Monday, May 18, 2009

They'll Wear The Armor: Guarding My Babies From The "N" Word

He said it as simple as “pass the salt” or “may I have another slice of apple pie”—“My mom said we can’t play with niggers, so…” I was 11-years-old and brand new—the child of two southerners who, in integrating a virtually all-white, working-class neighborhood in Long Island, thought it more prudent to embrace racial progress than harp on painful pasts. No one had told me that the word was supposed to hurt, and so I didn’t sweat it—was more sad about the 8-ft fence my neighbor’s mama had built around their house and her orders to her children to stay away from me and my brother than some word whose meaning was still tenuous—blurry—to kids like us.

The meaning and the sentiment behind it was crystal clear, though, the next time I heard it. I was riding my bike one block over from my parents’ house when the daughter of my Girl Scout troup leader shouted out from her front lawn full of friends, “Nigger want a watermelon?” I was 12. I never went back on that block or to another Girl Scouts meeting—not ever. That’s how I dealt with that. And years later, when a fellow student barged into my dorm room, shouting about how “the nigger down at the front desk” wouldn’t let her in without showing I.D., I was too scared to do anything other than accept her apology and tell her it was cool. I’d only been on that college campus for about 30 minutes—the tears from saying good-bye to my parents were still wet on my face. And the word “nigger” was already ringing in my ears.

I had a few choice words and a couple middle fingers for the people who called me the “N” word once I grew up and got some nads—for the guy at the CVS who thought he should get to skip the line where I was waiting to buy Pampers for my baby; for the guy in the parking lot of the Best Buy, who thought I should pull out into oncoming traffic because he was in a rush; for the angry Puerto Rican who cursed me in Spanish but knew enough English to call me “nigger” after I almost rear-ended his car trying to avoid hitting a stalled one in my lane.

I remember every… last… time.

And each incident still makes my blood boil.

And I wait on pins and needles, needles and pins for the day that someone will say that ugly, searing, poisonous word to my daughters. I wonder under what circumstance they’ll hear it—if it’ll be on the school bus, or at the mall, or in camp, when there is no grown-up within earshot. Maybe it’ll be at college, on their first day, while their faces are still wet with tears.

I try to figure out what I’ll say to them—how I’ll explain such vitriol—such contempt—conferred from one stranger to another. I see such innocence in their young faces; at age six and nine, they don’t know much about the harsh lessons black children faced over the years. Selma. Four Little Girls. Ruby Bridges. Back of the bus. Separate and unequal. Those babies had to have armor, you hear? And we did, to some extent, too.

But not my babies—not really. In this post-racial world, where the most powerful leader on the planet is a black man with two daughters who look just like them, and it’s not a thing for little black girls to have white friends and Asian friends and Muslim friends, and it just doesn’t matter as much what color you are or what religion you practice but what kind of person you are, my girls don’t have to put on the armor. Their expectations of others are pure.

They can just… be.

Without fear.

Even here in Georgia, in the seat of the confederacy, where just a generation ago, children who looked like them witnessed unspeakable atrocity.

Still, I can’t claim racial progress with a whole heart. Black president and First Mom aside, we still see Confederate flags snapping in the Spring winds. And it’s only a matter of time before someone curls that ugly word around the tongue and launches it in my babies’ direction.

Some days, I feel like I should warn them.

Most days, I want my black butterflies to enjoy the innocence—to avoid having to put on the armor just a little while longer.

Just a little while…

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  1. What a powerful post. We all want to guard our children from all the harsh realities of life. I was lucky enough to grow up not having to deal with racism or never having that word said to my by anyone other than my own kind of folk. I do believe that although we have come a heck of a long way, we are not there yet and it is still possible that one day my precious babies will have to find out all about the divide of the races. I'll protect them as much as I can, God will have to protect them the rest of the way.

  2. Thanks for this post. I am so sorry that you had to deal with that at such a young age. I pray that is something my children won't have to deal with and if they do I pray God gives me the words to comfort them.

  3. This was a very powerful post and unfortunately the n bombs will always be there as will all the other ethnic slurs. It's a matter ignorance, not knowing enough about our neighbors to not feel threatened by them. In a perfect world we'd just all get along and not worry about color but that my friend is still a long way off.

  4. Just advise that some people will not like them for various reasons. Some will not like them for their skin color. Others will not like them because of their height, weight, dialect. Your daughters are indeed growing up in a different world. Although we want to shield them we have to educate them so that they can appreciate where they are based upon the armor others had. We need to educate them not to hold grudges or place blame on individuals but at the system that causes others to think that way. Basically, hate the sin and not the sinner.

  5. @Mommy Fabulous: Don't even get me started on OUR people using that doggone word. Makes my blood boil.

    @Anonymous: Great advice--you're absolutely right that they need to be educated. I will, I promise. I just hate that I have to school my babies on such ugliness...

  6. I can't believe the irony of your having posted this story today. I had a dream last night about how I would deal with my sons (should I have any) using the N-word themselves. Though I think it's used less often by others than it might have been years ago, I think that it remains prevalent in our own community. And I'm not sure how I'll deal with it should the need arise. I just wanted to thank you for having written about something that's still so relevant and for making sure we don't forget.

