As I recounted in a previous blog post entitled Racist Pt. 1: How Did This Happen?, my experiences with Black people growing up were limited mostly to how people of color were portrayed in the media - characters in Shirley Temple movies, Gone With the Wind, the nightly news. As psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum wrote in her book "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?", it is not uncommon for many White people to have grown up in environments that are very homogeneous, lacking racial or ethnic diversity. While I did have exposure to various ethnic groups since they existed within my own family, I did not have much exposure to other racial groups. As Dr. Tatum calls it, I had merely "second hand knowledge" when it came to races different from myself.
I do have a distant but distinct memory of the first time I ever saw a Black person. It may sound odd for some people to hear that. I wonder how that experience might translate for Black people in America. Can many Black people remember the first time they ever saw a White person? By and large, probably not, since most Black communities in the United States, being part of a minority population, interface regularly with White people as a daily occurrence. It may feel "taboo" to talk about this topic. But we must dialog about such things, even if it feels uncomfortable.
Back to upstate New York: I was perhaps three years old, not yet in kindergarten. Standing in line with my mother at the P&C grocery store on north Main Street, we awaited our turn at the check out. Several people were ahead of us. I was looking around, keeping myself occupied, when I noticed him. A middle aged Black man stood in front of the cashier as she rang up his groceries. I had, to my recollection, never seen anyone like him. His face, neck and hands were all dark brown. I seem to remember him wearing a fedora style hat as men commonly did in the late 50's and early 60's. As a three year old might do, I stared. Some people have argued that small children are color blind. I heartily disagree. Children do notice people, especially people different from themselves. They may NOT yet associate fear with the differences they see. Or they might, for other reasons. I could not take my eyes off of this man and I recall feeling some measure of alarm. I did not feel fear. It can be described more as a deep level of concern. In my mind, something must have happened to him to change him to that color. I assumed he must have been my color at one point in his life, and some horrific event must have happened to cause such a pronounced change. Had he gotten in an accident? Was he sick? Had he gotten burned? Was he okay?
"Mom!" I said quietly, "What happened to him?"
I don't recall if my mother shushed me. Perhaps she did, since we were around other people. But I do recall her eventually giving me an answer.
"Nothing happened to him, honey. That's just the color that he is. He was born that color."
"Oh...." I said.
I remember feeling an immediate sense of relief to know that pain had not been associated with a color "change". But now I had a new piece of information that brought surprise and curiosity to my small world and a whole new set of questions! He was born that color? Well how did THAT happen? What did his mother think when he was born? Was she surprised to see that his face and hands were brown? And how did MY mother know that he was born that way? He was an older man and she didn't know him. She wasn't there when he was born! Answers such as this led me to believe that my parents knew everything. It was quite a let down for me upon finding out that they didn't. But that's another story.
Seeing this man and hearing my mother's answer did not yet elucidate for me that this man was completely brown from head to toe, that his mother and father would likely also be brown, that brown children came from brown parents (most of the time), and that there was a whole WORLD of brown people out there! That understanding would come with time. And with it would come the realization that brown people down through history and into the present, had indeed experienced their lion's share of pain.
Originally written October 2005 -
"Fall break" for you who are not from New Mexico, is really the school district giving in to the "voice of the people" here. You see, we in Albuquerque are now in the final days of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta! It is 10 glorious days of the largest hot air balloon event in the WORLD! Balloonists and tourists come from all over the world to see this spectacle.
Different balloon events are held at the Balloon Fiesta Park during this time. Hotels are filled to capacity. All kinds of languages are heard around the city. It's not unusual for local families to keep their kids home for a day here or there to attend the event. So, in an attempt to cut down on absences happening throughout the 10 days, the school district just decided to give the schools a day off, in hopes that families will just decide to go that day. And it works!
Each day a "mass ascension" is held, with approximately 400-600 balloons taking part. Thousands of people flock to the field at 5:00 in the morning, in the cold and darkness. The stars are bright and shining still. Concession stands line one side of the field, where you can buy and wrap your frigid fingers around a cup of hot chocolate, a steamy cinnamon bun or a green chili and cheese burrito to keep warm. People are dressed in wool hats and mittens and wrapped in blankets.
Small helium "test" balloons (the birthday party kind) are sent up to test the winds, and everyone waits to see if the winds will cooperate. Balloonists unpack their gondolas and lay
out their envelopes on the grass in row after row after row down the length of the field.
