He’s Just Seventeen

He’s seventeen, handsome, graceful and smart, plays mid right wing for a very good soccer club. His shoulders are broad, so is his smile, and he is getting taller. He is African American and I am his white mother.

We live in Vermont, where hippies still thrive raising carrots and kids on small farms. This is a state with only 626,630 people, 95.2% of whom are white. There used to be more cows than people, but those days are gone — well, at least the cows are. Folks answering demographic surveys around here are predominantly well educated, and aren’t partial to organized religion, though we have a lot of Buddhists practicing in these hills. Despite such mindfulness, I hear comments like, “There is no racism here.” “Everyone knows everyone and everybody helps one another.” The state motto is Freedom and Unity; Kindness could rule if Vermont were a separate Republic.

Even so, the Southern Poverty Law Center gives Vermont a grade of ‘F’ for civil rights instruction in the public schools.[1] It seems like teachers want to do the right thing and, along with most white people, they don’t want to say the wrong thing about race (or class or LGBT or adoption or disabilities) so they just don’t bring it up. Most white folks I know here don’t see any evidence of racism unless someone points to specific incidents or talks through the issues, like Driving While Black or Shopping While Black. Even then, some of my white friends, and many of my students, get exasperated, “Racism is so old-school,” I’ve been told. They don’t want to believe that racism exists. This essay is for them, and for my kids.

None of the parents I know have had to teach their white kids the skills to be safe in stores, schools, highways and neighborhoods, as I have. I thought about this as I read a piece by self-described upper middle class Attorney Lawrence Otis Graham in The Washington Post.[2] Graham and his family are African-American. He offered a list of nine rules he and his wife have taught their children, among them, never leave a store without a receipt, keep your hands free and visible, and always be polite, even in the face of disrespect. Even with this careful preparation, Graham’s fifteen-year-old son called home terrified, having been harassed by white men in a car, shouting the N-word as he walked on the sidewalk of his elite prep school.

African American men and boys are incarcerated or killed by the weapons of racism in countless numbers. Most of us have learned about Emmett Till, brutally murdered for the possibility that he had whistled at a white woman in Money, Mississippi in1955. His mother braved threats and opened his casket for the world to see what happened to her 14-year-old-son. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, walking home with a fistful of Skittles in Sanford, Florida in 2012 is in our more recent memory. The summer of 2014 presented us with many more dead black young men and boys: in Ferguson, Missouri. Staten Island, New York. Los Angeles, California. Beavercreek, Ohio. Victorville, California. [3]

I recently discovered the stories of two boys (they called them Negro then) shot after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. They are not remembered as are the four girls who died in the blast.[4] The New York Times, September 15, 1963 article describes the shooting of one of the boys, 13-year-old Virgil Wade, “The Jefferson County sheriff’s office said ‘there apparently was no reason at all’ for the killing, but indicated that it was related to the general racial disorders.”[5] No apparent reason. General racial disorders. Our nation has a long history of bullets flying into innocent black youth. I knew this history, but it became mine when I became a mother.

I also have a daughter who is a year older than her brother. On my first trip to the grocery store in 1996 with my eentsy weentsy baby girl, a white employee collecting carts in the parking lot asked, “Is that a Negro?” I immediately responded, “Yes! And isn’t she beautiful?” Despite my initial (and intuitive) reaction, I have learned to be ever wary of the inexperience and obliviousness of other white people when it comes to my children. Sometimes I get a pleasant surprise; when my daughter was only a few months old, I steeled myself for a diatribe when a guy came over to my table at a diner. I confess, he fit the stereotype of “redneck” that I hadn’t yet overcome. The baby was too small to sit up on her own, so she was in my lap. He extended his finger for her to grab as he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. He was smiling ear to ear as he proudly showed off a picture of his biracial granddaughter.

On another occasion, my son came home from kindergarten to report he’d been washing his hands after art with other classmates and one told him his hands were still dirty. My son responded, “Mine are clean but yours are covered with paint!” Another time, an elementary teacher was adamant that “black” was the proper term for her to use when teaching civil rights. My daughter was uncomfortable, “But I’m not black, I’m brown,” she told me. I asked her what she’d prefer the teacher say. She thought for a moment and proudly said, “African American.” When I talked to the teacher, I suggested she talk to the kids in the future to find out what they liked to be called. I have had a lot to learn about negotiating the world crisscrossing color lines.

