How to Find the Words?

There’s a post at Peter’s Cross Station that gets to the heart of something that’s been in the back of my mind since we adopted Parker, and something that’s probably been on the minds of other parents who have adopted across racial or cultural lines. Even though Parker and I are the same race, knowing what I  know now about the history of race and racism in this country, I wonder what I’m going to tell him about it and now. As an African American parent and as a gay parent, it’s something I don’t have the luxury of not having to do.

What I never really thought about was the bad news. It never occurred to me that of course, I was going to have to figure out how to share some pretty tough information about this world she got born into without being asked if she wanted to be here. But now that she’s here, I find myself worrying about this job from time to time.

Uncle Sasha will sometimes talk to her about how, as "brown women" they have to stick together. Once, she said something like that to Nat, looked up at me and said, "she doesn’t know she’s Black, yet!" Well, no, she doesn’t. And as I’ve preached here, ad nauseum, she certainly will know it and she’ll be proud of it if we have anything to say about it. But what we have to say is not the end of the story.

Right now, Parker’s at an age where he’s blissfully unaware of how he and his family are different. He doesn’t know that he’s black, or anything else about who’s black or white, and he doesn’t really care. He doesn’t know that Daddy’s black and Papa’s white, he just knows that Daddy and Papa are  his family. As he approaches the age where he begins to realize that  his famly is different from others, we’re just beginning to try and give him that information, with a book that explains how some families have two moms or two dads, and some families are different colors, and some families adopt children. In fact that’s one of the books he asks for most often now.  

But I know that down the road he’s going to encounter racism and homophobia, directed against him and his family, and I wonder how I’m going to prepare him for that. The irony is that I’m a black gay man, and I’m wondering this. But the reality is that in a lot of ways I was never prepared for it myself. I may have absorbed an understanding of racism by osmosis, through my upbringing and experience, but I can’t say off the top of my head that anyone prepared me for it. The history of racism in America and the civil rights movement was available to me and I partook of it, but I don’t remember anyone sitting me down and preparing me to face it on a visceral level. Maybe it was too hard.

But I remember the times I had to face it for myself.

I remember the first time I was called "nigger" by a white person, a girl in my seventh grade class, and the feeling that washed over me then.

I remember one summer when I was in the Boy Scouts, and went to summer camp with another predominantly black Boy Scout troop. (At that time, in the area of Georgia I’m from, Boy Scout troops were pretty much segregated, though not on any obviously official basis.) One afternoon, we bested a white troop in one of the games we competed in at camp. That night, while we were at the showers and on our way back to our campsite, we could hear them taunting us with racial slurs. Back at the campsite , we stood and listened to them. The Scoutmaster, and older black man, stood and listened with a far away look in his eyes. I asked him "Why do they do that?" His only response was "I don’t like to be questioned." After that, we just waited for them to stop.

I remember once when I was in college, I was on my way back to school after visiting home for the weekend. I had just finished loading the car and was about to say goodbye to my folks when my Dad looked at me and asked "Son, is that what you’re wearing to drive back?" I was wearing an old t-shirt, and a pair of ripped jeans. Before I could answer, he said "Son, you’re going to be driving back through southern Georgia counties, and you’re a young black man. If a sherrif or policeman stops you, and sees you like that…" he trailed off, but I knew what he meant. I knew about lynching, and the violence historically meted out to blacks in the south. I went and changed clothes. That was the closest I think we ever came to talking about racism. That evening, back at school, I turned on the news to see the footage of the Rodney King beating.

I learned about one ancestor of mine who was a slave. I learned about the women in my family who were raped by white men during and after slavery. I learned as much as I could and absorbed it into myself.

So how can I do that for my son? In other words, how do I prepare him to have his heart broken a little?

Granted, he might not have to face as much overt racism as his forebears did. But I have no doubt he’ll have to face it, and the best I guess I can do is to tell him what I’ve learned through my own experience, and to make sure that he knows to the core of his being that he is loved, cherished, and worthy of being such. My husband and I can handle that together. Still, right or wrong, I tent to take responsibility upon myself for preparing our son to deal with the racism he’s likely to face, and the history that’s preceded him. I guess I just feel somewhat better equipped for the job than my husband is. But how can I affect what he learns when he’s away from me?

It’s not that Nat is Black. That fact changes the dynamics, of course, but I’d be sad having to break the news of American History to any child of mine of any race. It’s hard enough breaking it to children who aren’t mine, when they’re not even quite children anymore. I have had college students look at me with tears streaming down their faces asking me why no one ever told them–in their 12 years of privileged education–what Columbus did to the Arawaks. And it’s not as though I gave them some melodramatic lecture, I just assigned them chapter one of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.

But no child of mine is going to college without that information, and that means I get the job of telling her. No book can do that for me. … Telling Nat the kinds of things that people have done to each other throughout history not because of racial difference, but just using racial difference as an excuse to treat each other as less than human–for profit, for sport, for sheer power–is not a job I relish. I’m just glad she’s too little to know quite yet. It gives me time to come up with a plan.

I’m grateful that at least we have time, and resources to draw upon. The problem is just that there’s no easy way to prepare a child for the realities of the world they’ve been born into. I don’t know if books are the answer, but I think that they can definitely help. I’m already stockpiling various books (including Zinn’s book, mentioned above) that I want to have available when Parker is old enough to read and  understand them.

Right now, I think the best we can do is to let him know that we love him and we’re here for him no matter what. I think he "gets" that, but sometimes when he hops into my lap and smiles at me, or when he comes to me for comfort and to have his tears wiped away, I look at him and wonder what he’ll have to face because of the race and family he was born into, and how we’ll help him face it. The truth is, I don’t know what and don’t know how. I just know that we will, as best we can.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
This entry was posted in Adoption, Gay Rights, Life, Parenting, Race. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How to Find the Words?

  1. Jenny K says:

    All I can say is thanks for the thoughful post, it looks like Parker has some great parents.

    And aren’t Todd Parr’s books great?

  2. Andy says:

    Excellent post. Don’t put those Seymour Hersh books too low on the bookshelf (oh, forgot to add him to my heroes list).

  3. shannon says:

    Thanks for that, T. A very thoughtful continuation of the conversation. Maybe we need to start some kind of progressive parents group where we all process this stuff.

  4. aaron says:

    You state that Parker is “blissfully anaware” of how he and his family are different. At 4 1/2 Jeremiah is too.

    In considering the timing of when to talk about these subjects it brought me some comfort to learn that children of their age are not in that blissful state because of over-sheltering or a willful avoidance of the differences. According to Your Four Year Old: Wild and Wonderful they’re not able to perceive race differences. Color differences, yes, but not race. Meaning Jeremiah, being Af-Am/Japanese/White, sees himself as light like his dads. There’ll be time to get into the nuances and the history, both slavery and the internment in concentration camps.

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