With kindergarten done for the day, I was hungry for a snack. A plate of cookies sat on the table. The old radio on the counter cranked out a tinny Doris Day. “Que Sera, Sera? Whatever will be, will be.” My mother sang quietly along with Doris as she rinsed silverware at the faucet.
What will it be? Which cookie is the biggest? My finger touched each cookie as I recited the familiar words:
“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a n#$@&r by the toe,
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
I reached for the chosen snack, but my mother’s hand stopped me. Her eyebrows came together in a troubled wrinkle when she knelt down beside me. I felt the weight of her hands as she set them on my shoulders. Am I in trouble? Her words came out in quiet, measured tones.
“Susan, I don’t ever want to hear you say that word again.”
“Which word, Mommy?” I had said many words. Which one was "that word"?
My mother drew me close to her. The “N” word struggled out from her lips. “N#$@&r. Do you know what it means?”
To me, the word sounded like “booger”. I had always imagined it to mean a big monster made entirely of boogers all green and yellow and drippy, so of course you would not want to have any bodily contact with him. A toe was a small enough appendage to grasp without getting your hand too sticky. He would not like you gripping him by the toe, so he would open his dark toothless maw and let out a wretched groan. Then, you would let him go.
I thought I knew the meaning of the word in question, but apparently I did not.
My fingers fidgeted with a shirt button. “No. What does it mean?”
“It’s a word that some people use when they’re talking about a Black person. It’s not a nice word. It hurts people’s feelings. We don't use that word.”
It means a Black person? My 5-year-old brain had trouble processing this thought. Why would anyone need to catch a Black person in the first place, and by the toe no less? Why catch anyone by the toe? An arm, maybe. But a toe?
The more perplexing questions were, why was there a word that was meant to offend a Black person when he or she had done nothing to you? And, why was this in a children’s poem? It was my first exposure to the concept that some people devalue the humanity of another because of skin color.
My mother’s hold tightened. “You’ll never use it again, will you?”
“No, I won’t.” I said. There was no reason to, now that I knew what it meant. It made no sense to use it.
Racism. It takes root at a very early age. I had had a glimpse into the world of adults where individuals said things to wound someone else who was merely different than themselves. The purpose was to inflict pain and degradation, without cause. My wise mother had spoken into my heart that afternoon and set a precident. I'm thankful for a mother who seized the moment and planted the seed to examine and question while I was so young. Still, a peculiar door was cracked open that day, and a little bit of my innocence ran through it.
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.
Regarding my previous post, I got a number of comments from friends, family, and friends of family about what my daughter meant when she asked, "Mama,do you feel weird?" while sitting in the Black hair care shop.
Some people remarked how sensitive and empathetic my daughter was by being concerned about her mom. Indeed she was then and is now a very empathetic person. Others wondered if she herself had felt "weird" in past experiences as a minority child and was applying that emotion to her mother's possible feelings being the only white person in a shop full of Black people.
I guess there are a few things to keep in mind. There are slightly more "Anglo" (White) people in Albuquerque than Hispanics (the label of choice by Hispanic people in New Mexico vs "Latino"). Albuquerque is surrounded by Pueblo Indian reservations as well as the Navajo Nation being not far away. Many Mexican people live here. The African-American population is relatively small compared to other cultural groups. My point is, there are a lot of brown faces in New Mexico. The neighborhood we live in is very mixed. And, my husband and I often remark at the number of mixed-race couples you see in Albuquerque, specifically a combination of African-American and White. I would imagine compared to other communities around the country, in Albuquerque, racial interactions are not as antagonistic or edgy. That's not to say that racism does not exist here. But we as a family do not get stared at or have hurtful comments made toward us. There is less racial tension in general, at least in our experience, which is why we choose to live here. My daughter was about 4 years old at the time of that story. She thought with the mind of a child. By that young age, she'd not been exposed to a lot of racial tension.
