Category Archives: parenting

To the Place / I Belong

Currently, I’m having an issue with John Denver. At night, almost every night, his country hymns are the ones that lull my 7- and 4-year-olds to sleep.

I realize that in the grand scheme of things, the musical bedtime selections of our kids is not a big deal. And I acknowledge that overall, our kids’ tastes in music are quite varied. Like in the car, where they clamor for ’90s French rapper MC Solaar. Or in the kitchen, where they hang on for dear life to keep up with the rollercoaster that is Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. U2, Stevie Wonder, The Who, they dig all that.

But when you’re a mother of color trying to instill some sense of black culture in your kids — and the shiny meadows and shinier blonde mops all around you make you feel you’re already living a John Denver song — hearing those opening twangs about the Shenandoah River night after night after night can feel like a losing battle. I’m not sure how the CD, which belongs to my husband, first got into the rotation. But at bedtime, as their eyelids flutter and finally sink into sleep, there is only one voice Sky and Rose want to hear: the voice that sings Rocky Mountain High, Sunshine on My Shoulder and of course, the top grosser of all Denver’s hits, the ballad that gets mentioned with John Lennon’s Imagine and Aretha Franklin’s Respect as one of the most influential songs of the 20th century: Take Me Home, Country Roads. Attempts to slip in the occasional Erykah Badu or Harry Belafonte are futile.

“I like how his voice sounds singing with the music,” Sky explained the other night. “It sounds, you know, nice.” And part of me can’t argue with that four-star review — especially since I made a stink to Brian about the last CD that was in heavy rotation, Led Zeppelin II (remastered). I’m sure Sky and Rose have no idea what Robert Plant is talking about, but there’s something weird about peeking in on children bathed in the glow of a Hello Kitty lamp and hearing “Squeeze me baby/ ‘Til the juice runs down my leg” waft through the crack in the door.

Now, some have called Denver’s songs soaring melodies of hope. I would call them syrupy odes to romantic love and an idyllic notion of America that doesn’t really exist. I would not be alone in that assessment. In 2007, in the midst of an apparently heated battle over whether to declare Rocky Mountain High the state song of Colorado, a Denver Post columnist opined, “Rocky Mountain High deserves its place in Colorado . . . in Muzak form on supermarket speakers or during a marathon Time Life infomercial hosted by Air Supply.” Of course with music, it’s all relative. If Ray Charles and legendary ska band The Maytals saw fit to record covers of Take Me Home, there’s gotta be something to it that I’m missing.

And as I write this, I’m actually recalling another heated debate that took place right around 2007, in a cell phone conversation between Brian and me. I’ll attribute some of the things I said, and the conviction with which I said them, to the hormones coursing through my body during my second pregnancy. But I distinctly remember screaming about the importance of our kids understanding the revolutionary sound of A Tribe Called Quest. And I remember Brian saying something about hip-hop consisting of a lot of noise and only a very little bit of actual music.

The other day, as I heard Denver’s relentless major chords drift once again through the hall, I decided to try an experiment. I started Googling “John Denver” and “African-American,” just to see if there was any possible intersection of Denver and black culture other than in this house.

It didn’t take me long to find it.

In the 1970s, after Denver married first wife Annie Martell, the couple had trouble conceiving. They adopted a son, Zachary John, and later a daughter, Anna Kate, who Denver would later say were “meant to be theirs.” The little boy who inspired Denver’s  Zachary and Jennifer and A Baby Just Like You (which he wrote for Frank Sinatra), was black. If the Internet is to be believed, he is now in his 30s, happily married, and still lives in Colorado.

In an interview he gave to People in 1979, Denver talked about his family. He made no mention of race, but he made his feelings about fatherhood very clear. “I’ll tell you the best thing about me. I’m some guy’s dad; I’m some little gal’s dad. When I die, Zachary John and Anna Kate’s father, boy, that’s enough for me to be remembered by. That’s more than enough.”

Well I’ll be damned. There’s an idyllic notion of America, and I want to sing along.

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Falling Dormant, Waking Up

Note to readers (if this blog still has readers, that is):

Never, ever start a two-part blog post about race and children’s books when you are lost in the tunnels of your very real, very adult racial mid-life crisis. When the school bus driver’s confused stare, just a few seconds long, starts to stay in your mind’s eye for hours. When a row of maple trees might as well be a row of metal bars. When the path you’ve made with another person — every piece you snapped in place together, every willing compromise and good intention — obscures itself. And two things that never stood in the path before, blackness and whiteness, look so big you can’t see if the path continues on the other side.

My intention back in November was to blog about Hazel the Hedgehog, a vintage children’s book in which a brown and spikey hedgehog is banished from the barnyard by a posse of strangely blond farm animals. At a certain point, the mere act of picking up this book used to make Brian and I laugh out loud.

That was part I. Part II was to share a book that is Hazel’s antithesis: Spork, the uplifting tale of a mixed kitchen utensil.