A pivotal moment in my awareness occurred one luscious summer night at the beach. The kids were two and three, we were walking along the shoreline as sunset approached. It had been a lovely day, just the three of us, strolling around town, playing tag with the waves, tossing stones in the water or watching construction on the wharf. We could while many hours away in these pursuits. Our after dinner stroll was the icing on the day. Big sister was leading little brother down the strand. As they wandered ahead, I followed along happy to be in the midst of their joy. The infant and toddler years were receding and I was thinking how big and independent they were becoming. A tall and very strikingly handsome African American man watched us approach. I waved and called, “ Hello.” He boomed from his doorway, “Are they yours?” When I nodded he continued, “They’re cute now but what are you going to do when people cross the street when they are bigger?”

I had no words. Was this one of the what- right-do-you-have-as-a-white-woman-to-adopt-black-children challenges I had heard before, or simply a bold forewarning? There was no way to have a conversation; his was not an invitation, and the kids were already far ahead. That man’s question has not haunted me with doubts about whether I was right to adopt my children. Their birth giver settled that for me when she decided their destination and made sure brother got to be with sister. No, his question has provoked all of my work as an educator, community member, and mother.

I don’t want women to fear, as Sandra Bullock’s character did in Crash (2004), the sight of my son on the sidewalk approaching her. I don’t want people to duck into a store when they see my kids coming. I’ve led ‘interrupting oppression’ workshops and classes to guide people to understand the amazingly complex intersections of all prejudices and to appreciate and honor the variety of perspectives and ideas a diverse group can inspire. The forewarning of the man on the beach, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea to have our children recognized for their character rather than their color—- are motivation to always be in conversation about understanding skin and gender and privilege and power. And fear.

The Color of Fear (1994), a documentary by Lee Mun Wah,[6] features eight men talking about race in North America. They are African American, Latino, Asian American and Caucasian. The clothing and eyewear is dated but the dialogue is still, (sad to say), relevant. One of the men, African American Victor Lewis, tries to find the words that will get White David Christensen, to understand the depths of the differences between them. David only wants to see America as just, full of people with the kinds of positive experiences he’d had. He resists believing that the lives of men of color have been traumatically different from his experience as a white man. My white students get very uncomfortable watching the scene where Victor declares that he is black man, not white, as it seems to him white people want him to be. He says he cannot trust David until David is willing to really listen to the stories of the men of color in the room. After the film someone always says, “He is so angry!”

When I first saw the film, I saw anger too. But having lived the years since, learning to see the world through my children’s eyes and paying attention to current events, I now say, “I see him as frustrated and extremely passionate. Wouldn’t you get impatient and heated while trying to talk to someone who so resisted the truth of what you were saying, the truth of your lived experience?” I have learned that passion is often misinterpreted as anger. I have been thus misinterpreted, as I get riled trying to be understood. Every time I watch this film I also think of my son. Will he be misconstrued?

Just as that man leaning in the doorway on the beach knew he would, my son has grown beyond cute. Will people cross the street when they see him coming now that he is no longer a small child but a tall, graceful young man?

My son wanted airsoft guns when he was 13. I told him then of an 8-year-old I had read about who would not hand over his toy and was shot by police. My son immediately dismissed my concerns, “But Mom, I’m playing in the woods with my friends. And really, come on, we’re in Vermont.”

Is that enough of a safety net?

It’s true; Vermont is not Ohio or Mississippi. Men We Reaped is Jesmyn Ward’s (2013) memoir remembering five men in her family circle who died young. These African American young men were whole, until they were thwarted by the economic and educational apartheid of their Mississippi. The young men she describes were hindered and emboldened by stereotypes of masculinity and African American. Drugs, guns, despair or white men driving while drunk murdered them.

Guns and guys. Economics. Rural landscapes. There are differences and similarities between rural Mississippi and Vermont. Our winters are for sledding, skiing, reading by the woodstove. Folks in Mississippi rebuild after hurricanes and slog through heat no Vermonter could abide. If it reaches 98 degrees folks practically faint around here. Many Vermonters want to do right, be good, be green, be advocates for every cause. They take pride in the history of the stalwart New Englander. There are many markers of Civil War veterans in Vermont cemeteries. Vermont is the first state to approve of civil unions for same-sex couples. They want their guns for hunting. They tend to leave one another alone but help out in a pinch without being asked.