  7. I remember times like those that you experienced. I experienced them too but in a different town, a different classroom but still the same emotions. You can prepare your girls by raising them to be proud of who they are so that words and hatred will not cause them to look at themselves differently.

    You're on the right path to giving your girls the tools to protect themselves against whatever it is the world throws their way.

  8. Everytime I visit you blog you just blow me away..

  9. This has not happened to my sons yet but I wondered how I would handle it as well. They are so naive. My oldest has hard time believing slavery existed in the country he lives in. Those times are so far from them.

  10. deep. i pray your daughters never get called that foul word. i managed to escape being called one, at least to my face (thus far). my prayers are the same as yours, though. i pray my son never is called out his name or treated any different because he's black, but i already know it's coming. how we prepare our children to deal with such foolishness is what will help them to be fearless, in spite of.

  11. I also pray my son never has to face hearing or being called that awful word! God will give me guidance in helping him understand if ever it does happen.

  12. Hi!
    I think you're a really talented writer and I enjoyed reading your post. Happy SITS day, by the way.

    I, too, feel that racial equality is really important. I think we as a nation are good at saying that we are being racially equivalent to everyone, but in practice we still have a long way to go.

    In my effort to view everyone as truly equal, though, I have to ask you a question. I hope you will consider it with thoughtfulness, as it is not my intent to offend you:

    Why do you call your blog "My Brown Baby"? Because I have a feeling that if a white person called their blog "My White Baby", there would be more than a few readers who would say that person is not being sensitive to people of other races. While I don't doubt your sensitivity for people of other races, I have just been having a hard time lately understanding why it is PC-acceptable for people of other races to celebrate their unique ethnicity, but that would be considered taboo for a Caucasian person to do.

    I do honestly value your answer. Maybe I just do not understand. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  13. @Texan Mama: Thank you for stopping by MyBrownBaby and trusting me to answer your question with the sincerity in which it was asked. Here are my thoughts, straight--no chaser.

    MyBrownBaby was created in reaction to the dearth of black parenting in American mainstream culture. When you look around the web and see all these parenting sights and mommy blogs, the majority of which feature/picture/quote/commiserate with an audience that is overwhelmingly white, they are, in essence a celebration of white babies. I don't say that to be disrespectful or humorous. I say it because it's real. The only time we seem to ever hear from or about black parents (or any parent, for that matter, who isn't white) is when we're talking about pathology--poverty, teen pregnancy, crime rates, immigration, etc.--as if we moms of color don't matter if the news isn't about urban mayhem.

    I created MyBrownBaby to counter those stereotypes--to carve out a little space to celebrate black parenthood and all the beauty I see everyday in the moms who are raising their children in loving, sound, strong environments that really don't look much different from those of their white counterparts. MyBrownBaby was created to put folks on notice that brown moms and their babies matter, too. It's a space where African American moms—and their opinions—matter, and are heard, respected, and revered. For their poignancy and strength. For their intelligence and authenticity. Because they deserve it.

    While I intended for black moms to call MyBrownBaby home, I certainly hoped that ALL moms would feel comfortable sitting on the MyBrownBaby stoop and commiseratating/learning/teaching about their views on motherhood, too. Some days, that feels more like a shotgun wedding than a uniting of minds and the sharing of opinions. Other days, like on my SITS day, I feel like the folks who visit and actually take the time to read the posts here at MyBrownBaby and understand the feelings and sentiment and passion behind them totally get why MyBrownBaby exists. On what other blog/parenting site have you ever read a mom worry about how her child will respond to the first time she'll be called a nigger? Where can you read about a brown mom's fear of her brown son falling into the hands of the police for all the wrong reasons (not necessarily because he did anything wrong)? Heck, show me a post on any other blog that's NOT written/run by a black woman that gives black moms advice on simple things, like how to style/take care of her child's hair. Or that celebrates (rather than questions the whereabouts of) black dads.

    You can certainly find all of that, and then some, here. For sure, this IS a celebration of ethnicity, culture, experience, perception, and, above all else, motherhood.

    Why MyBrownBaby you ask?

    I answer: why not?

    What makes America beautiful is that it is full of a rich, vibrant mosaic of people. We want so desperately for it to be a melting pot, but really, it's the mosaic that makes ALL of us beautiful. I don't want you to be colorblind when you look at me. I want you to notice my hair and my skin and the way I talk and acknowledge my differences AND respect them for what they are. And not be afraid of me because I'm different. I just want you to let me be. Just like you are able to just, well, be.

  14. Thanks for your response.

    I have some other questions but I really don't want to minimize this comment space, so if you ever want to talk just email me and I can share my questions with you. If not, that's okay too!

    have a great day.

  15. Thank you for this post. I think that we often forget that it is not just our little black boys that we worry about, but our little black girls as well. I know I do. With a free spirited, afro puff wearing brown princess of my own, I worry all the time that someone will question her identity, make her feel less than, or some other awful situation that will somehow make her feel that there is something wrong with being black. Thank God that we have not experienced this at all in our community. Her friends are from all races and she considers her family to be much like a rainbow coalition, consisting of not just "brown" people, but also "peach" people, as Miss J prefers to call them, lol. She doesn't care for the terms black and white.

    I hope that your babies never have to hear that ugly word or are ever told that they are anything other than their wonderful, beautiful little selves.


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