I am going to share it now, here, because it’s a beautiful parable with beautiful pictures, and because Kyo Maclear, the book’s half-Japanese, half-British author, has her own beautiful story to tell about how this book came into being. (You can read about Maclear’s and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault’s upcoming book, Virginia Wolf, which addresses depression, here).

But as I look at this adorable spork of a child, searching for identity in the silverware drawer, I realize how drawn I am to his parents: the fork father and spoon mother “who thought he was perfect just the way he was.” They look so happy.

Do they argue about balancing Spork’s spoon heritage and fork heritage? If you are made of prongs, can you truly understand a round hollow? And if these utensils are a family, where can they all happily live? Because like much of America (still), drawer organizers tend to be segregated.

When you’ve written a children’s book that has been used as an allegory for everything from transgender identity to the Middle Way in Buddhism, and that educators use to introduce kids to philosophy, you have done something worthwhile. In an interview, Maclear said it took a common camping implement to get at the deeply personal messages she wanted to convey.

“When I conceived of this story, I knew I didn’t want the protagonist to be distinctly human . . . I wanted to avoid the ‘social studies’ approach to talking about these issues, which can become ponderous and joyless,” says Maclear, who lives in Canada with her husband and young daughter. “I definitely didn’t want to make my character purple or some arbitrary mixed color, because I find this trivializes the real historical and cultural experiences of being a person of color.”

When readers meet Spork, Maclear says, they are disarmed. I have no idea if Sky and Rose consciously see their mixed selves when I read this book to them. But I know they root for Spork, and I know more than anything they love how it all ends.

Removed from anxieties about race, class, ethnicity, sexuality or any number of other dividing lines, Maclear says, adults and children suddenly find themselves able to explore what it means to be different, and what it means to belong. “Sometimes,” she says, “we need a new language, and fresh words.”

If there is a better guiding principle when it comes to race, I can’t think of one. Yes, there are deep injustices to battle. There are presidential candidates who have figured out how to divide across color and culture, and there are families still trying to figure out how to love across color and culture . But so many of these things hinge on the stories we tell ourselves, or have told ourselves for too long. Sometimes we need a new language. And fresh words.

A Leaf Falls On

This blog is predicated on my living in a town where the sight of a black person turns heads and boggle minds. Lately, my sanity is predicated on getting away from twisted heads and boggled states. Far away, not just from the reality of being judged or prejudged, but from the fear of it happening, anticipating reality. It’s my perpetual Maple Street dilemma: Does keeping the blog mean losing my mind?

Tar spot, a disease of maples caused by Rhytisma acerinum.

Fall is here. I have not written for a while, but that is not because there is nothing to say. It’s because there is too much to say. Questions, there are plenty of: Was it a mistake to move here? Even if you take into account the joy bursting from small feet that tear across an endless yard; even if over the river and through the woods really does lead to grandmother’s house — not just in a song or on Thanksgiving but several times a week, every week; even with the smattering of area families who are like us and who seem happy, or at least more well-adjusted: Was it the right thing or the wrong thing to leave Boston for a town where we are visible curiosities? If it’s not a mistake yet, will it turn out to have been later, when those little feet begin to step into biracial identity? Does asking these question reflect a lack of mental toughness? A weakness of will? Can we belong somewhere just by declaring that we do?

I used to be patient; I used to be the person who told other black people to calm down. A black editor once led me, the new girl, on a tour of a newsroom by introducing me only to other black reporters. I remember feeling so sorry for him. I thought: It’s 1994. What is that about? Now it’s 2011, and I know what it’s about.

Not too long ago, I could find the humor in almost anything — even, at times, in ignorance. Even in racial ignorance, and even in racial ignorance directed at me. I don’t know where that person went. I suspect she may have been ground to dust, trying to help a succession of well-meaning, white-gloved folks hear the sound of their own quiet racism. Quiet racism, while polite and muted, can be deafening; if I’m having this much trouble tuning it out, I worry for my 6-year-old, my 4-year-old and my 2-year-old.

I came home the other day to find the UPS man in my driveway. A package!

Right there was my problem, apparently. I thought I could just come home and get a package.

“I’m just leaving this for the owners.” My hand goes out, his hand pulls back.

“You live here?”

Yes.

“You . . . live here?”

That time, he got me wondering. Here, in this driveway and with this package withheld, am I living?

What Kind of Mother

I grew up in a place called the Main Line, just outside Philadelphia. The Main Line isn’t a town or a school district or a county. It’s not a train line, although it got its name from a stretch of the Pennsylvania Railroad built in the 1800s. The Main Line contains a collection of towns, the same way Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses contain collections of jewels. It’s a loosely defined region, but more importantly it’s a state of mind, an atmosphere: of blue bloods and old money, horse shows, cricket clubs and sprawling estates. It’s the hometown of icy political spouse Betty Draper from Mad Men. When you read about or hear about the Main Line, you should imagine it being pronounced in an accent dripping with privilege, like Thurston Howell III.

