Finalist

On Raising Black Children in Whitopia

We sit in a line on a bench in Washington Square Park, my first son, me, my second son. Suitcases flank us—two of us are headed to the train station and on back home. One of us will stay here in the city of his birth. I can’t hear their voices because what I’m thinking is that this is how it will be now, me visiting, leaving, visiting again. Him, always staying. We soak up a cool February sunshine, pretending we’re warmer than we are, and watch the parade before us. The park is the setting for so much and he wants us to see. He believes, perhaps, that I have not seen it before.

“Hey, man, you’re black and white,” a black homeless man approaches and announces to my first son. It’s as though he doesn’t see my second son. As though-at first-he doesn’t see me. I’d watched him beeline over here, eyes on my boy, and I spend these first seconds of our time with him wondering which surprised him when he finally arrived: my first son’s whiteness or his blackness. I try to blaze into memory the order of the races as he gave them, pull out my phone to take a note so I won’t get it wrong later. I am certain, right here, that I am getting it wrong. Which race shook him?

***

It is not an exaggeration to say that in the hours before I held him the first time, I came very close to death. So, the things on which we were focused were different for a time. Here is a partial list: there were 11 pounds of him, so the clothes we’d carefully packed did not fit. The color of my skin resembled the color of this page, and the doctor with his horse-sized iron pills and directions about how to handle the upcoming resulting constipation while also not tearing the wound he had cut in my abdomen—well, there were details not to forget. There was, will always be in my memory, the sound of the trolley carrying blood for a transfusion down the hallway, thunk thunk thunk, as it went over the bumps in the floor I had the night before passed on my feet as I tried to walk the boy out. Then my last-minute refusal and the nurse with papers to sign to release the hospital from responsibility if my decision to reject their blood turned out to be misguided. Papers saying I would leave now with the pills and the baby who did not fit in his clothes. “I’m young,” I told my doctor as he wheeled me through the corridor, thunk, thunk, thunk.  “I’ll make more blood.” He did not disagree as he pushed my wheelchair into the dark night.

His eyes were green. His skin only darker than mine because the horse pills hadn’t yet done their job. We assumed—and would be proven right—that in the summer he’d need no sunscreen while I burned, but that all winter long there would be little to distinguish his skin from my skin. Late one night, I searched the internet—still so new—asking if mixed race babies darkened in time. What was I hoping to find? As I read about the unpredictable fate of a light-skinned baby, my fingers shook. This was not the challenge I wanted my child to face. Could none of these articles provide a balm for this fear of what happens to a man-child when he’s not seen for who he is?

But on the Manhattan streets after months of convalescence and horse pills and isolation, I carried him in the sling facing out. Every black man we passed nodded, not to me but to his future compatriot.

“He looks just like you,” white friends said. I urged them to look closer. It’s just his coloring that’s mine. The set of his eyes, the bridge of his nose, his serious gaze, were all his father. “Ahhh,” they responded, pretending to see. Only one asked if there was something I wasn’t saying, and the look I shot her forced a laugh from her throat.

***

“Yeah, man,” my first son says from his perch on the bench in Washington Square Park. “I’m black and white.”

“How is that?” the man asks him. “How is that man?”

I think about how they keep calling each other “man” and how I thought that trend went out in the ’80s. I think about how my first son is a man. I think about how it seems like this homeless man before us has been listening in on our conversations lately, maybe reading my son’s essays as I have.

“It’s a lot, man. It’s a lot,” is how my first son responds.

***

Back in October, home for the first time from college, my son said, “I knew I was black when the kindergarten teacher kept calling me Diego. I knew I was black when the men in the mall in Atlanta nodded at me.” We sat in the den of our rural New England farmhouse, the room without televisions or computers, the room where we have always been able to speak all the words. His father built the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, I chose the teal green couch our boy sprawled across. Opposite him, my legs extended onto a small brown hassock, my back leaned against a mustard-colored chair. “I knew I was black when, at Oscar’s birthday party this summer, I realized I couldn’t perform it anymore. If the white people around me don’t know I’m black yet, fuck them.” We’re a house where it’s alright to swear. Still, there was a heat in his voice. “I don’t need to prove it anymore.”