The "Dawn Patrol", the first balloonists to go up, inflate their envelopes and take a morning test flight. As they fire their burners and ascend, their envelopes glow starkly set against the black predawn sky. Excitement is building. Things are going well! The perfect breeze is blowing, enough to send the balloon riders on a beautiful ride.
The sky starts to lighten, and soon the sun sends its first rays of the morning over the east mountains. The word is given and everything is go! Burners roar and huge fans push the warm air into the envelopes all over the field as the balloons come to life. Crews and ropes and lines control each envelope until they are all standing upright, bobbing from side to side and bumping against each other, straining to leave the ground.
The huge crowd, men, women, children, seniors, babies....are out there too. No standing at the sidelines required here. Everyone is out there, amidst the raucous noise, the burners and the balloons, the radio announcer and the music, staring up into silk globes and feeling the warmth of the propane flames as they blast the balloons awake.
Special shaped balloons are there too. A cow, a bee, a sun face, a chili ristra, a dragon, a soda bottle, a tree, Noah's ark and the Jesus balloon, the Energizer Bunny....shapes you couldn't even imagine...as big as buildings....all creatively stitched together in rainbow colors of silk!
Then the word is again given. The first row to the south takes off! Then the second...the third.....the fourth....the fifth.....as all down the field row after row of balloons fly up each in their turn. After the first rows take off, the second wave of balloonists lay out and inflate their envelopes as the balloons to the north are taking off. New rows of envelopes bob and bounce against each other, crews straining to hold them to the ground until the given moment. Then the second wave takes off, row after row, until the sky is filled with color. The crowd on the ground watches and points and laughs and smiles in awe and takes another 20 pictures. As the sun warms the morning, coats and hats are peeled off. But the party is not over! Have another cup of coffee. Buy a balloon event pin to add to your collection, and wait for the balloon races to begin! Activity is a buzz until about mid-morning. It's such a warm, happy, pleasant atmosphere! You can't go there and not feel happy.
Last night my husband, Scott, had to work late, so I took Cole and Beana to the Glodeo. This is where only the special shapes are set up in the late afternoon.
Once again the crowds flocked to the field by the thousands. At night, the concession stands sell nachos, smoked turkey legs, and roasted corn on the cob. Envelopes and gondolas again lined the field, waiting for the sun to go down. Teen-agers, hired for the fiesta, hawked calendars, glow toys and a wide array of jester hats! As the sky started to mellow and the western horizon became ablaze in a pink, yellow and purple sunset, the burners and fans roared to life again as envelopes were inflated. But this time, they didn't take off. Tethered to the ground, the envelopes thronging the air around us, the crowd wound through the maze of balloons, collecting trading cards from the various balloon teams, trading pins, asking questions , taking pictures and greeting people.
The sun went down and the sky darkened. Individual burners fired here and there to keep the envelopes up and moving, giving off a warm, colorful "glow" against the night sky. But the best part....the most magical part....was when the announcer started the countdown. Then the whole crowd joined in...thousands of people counting in unison...
And every balloon on the field fired it's burner......every envelope filled with light.....and there we were......smack dab in the middle of 300 balloons.....all glowing and warm and jolly! It's like a huge, magical toyland.....supersized! A roar went up from the crowd as it shouted its approval! This same countdown happened 10 times or so over the next hour. It's quite a time!
Then, as propane tanks burned towards empty, envelopes were deflated. Gondolas were packed away for the night. Now all the people took out their blankets and found a comfortable place on the ground. Snug and warm as the desert night's chill started to settle in, hot chocolate in hand, sharp reports started to echo through the sky, and the fireworks began.
Ohhhs and Ahhhhs rose from the crowd with each blast of light and sound. Beana, Cole and I cuddled together on our blanket, watching this event with our stomachs full of smoked turkey. They had their share of comments to make about the fireworks. It was funny to listen to Cole's. For some reason, as the explosions blossomed in the sky, they reminded him of Beana's hair falling in braids around her shoulders. Numerous suggestions came from him such as....
"You should do Beana's hair like that, Mama."
"Ohhhh look at that one! It looks like a waterfall! That would be a nice way to braid Beana's hair....huh, Mama."
"Huh, Mama." Pronounced as "HUmuma", like it was one big word with the stress on the first syllable. Such a sparkling little boy. I like how he sees things, like his sister's hair as beautiful and tempestuous as fireworks! We snuggled deeper under our blankets, our bodies curled up together for warmth, sipping hot chocolate, as we settled in to watch the magic erupt across the darkening desert night.