My daughter is now 16 years old. She saw me writing the blog post and knew the content of it. After the comments of some readers, I asked her if she remembered how she felt at the time, and why she asked me that question. Her response:
"Oh, I don't know Mama. You know how I've always liked being around Black people. I think I was just wondering if you were enjoying it as much as I was."
And that would be YES!
Ahhhhh. Well said, baby girl. Well said.
How young are children when they begin to connect race with fear or a sense of discomfort? The answer is probably varied. I didn't know what to expect with my own children. They grew up with their father's brown face and my white face as equal, doting care-takers. Both colors symbolized love and affection to them. I didn't know how or when that "connection" would come. Yet it did. And surprised me none the less. It showed up in the hair shop.
As the mother of two children with "ethnic" hair, I had to learn how to "do" their hair. When I had my son, a friend gave me an article by a White woman who had mixed race children. Three girls. Now SHE had to learn how to do hair, and she emphasized what she'd learned about the importance of hair care in the Black community. Taking care of your child's hair is a reflection of the love and pride you have for your child, and Lord knows I loved my children. So I learned. I experimented with products to de-tangle and moisturize, and how to straighten hair and even cornrow it. But I stayed away from cutting it for many years. Someone else with far more knowledge than me would have to take blade to hair shaft for my comfort. So, periodically, we made a trip to one of the local Black hair care establishments. Shout out to "A Better U"!
"A Better U" specializes in barbering, but they do more than that. They work on both men and women doing cuts, washes, perms, braiding, coloring, and the ever classic "fade". Their first shop that I went to was a tiny place on the southeast side of Albuquerque. Now they have a big barber school in a busier part of town. But in that first shop, you'd walk in to what consisted of two smallish rooms connected by an archway with four or five barber chairs in a row for the customers being worked on. Another row of regular chairs was lined up along one wall where you could sit as you waited for your turn at the shears. It wasn't a fancy place, but it was cozy. Mixed with the sounds of laughter and chatter was the buzz of clippers, the spritz of spray bottles and the smell of hot comb on hair with its little poof of smoke curling up to the ceiling.
In I walked with my two mop tops desperately needing some inches taken off. We took the last two seats along the wall. My daughter sat on my lap. One barber looked at my son and a big grin spread across his face.
"That a boy or a girl?" he asked.
I smiled back. " That's my son. We're here for a haircut. One for my daughter too." My son was young enough and his hair was long enough that he could have been taken for either boy or girl. My daughter, all of 4 years old, was very obviously girl.
"Yeah he sure need one!" laughed the barber. "That's a lotta hair!" Several others smiled and nodded their agreement.
The barber chairs were full and there were several folks waiting ahead of us. One female stylist stood at a barber chair with her hands thick into running cornrows back across a man's head, her hands glistening with grease or gel. Another stylist worked the clippers over and over a man's scalp just behind the ear, making sure there were no stray hairs that were longer than any others. Someone broke open a chocolate bar and passed pieces around to stylist and customer alike. We were going to be there awhile, so we settled in to listen to the comfortable banter.
I watched my children's faces. It was a rare occasion for them to enter an environment where the majority in the room was African-American. They sat in silence as their big eyes took in every word and movement. They fit in, in a way they had not experienced before. Something so unfamiliar, and yet familiar. After a long while, my daughter turned her face up and studied me for a time.
"Mama, do you feel weird?" she asked quietly.
"Weird? About what?" I said.
"'Cause you're the only White person in the room?"
There it was. Discomfort and race had been connected. How? How in one so young and especially who had not yet spent much time outside of a family environment? And it was not her own discomfort that concerned her. It was her mother's possible sense of unease, despite the warmth I actually felt.
I chuckled. "No honey. I don't feel weird. I've been around lots of Black people before where I'm the only White person. It's okay."
Her body relaxed against mine and I nuzzled my face into her big bushy locks. Her world had just grown a little bigger.