He said something had shifted for him these last months, living back in the city of his birth. “I used to wish I was one or the other,” he said, sheepish. He hated admitting to me that he used to wish he were all black; I have never not known that he wished he were all black. I don’t see this as a rejection, just a simplification. “Now I just wish I were more black,” he said. I don’t think he only meant his coloring. But I think he also meant his coloring. I think he meant it would be easier if everyone saw him for who he is.

“Why do you think it’s different for your brother?” I asked after a silence. There is nothing tortured about my second son. He glides through this world with an ease I want to eat like candy.

I spent my first pregnancy dreaming about a cinnamon-skinned baby with corkscrew curls and out came a white child with green eyes and fluffy hair. I spent my second pregnancy imagining a twin—this one smaller, and with a role model to show him the way. Who could have anticipated a brown child with my mother’s features? And here in a country where so many don’t see features.

“He has less to prove,” my first son said.

***

My second son came home from preschool one day and announced that he’d been called a cookie. “Do you mean someone called you an Oreo?” I asked, and he insisted then, he insists now, that this is not what he meant. An almost-man, he tells me, “No, mom. They called me a chocolate chip cookie.” But I don’t think this is the case. I think that upon hearing from his mother what kind of cookie it would break his heart to be called, he recreated the story, made it funny. So that he can continue to slide through on invisible ice skates.

One day I went to the preschool to read a book to his class. I sat in a rocking chair and read to the children about my husband’s homeland, a place where names are confusing to American ears. They asked if my son had a name from that place, and when I said it to them— “Yes, his great-grandmother named him Chicomborero, a name that means he who is blessed” —they could not hear it. “Chicken banana?!” They called out, laughing.

I laughed, too. “No, no, not chicken banana,” I told them, repeating his name slowly.

Something else my second son came home from preschool one day and announced. He had made two friends; they’d formed a group. They called themselves “the brown team.” They sat at my feet in a row that day I read to the class. How clever these boys are to stick together, I remember thinking. And how sharp, to keep intruders at bay—no one welcome here but the cookies. No one welcome here but us chickens. It broke my heart that after preschool those boys went different ways and my brown boy was the only brown boy in kindergarten. On parent’s night three years later, the librarian called him by the name of the other brown child in the lower grades that year—a child only then in kindergarten. “It’s just so hard,” she said to me when I corrected her. “It’s just so hard to keep them straight.”

As I steered him by the shoulders back out of the library that night, my second son said, “It’s okay mom. I do kind of look like Garcia.”

***

From my seat between my sons on the bench in Washington Square Park, I look at the man before us, shoulder-length black hair in natty dreads, a red rim around his eyes, his back stooped and his clothes dark and ragged. He’s about my age, I think, and I wonder about his life, how he got here. What this country has done to him.

“You’re his mom!” he announces when he sees me. “You look alike,” he shouts, like a victory.

“I am,” I smile and put my arms around both my sons. I love being their mom, I want him to see them both. It’s so unusual that he isn’t seeing them both.

***

There are two portraits on my fridge, both drawn during a son’s kindergarten year. Art to Remember: the assignment is to draw a family portrait and then we will have it made into a magnet. Your parents will buy it, and then we can take a field trip! In both portraits, the mother is the largest person of the four, all of the bodies are rectangles, smiles are half circles and hands are a problem. But in my first son’s, the brown used to color in the little brother is darker than the brown chosen for the father. My first son’s skin matches my skin.

He sent me a one-page script back in September. “It’s autobiographical,” he warned. Written for a favorite class. The story tells about five new friends at a burger joint looking at one another’s Instagram pages to get a sense of who they each were before. “Guys, we’re his first black friend group!” one of them says about the character in the skit with my son’s name. She lifts her phone and scrolls through picture upon picture of a blonde beauty by my son’s side.