If you’re the daughter of black immigrant doctors and you grow up in a place like this, the pressure to act or not act a certain way can be considerable. My mother wanted us to study hard, to excel, to race to the top. Underlying those aspirations was a cardinal rule: Don’t do anything or say anything that will confirm a negative stereotype white people have about black people. Don’t be loud. Don’t be late. Don’t talk like that. Don’t walk out of the house with your hair a bushy mess or your clothes a wrinkled mess. And I don’t think I ever did. Which is why, on a sunny day in August, hoisting 3-year-old Rose out of her car seat and into a cart at the supermarket, I froze when I realized something: My daughter had no pants on.

I had scooped her up so quickly in the driveway, I hadn’t noticed she was only wearing underwear and a shirt — a tunic-cut shirt, but a shirt nonetheless. Her Hello Kitty panties were exposed for all the world to see. And all I could think about was, what kind of mother do I look like? Or, just as likely since my daughter is so fair-skinned, what kind of babysitter do I look like? I prayed I wouldn’t run into any neighborhood parents — which I did (a perfectly tanned couple and their blond daughters, who had floated out of a J.Crew catalog). I prayed Rose wouldn’t broadcast it in her high-decibel warble — which she did, at the crowded deli counter. (“Mommy, where are my pants? This cart is making my butt freeze!”) It was the fastest market run I’d made in years.

I know all parents have these moments (right? right?). But in that brief instant, I wasn’t just a frazzled, disorganized mom picking up last-minute ingredients for dinner. I was the black mother whose child was in a public place in her underwear. I saw myself the way Betty Draper might see me, and the feeling I got was as irrational as it was real: I hadn’t just let down my daughter and her slightly shivering backside. I had let down my entire race. I didn’t want to feel that, but I couldn’t escape feeling it.

Big thanks to Fabiola Perez-Sitko, maker of the handcrafted, multicultural line of dolls fig & me for the photo above. It’s a funny story: Not wanting to use a photo of a real child in underwear, I started searching for images of dolls and landed on her blog. Then, a few minutes after my email, these words from the northern shore of Lake Superior: “I am Mexican, and my husband is Canadian of European descent. More often than not people do not associate my children with their father, and in some occasions have thought and said he had adopted them.”

Amazing. Caramels abound.

Ruby Bridges Was Six Years Old

The painting is called The Problem We All Live With, by Norman Rockwell, and last week, President Obama asked if the White House could borrow it from its permanent home at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. It commemorates Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend a white elementary school in the South. Fifty years ago, on November 14, 1960, the girl marched through the doors of the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans with her copybooks and colored pencils, and without so much as a whimper. At first, seeing the surging crowd from a distance, little Ruby assumed it was Mardi Gras. “The show opened on time. Sound the siren. Motorcycle cops,” the author John Steinbeck wrote of the scene. “Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest negro girl you ever saw.” Steinbeck, who was 58 at the time, had left his dog and car in a parking lot miles away, fearing for their safety. Bridges, who was 6 years old, dodged eggs, tomatoes and the taunts of housewives no newspaper would print. She had been volunteered to the NAACP by her parents.

In the past year, since Sky turned 6, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about how and when to introduce him to ideas about race and racism: the velvety soft, laced with pearls, but-I-voted-for-Obama racism his mother has experienced. The let’s-all-be-color-blind (-while-you’re-still-cute-and-not-yet-that-teenager-wanting-to-date-my-daughter) racism he will almost certainly experience. The James-Byrd-in-Jasper, we-need-a-hate-crime-law-on-the-books-yesterday racism that makes other people feel much, much better about their racism. And I wonder — is the age of 6 too young to have the lid opened on this ugliness? Did I need to cloud Sky’s world by showing him that picture book with the stoic black mother saying, “No matter what anyone says, Martin, you’re just as good as anybody else?” In showing him that, was I fortifying him against those things “anyone” might say? Or was I simply introducing him to the idea that he might not, in fact, be as good as anybody else? When he asks about the problems between black people and white people, do I start every answer as I now do — “It was a long, long time ago” — even if a white person gave his black mother a problem that kicked the shit out of her last week?

From the looks of it, Ruby Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, 56, seems like an extremely well-adjusted individual. (You can watch a video of her meeting with President Obama viewing the painting here). She not only lives in the city where protesters once laid a black doll in a miniature coffin outside her school; she volunteered in that school as a parent liaison in the 1990s, three days a week. (In 2005, like countless residents of New Orleans, Bridges Hall lost her home to Hurricane Katrina). She’s raised three children of her own and helped raise nieces who were orphaned. She runs her own foundation and tours the country with a message for all adults — the uneducated and the highly educated; the rural, urban, and comfortably suburban; the conservatives and the liberals who would like to believe it only applies to people living in Jasper: “Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” If she could emerge from those schoolhouse doors as focused and forward-moving as when she walked in, why, exactly, do I worry about my 6-year-old knowing the story of the 6-year-old who did the walking?

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