But perfect we are not. Vermont has a statewide problem of prescription drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers and an economy that prompts our young, educated population to go out of state to find good jobs. Vermont gets an “F” while Mississippi gets a “C” on the Teaching Tolerance report card. Drugs, guns, and economics are all factors confronting youth in Vermont and Mississippi. I have faith that, with support, Vermont educators will rise to meet this challenge, teach beyond tolerance and tests, to deep understanding of stereotypes and prejudice. It is time to inspire students to desire and create a society, a new civil social paradigm, which will address school shootings by white children with high powered artillery and which does not accept the shooting of unarmed children, young adults, and citizens of color.

Vermonters are proud of the state’s dedication to justice and hold kindness as a rule. I’m grateful for that. But if we are too attached to an image of being kind and progressive, we miss the real racism that occurs to those who are darker skinned. We miss opportunities to understand our privilege as white people to walk down the street and not have someone cross the street or call the police because we are here. We miss the fact that our white children are not being shot for holding toys, as seventeen more brown children have since I had that conversation with my son four years ago. [7]

We don’t have to wait for this to change. History offers examples of non-violent activism that resulted in fast-moving changes. In the early days of AIDS activism we shouted, SILENCE=DEATH. No media, government agency, or pharmaceutical company seemed to care that so many gay men were suddenly dying. Men and women organized to work with doctors, lawyers, medical researchers, poets, and playwrights so political activism started to bring change and hope to people who were HIV positive. The primarily privileged white, male, educated provocateurs of this movement were determined to get their demands met, they assumed they had the right to health care and attention. That civil rights movement was organized with unprecedented immediacy and voice. We need that kind of momentum to gain justice for black boys and men dying by excessive police force and incarceration.

As I write this, there’s a huge crescent moon in the clear Vermont sky. That same moon shines over all of us. It shines in Ferguson, Missouri still smoldering after the riots over the grand jury’s decision in the case of Michael Brown’s death by Officer Wilson. It glows over Cleveland, Ohio where just last week twelve-year-old African American, Tamir Rice, died when white officers didn’t distinguish his pellet gun from a real one at a playground. Why are lethal shots fired? Not one shot, but many?

Thousands of lives – my son’s life — depend on our not being silent.

We have wonderful mentors and models for our crusade for justice —Suffrage for Women, Civil Rights for Native Americans and African Americans, Women, Gays, Lesbians, Transgender, and Disabled, Peace Movements and the AIDS movement. None of these efforts has lead to permanent success though. Constant vigilance is our responsibility.

At seventeen I was marching against the war in Vietnam. Now, I see that we were practicing hope. Hope for change, hope for humanity, hope for kindness. I adopted my African American daughter because I wanted to walk into the future as the future would be—multicultural, full of difference. I adopted my son knowing I had to guide a boy to becoming a man. I became a mother in the anticipation of joy and hope in a bright future for my kids. I am an educator because I believe knowing history and social constructions provokes understanding, especially of people who are different from us somehow.

Every young person killed is a son or daughter.

Every shooter is too.

[1] Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States. http://www.tolerance.org/TTM2014

[2] Lawrence Otis Graham

http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/06/i-taught-my-black-kids-that-their-elite-upbringing-would-protect-them-from-discrimination-i-was-wrong/

[3] Summer of 2014

Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.

Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York smothered in a chokehold.

John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio shot in the chest in Walmart holding a .177 calibre BB rifle.

Ezell Ford of Los Angeles, California shot in the back after an “investigative stop.”

Dante Parker of Victorville, California Tased repeatedly and died in the hospital.

Trayvon Martin of Sanford, Florida in February 2012 and, always, Emmett Till on August 26, 1955 in Money, Mississippi.

[4]  http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0915.html (accessed 10.17.14) 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair) were found beneath the rubble in a basement restroom. Ten-year-old Sarah Collins, who was with the other girls, lost her right eye, and more than 20 other people were injured in the blast.