His reply: “Hey! In my town there were no black girls.”

When we talked about the skit, I discussed what the piece does, how it works, how gifted he is at making story, scene. How, like every good piece of writing, it reveals something large and important inside the mirage of something small and ordinary.

We did not discuss what it means to have been raised in a white town, what years of not being seen did to his soul. We did not discuss the regret I carry every day that this was our choice. Because of course options were limited, academics go where the job is, can’t negotiate based on race or toss the dice and wait for a better place. But the secret I have never spoken is that I was relieved to leave the city, to settle someplace more like where I grew up. And I believed that—armed with knowledge of the problem and an ability to analyze it—we would do right by our kids no matter where we lived. The secret I have never spoken is that even if I wasn’t naïve about what it would mean to raise black children in Whitopia[1], that doesn’t mean I was able to anticipate the consequences.

***

Last week my husband spoke of alternate universes. “I told my students today that if I’d raised my kids at home fifty years ago, they not only would have been separated from you, but they would have been separated from each other.” He says his students stared back at him, incredulous. It is one thing to be taken away from a mother whose race these children of America know is not shared with her babies. It is quite another to be seen as separate from a brother, separate from the only person with this closest constellation of genes, simply because of a difference in pigmentation.

In my second son’s family portrait, we don’t stand in a neat row tallest to smallest. His brother is in the front and he is in the back, his mouth an O as he calls out. Red flowers cover the foreground and my feet are very, very large. Each of our heads has the same swirly, curly hair, and all of our faces are beige.

***

“The other night, I said I was the token white friend in the group—a Freudian slip,” my first son told me that October day in the den.

Is a Freudian slip what we wish we could say, wish we could be, wish we could do but know we can’t? Is a Freudian slip what we secretly believe about ourselves, but the secret is kept also from ourselves? I ask Google:

  1. an unintentional error regarded as revealing subconscious feelings.
  2. a verbal or memory mistake that is believed to be linked to the unconscious mind.

And me thinking a memory mistake was the sole territory (the sole terror) of the nonfiction writer. But what did my first son misremember? Raised in Whitopia, all of his friends were white. If he sometimes felt he belonged, if he sometimes let himself imagine how it would feel to belong, is the error unintentional? Are the feelings subconscious? Or are there moments my first son believes he is white?

What does it mean to be white?

***

“I just thought we had more time,” a friend told me in August after reporting that her son went to daycare that day and learned he was black. He was shown a book someone thought he would like, about a dark-skinned child who hates her skin and tries to rub the black off. My friend’s son hadn’t known before seeing that book that it was bad to be black. He’d not known that he was meant to hate himself in this country. Even stories that reach redemption—the girl loves her skin by the end—break hearts on the road to it. “I don’t know when I thought it would happen,” my friend said. “I just didn’t think it would be today.”

We never want it to be today.

“When did it happen for you?” she asked, and I faltered. How could I tell her that it is always happening?

“I don’t have a story like this,” I said. “No one moment I can point to.” I didn’t tell her I doubt my own tale. I didn’t need to tell her that whenever what happened to her boy happened to mine, whenever we realize it is always happening, I stand apart. What if it happened and I never knew?

***

Back home again at Christmas, my first son asked me, “remember that day the men in a truck made monkey noises at me as they drove by?” I remember no such moment and furrowed my eyebrows in a question mark.

“We were eating at the outside table at the burrito place, and you must have gone inside to pee. A truck drove by and the men inside made monkey noises at me as they passed.”

“But you didn’t tell me when I came out?”

“I guess I didn’t,” my first son said. What did we go on and do that day? What was my son carrying with him as we did it? How oblivious was I to the pain of his compartmentalization?

