.

I’m Lighter than You

It’s summer time, which means the little caramels in my life are turning into the sticky, summer versions of themselves. It means day camp in the morning and the water hose snaking down the driveway and deep into the yard. It means chasing chickens half-naked (as opposed to chasing chickens in bubble jackets). And it means a melanin boost that can only be described as delicious, and that I find myself wishing they could keep all year long — not only because it looks great, but because life on Maple Street feels just a little sweeter, a little less complicated, when I look more like my kids’ mommy and less like their nanny.

 

 

 

 

Generations pass. My grandmother on my father’s side lived in Haiti, where my parents were born and raised. As kids, we would go there to visit relatives and when we did, my grandmother would urge me to stay out of the sun. She understood well the laws of our colorstruck world: lighter is better. White is better than black; and among blacks, light has always been better than dark. What my grandmother wanted was to make sure I didn’t get any darker than I already was. Every day, thousands of black girls are born to mothers and grandmothers who want the same thing — to be something other than what they are.

Despite everything we’ve done to shield our kids from this scarring logic, it is seeping through. In the car a few days ago, Rose decided to pick on Sky with these words: “I’m lighter than you!” Upon hearing that, I could barely maintain my lane.  And then before I could even react: “No you’re not! I’m medium and you’re medium! We’re both the same!” I wish I could say that I have no idea how a 3-year-old could absorb colorism at such a young age, but the truth is I have a very good idea: She lives in the world.

Amazingly, there is a documentary film coming that will address this very legacy head on. The film is called Dark Girls, and it is a labor of love brought to us by the black film director Bill Duke. If the trailer is any indication, it’s going to be a searing mix of cultural history and personal revelation, of families passing down untold pain and girls going to bed with eyes squeezed shut  — hoping, praying that they might be lighter when those eyes open.

The sun was spectacular today. Let summer begin.

 

 

The Way to Belonging

Lately, there have been two music tracks in heavy rotation for rump-shaking in our house. One is “Kouman Sa T’a Ye,” a driving roots rhythm by the Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans that literally bursts with joy and asks the question, “What would life be without the neighborhood yard?” The other is “Dirty Water,” the 1960s garage-rock anthem by the Standells. It’s a love song wrapped in a snarl, and it celebrates Boston — muggers, filthy river and all — as the best goddamn place on earth.

If it’s possible for two songs to capture the meeting and meshing of our family’s cultures — black and white, roots and rock, CaribbeanAfricanIrishGerman — these two might be it. But despite the wildly different genres, it turns out that Boukman and the Standells have a few things in common. For example, rebellion: With their bold riffs and growling vocals, the Standells are considered by some to be godfathers of punk. Boukman Eksperyans, a group whose politically charged songs have been banned at times in Haiti, named itself in part for the high priest of rock guitar, Jimi Hendrix (as in, Are You Experienced). And with these tracks in particular, the echoes go even deeper: these are two songs that speak the same language about a common idea: the idea of home. It’s a notion that has eluded me, a daughter of immigrants, my whole life. And it’s a notion that defines my husband, whose long family line of dairy farmers, blacksmiths, police officers and town selectmen have left a deep imprint on the neighboring town where he was raised. The town that years ago dedicated a road after the family name. The town where Brian’s mother has been the school nurse since 1975.

 

 

Dover Town Hall, photo by Paul Keleher

 

After 12 years traveling these roads in Brian’s work truck, I can safely say he knows every single solitary house in this town’s 15 square miles. He knows the stories of the oldest houses still standing, and he knows the stories of old houses that once stood where oversized McMansions sit now. He knows who paved which roads and who built the stone walls that seem to go on for miles. The other day, the town’s retired police chief ran into my husband. They got to talking, and the chief started telling him how he would never, ever forget the period during the Depression when Brian’s great-grandfather, Michael W. Comiskey, drove around town delivering quarts of milk to families who could not afford it. He made the rounds early in the morning, before anyone woke up, so that none of those families would be embarrassed.

That sense of belonging, six generations deep, was an instant magnet of attraction when I met Brian. The idea that I could feel a rootedness I had never known, that I could pass those roots on, was irresistible. And as conflicted as I often feel about living in this hushed, small-town neverland, as a mother I am fascinated by what this grand experiment will mean for Sky, Rose, and Satchel, our little Maple Street caramels. They are darker and curlier, and because of that, they will have painful moments of doubt about whether they can ever truly belong. But they will just as surely have moments when they feel, even among the llamma farms and lily-white panoramas, that this land belongs to them as much it does to anyone else. Maybe even more.

 

 

Happy Loving Day

A lot of times, when I get that not-so-post-racial feeling around town — when my presence at the local ice cream store curls the faces around me into question marks; when a stranger stops me, tells me how cute my kids are and then asks where their mother is — I think of another interracial couple who made their way in small-town America: the Lovings.

In 1958, when she was 18, Mildred Dolores “Bean” Jeter married the man she loved, a bricklayer and family friend from her Virginia hometown, Richard Perry Loving. A month after their out-of-state wedding, the newlyweds were roused from their beds in the dead of night by police. They were arrested, jailed and, for all intents and purposes, banished from the state for violating the Racial Integrity Act. In facing the charges against them, Mildred and Richard pleaded guilty in court, because they were guilty: Their marriage certificate, which hung on their bedroom wall, was no good, just like their mixed-race union.

Clearly, Virginia wasn’t always for lovers. But on June 12, 1967, 44 years ago today, the US Supreme Court unanimously rejected the state’s argument that keeping the races from marrying was part of God’s plan. The couple’s convictions were overturned and, after 25 years in exile in Washington, D.C., they returned to the only place they had ever wanted to be, Caroline County, Va. Now every year on this day, Loving Day, those who walk in the Loving’s footsteps celebrate the love that started between a boy and a girl, and that eventually dismantled anti-miscegenation laws in more than a dozen states.

Like me, Mildred Loving had three children. Her husband was proudly blue-collar, like mine. But while I sometimes experience our biracial outpost like some kind of frontier pilgrim in the rural depths, Maple Street is a racial utopia compared to what the Lovings endured. When I started to feel frustrated, I called a web developer and created a blog. When Mildred Loving felt frustrated, she called then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and created a racial firestorm. I can’t comprehend how shunned they felt, and I can hardly believe what they sacrificed — their own safety, the safety of their children, the much easier road of staying with their own kind. But I am so grateful.

Mildred and Richard Loving, 1967

Francie and Brian Comiskey, 2011

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