5 http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/birmingham-church-bombing

6 The Color of Fear. (1994).  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nmhAJYxFT4

7 http://www.mydaytonailynews.com/data/news/17-shootings-that-involved-fake-guns/ (accessed 10.17.14)

Posted on November 30, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this incredible essay. We are blessed to have you and your kids in our community. Your fears are so real and hopefully our students will read this AND talk about it. WE have to continue to challenge them as YOU challenge us

  2. George Fitzgerald

    Your ideas are very well expressed; I’ve come to expect that of you. All these years later we’re still “practicing hope” but we’ll never give up. We have seen various improvements in some attitudes (particularly, it seems, about gays, mostly because it came to a point that everyone had to realize that someone they loved, probably in their family, was gay), but still the bombs of reality fall … young black men, especially, are NOT safe; our hearts have to go on weeping, while we go on hoping. If only everyone could realize that every young black man or young black woman is family too. You and Meredith and Lucinda have more than done your part; I admire you so much for the job you’ve done in making “black” mean simply family. (To say nothing of how beautiful humans your children have come to be!) This comes with an X and an O from Geo.

  3. I absolutely live your essay! I am also a white woman with 3 African American children in VT.

    Thanks for your words of great wisdom.

  4. nicolamorris2013

    Thanks, Shelley. It needs to be said, and you say it. And you make all the connections.

  5. A brilliant essay on the threats to our children from becoming part of our unthinking and cold world. This piece should be required reading for everyone in America. Maybe you could find a larger venue for this: The New York Times (Sunday Review Section), journals that focus on race and educating youth to the key issues of our time, etc. I applaud you. Mike Geisser

  6. Erica Zimmerman

    Shelley
    This is beautiful, strong, solid and inspiring.
    During the past fee months, while Ferguson has simmered and boiled, I have been thinking about the strands of my own work and pondering which to pick up to weave onto next.
    I keep remembering something that happened on the first day of school at a tiny Vermont high school in an impoverished town a couple years ago. A boy drove up in his pickup with a new confederate flag emblazoned on it. The principal said, “That kid has enough problems. Thank goodness this is Vermont and we don’t have enough racism for me to have to confront him about that flag…”

    Could you put me on your email list.
    I would love I hear more about your work.

    Erica

  7. Still another Vermilya Notes that has stopped me in my tracks for reflection and consideration. In short, another extrordinarly compelling, persuasive, beautiful and activating piece.

  8. Thank you, Shelley. As ever the dots connect, and the wisdom comes with practical examples. Love to you and the two lovely children (now pretty much adults, really).

  9. Danielle LaFleur Brooks

    Thank you, Shelley.

  10. Thank you for such and in depth and sensitive illustration of what it takes heal our country.

  11. Awesome, Shelley. Thanks.

  12. Shelley,

    Thank you for writing this. It is so important that these words enter the minds and hearts of all of us.

  13. Shelley,
    This is a magnificent essay, with which I concur absolutely. You have spoken for us in so many ways. As one of two fathers of an African American son, I have had to have the same conversations with him (since the age of three). As a person with Asperger’s, he has a unique take on the world, social relations and cultural phenomena. Mostly, it doesn’t seem to faze him, but I worry constantly about the world he will enter, and live in when we are no longer here to protect him. We now live in a rural part of Western New York State, where people are much more tolerant than I’d feared, being a city person. We were married last year at the local town court, no doubt the first gay couple to do so, and they couldn’t have been more friendly and excited for us. Our son attends a private school for different learners, which in many ways shields him from the chaos and possibly the bullying or pressure to conform he might face in the local public schools. He fits in, and loves it. When he was just a baby we would get comments like “he’s cute now, but just wait…” Or “Look at him! He’s going to be a football player!” Grocery store clerks adopted white “ghetto” talk and gave him high fives. Today he’s a beautiful, happy kid, but God knows the world isn’t ready for him. He will have to be fine with being different (which he has been to-date), both as a Black person of Gay parents, and as a person with Aspergers. He wants to be a video game developer (the current version of rock star). I have faith that he will find his niche. I miss terribly having our kids grow up together, and in that way regret ever leaving Vermont, but in some ways I was tired of the “We’re so liberal,” beer, skiing and Bluegrass, shielded world (although there are just as many “rednecks” there as anywhere else, just not in the centers of groovy). I felt smothered by leaves, and I missed the multi-cultural, urban world in which I’d spent my first 40 years. But our experience transcends location, doesn’t it? We love and celebrate you. Rob Levy

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