***

“You’re a daywalker, man! A daywalker,” the homeless man in Washington Square Park asserts as he walks away. “He’s a daywalker, man,” I hear him telling other people seated on the benches circling the fountain. It seems impossible that this man has never encountered a mixed-race person before, impossible that he could be so confused by my first son’s appearance. I begin to question, as I did in the moment he approached, which race shook him. Coming up to us from the side of suitcases and pale skin, my second son perhaps shielded from view, he must have thought us a traveling white family with money to share. But even as I try on this interpretation, I know it’s wrong. I watched him beeline over to my son from across the park, certain about whom he was approaching.

As the man walks away, my first son laughs a little under his breath and looks down at his fingernails, recently painted black. “It’s a reference to a comic book about vampires,” he says quietly. I put my arm around him again and think about how this long winter of reckoning reflects on his face. In the low February sun, the result is a little vampiric. Maybe that’s what the man saw from across the park? A brother whose blood had been sucked.

***

When I said I was too distracted with questions of health to wonder, on the day of his birth, how my baby’s race would be understood, I was not being truthful. I have worried about this thing, how he would metabolize it, since the moment he came to me. Hours of labor and no progress. A clock ticking, decisions to make. Then each step speeds by too quick to catch. Down a hallway on a bed that I didn’t know had wheels, knife into abdomen, a sheet perpendicular to my chest so I couldn’t see my organs splayed, my husband by my head so that he also couldn’t see. An enormous weight lifted and then nurses shouting numbers in a sudden betting before the red, bloodied face I’d waited all my life to meet appeared before me. Swollen eyes and wailing mouth, squirming body held in green-gloved hands. His first breath in this world as I watched. I reached up to touch him and a nurse tsk tsked as the pulse oximeter fell from my finger. “She can touch her baby,” said the doctor I did not yet know had almost killed me. I looked into the face I will for the rest of my life carry just inside my vision, just inside my heart. That face—as it was then, as it was yesterday—is my face. I was never not waiting to see that face.

Also, it is the face of a stranger. Of a boy who won’t always be seen, a child with so much to prove. I lied when I said I didn’t start thinking about it that night. When I said that I haven’t thought about it on all of the nights since.

***

Home from that February trip to the city, I Google the reference. The Daywalker is Blade, a black comic-book superhero who hunts vampires. He first appeared as a supporting character in Marvel’s Dracula comics in 1973 and was made manifest by Wesley Snipes 25 years later. One snowy Saturday, I queue up HBO Max and watch as Blade’s mother is bitten by a vampire while in labor; the baby comes out part human, part vampire. He grows up to fight in an underground war, hoping to kill the vampire who made him the freak he believes himself to be. In a crucial scene, the vampire he’s hunting—slathered in sunscreen and white as an anemic mother postpartum—defines him for the audience: “The Daywalker: You have the best of both worlds. All our strengths, none of our weaknesses.” When threatened, Blade responds with superhuman speed. When wounded, his body heals overnight. Redeemed at the end, he strides out into the sun, living to fight another day. This interpretation, these strengths, enliven me. I can’t wait to watch the film again when my son comes home for spring break.

But even stories that reach redemption break hearts on the road to it. I text my best friend, herself mixed race. She’s fairer than her sister, was often taken for white in our white hometown, and it was watching her find her way in college, watching her learn to perform her race, that warned me all those years ago about the challenges my first son would face.

“It’s so sad, what that man meant in the park,” she responds. “You get all the strengths of being Black, but you’re light enough that this world won’t try to kill you. What a gift. What a burden.”

 

[1] 1 In his groundbreaking 2009 book, Searching for Whitopia, Rich Benjamin describes a place very much like where I’m raising my children. “A place where you can leave your front door unlocked … where the community enjoys a winning ratio of playgrounds to potholes … where your trouble-free high school feels like a de facto private school … where suburban blight has yet to spoil your vistas.” He studies such places, each one “whiter than the nation, its respective region, and its state,” and goes on to write that we could “[c]all these places White Meccas. Or White Wonderlands. Or Caucasian Arcadias. Or Blanched Bunker Communities. Or White Archipelagos. I call them Whitopia.” So do I, with all gratitude to Benjamin for coining the term.

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