I listened to a conversation in which a young black boy named Zion was talking with his mother about race. There was much to glean from their conversation, but there was a segment that broke my heart.
This child said he was talking with a white schoolmate of his who said his mother was crazy. When asked why he would say that about his mother, this schoolmate said that she was acting crazy because someone black had moved into their neighborhood.
“That made me sad,” Zion said, and he continued his recollection about that day. As he stood talking with his schoolmate, he looked up and saw the other boy’s mother walking toward them.
“What did you do?” his mother asked, and Zion said, “I ran.” His mother filled in the spaces – recalling how Zion ran up to and got behind his mother. “Why did you do that?” his mother asked, and Zion said, “I didn’t want his mother to see that I was black.”
Zion’s story reminds me of an incident I had when I was little, something I wrote about in my children’s book, Carla and Annie. I and my siblings spent a lot of time in a nearby park when I was growing up. There was lots to do there, but what I remembered was hanging on the monkey bars. I and the other kids would try to outdo each other.
On this particular day, a little white girl with whom I had “competed” with on the monkey bars quite a bit sat on top of the structure, just looking at me, hanging upside down, swinging back and forth. It was weird, even more so because she was not playing as she usually had. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “My mother said I can’t play with you.”
Hmmm. That was a new one. I had to ask her why, and her answer to the question was, “My mother said I can’t play with you because you are black. Plain, old, ugly black.”
I was stunned. I looked at my hands, thinking that I must have gotten dirty. There was some dirt on them, yes, but I wasn’t black.” But what this girl said to me struck something deep within me. I ran home, straight to the bathroom, got up on my little stool, and looked into the mirror.
Sure enough, I wasn’t black, but I was still confused about why this little girl – and her mother – would say something like that. So I proceeded to get my washcloth and some Dial soap, and after putting as much soap on that cloth as I thought was necessary to get rid of the “black,” I scrubbed and scrubbed. When I thought I had scrubbed enough, I stopped. In the mirror, I looked the same, although my face was red from the scrubbing. But in my spirit, something was different.
This society does not give voice, as a rule, to the experiences little children carry about how they “learned” they were black in this country. Very few people talk about it, but the burden of being “different” and somehow “less than” is planted in the hearts and spirits of little black children early on. Black children have to learn to manipulate their feelings of being inferior, ugly, and somehow unworthy of what life offers their white friends. They have to go deep to find the truth of that which is in him or her being greater than that which is in the world.
Black children have to walk that valley virtually alone.
In Dr. Eddie Glaude’s book Begin Again, he gives the description of how a black teenager, Dorothy Counts, endured the liquid and vile hatred of white people- students and their parents – who resented her integrating one of their schools. Their taunting and terrorism of her included her being spat upon; “spit,” wrote Glaude, “hung from the hem of her dress.”
Metaphorically, black and brown children and probably anyone who is not white, walk with spit on the hems of their clothing. White supremacy produces toxic spirits that become incapable of exuding love and acceptance; it produces a cancerous cell that metastasizes and makes it impossible for those so afflicted to offer compassion, love, and acceptance to people of color.
It makes them unable to see and unwilling to care about the damage they cause in the lives of children who must grow up in spite of the cancerous air around them.
In writing about the faith of Abraham, Dr. Walter Brueggemann says that God is both a “tester” and a “provider.” Black children – black people – are tested, and have historically been tested by the fangs of white supremacy; the test has been to see if we will hold onto God, no matter what, and many of us have. After the test, writes Brueggemann, God provides. As God provided the ram in the bush so that Abraham would not have to kill his son Isaac as God had commanded, God has provided black people in this country spirits of resolve and a faith that has kept us so that has not let go of God.
But we walk, still, with spit dripping off the hems of our garments. The prayer is that those who have been poisoned by white supremacy will one day realize and care about how their spit has diseased not only this country but the entire world.
Amen and amen.