It happened when the four of us were running errands together.
“We’re white!” my three-year-old son exclaimed from the back seat of the car. Unspoken words passed between my husband and me: Did he really just say what we think he said? We asked him to repeat himself.
“We’re white!” Canon said again, empathically this time, then added, “And blue!” James and I looked at each other: had our boy just recognized his white mama and black daddy and his own skin’s caramelized blend of both colors?
“You’re right, baby,” I replied. “But we’re white and black, not blue. We’re a little bit of those colors.” He thought about that for a second or two before moving on to the next subject.
Our boy had begun to see color.
I never set out to marry a black man, let alone the son of one of the most prominent civil rights leaders of our time—but I’m getting ahead of myself—nor did I expect to find myself passionate about issues of racial justice. Caring about race was for people of color, not for those of us in the simple majority. Besides, hadn’t our ancestors already apologized for the atrocities of our past?
Why did we need diversity, when there were only a handful of kids who didn’t look like the rest of us?
In the seventh grade, I dressed up as Maya Angelou for English class and performed a reading from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I wore loose flowing fabrics, like I believed she would have worn, and I wove a floral head wrap around my frizzy auburn curls. Chunky beads hung down my pubescent chest and I read to my classmates in my silkiest, richest voice. But I didn’t paint my face black or brown or use any make-up to make myself appear darker. That would have been too much. That would have crossed the line.
And I probably wouldn’t have gotten extra credit for dressing up.
So we held race and racism, people of color, and the problems of America’s past at arm’s length. We kept a respectful distance and we tried not to stare when a black family came to our church. We cocked our head to the sides at the swimming pool when their mamas put shower caps over their heads, and we tried not to watch when the black boy at summer camp – the only one who’d come from the local AME Church – threw rocks at the side of the dining hall and refused to come inside and eat.
Were all black people that angry?