I am a young, black mother who has lived a life of relative ease, filled with loving family and wonderful friends, with a few obligatory ups and downs and twists and turns sprinkled throughout. I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, a beautiful, pristine southern city with down-home people and, to me, undetectable race hatred. I went to school throughout my formative years with classmates of all races in schools that were purposely designed to create a fictitious race balance.
As a youngster, race rarely entered my mind. In fact, race, to me, was a stifling ingredient to life that old folks used to scare me into believing would forever affect me and the decisions I made. “Oh, pah,” I retorted in defiance and disdain. “Don’t you know that this is the 19-90s,” I chopped, rolling my eyes.
Slowly though, first beginning while in college at UNC-Chapel Hill, race did indeed creep into my life in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I learned quickly how polarized the campus, campus organizations and even the students themselves were. Life, for me, was dictated by the blacks-and-whites-sitting-on-opposite-sides-of-the-cafeteria syndrome. Since then, racism, discrimination, stereotypes, and racial divisions all still raise their ugly heads in my life from time to time. And so, it is with this column that I will write about race and motherhood and how it affects the way I mother.
When my daughters and I recently visited our local mall to do a little shopping and get a bite to eat, my oldest, Annlyel, who is six years old, made a comment that was quite insightful for a child so young, but also very disturbing to me.
After lingering around much too long for all of our patience, we sat down on one of the many benches that lined the middle of the mall. I rearranged our shopping bags, tied my youngest daughter’s tennis shoe, and rummaged through my purse in search of my keys. I hardly noticed as three men casually strolled in front of our bench. Although I didn’t know it at the time, they had captivated my daughter Annlyel’s full attention.
The three men — two White, one Asian — were all dressed in their finest blue suits; starched, stripped ties; and well-laced, polished dress shoes. They were without a doubt on their lunch break and were on their way back to the rigor of the office. Each of them, the youngest of whom was probably in his sixties, held a styrofoam cup from one of the mall’s many burger stops and looked rather unenthusiastic about having to head back to work.
As the men walked past us, none of them looked our way or even noticed us sitting there. I’m sure each of them saw us, peripherally. But a mom sitting on a mall bench with her head nearly hidden in her purse, two young daughters straddling her sides, does little to illicit much curiosity or interest.
When they had passed by and were effectively out of earshot Annlyel excitedly exclaimed, “Mommy, I want to tell you something!”
“What, babe?” I asked, a little exasperated as I hunted for my keys so we could leave.
“Three presidents just walked by,” she said with the confidence of a six-year-old who has fully absorbed the rigor of a hotly contested presidential election.
I smiled as I realized the connection Annlyel had just made. It was the type that only small children with undeveloped synapses can make. It’s one of those spoken observations by children that makes you wish you could see the world in simpler terms again. It’s also one of those observations that makes you realize it’s one she would not have made if it were three black men who had casually walked by our bench, styrofoam cups in hand. Only six years old, my daughter had already pieced together the relation between power and the presidency — and black men were nowhere in the picture.
Of course, I didn’t tell Annlyel any of that. When children are young, it is nice that they can live in a world of relative bliss, as I did once, without the worries and realities that we adults face. But it is also a frightful shame that Annlyel and Aila, my youngest, will grow into adults where race will eventually color their perspective and observations on all things, as it has for me. My heart hurts for the ever-encroaching moment when they finally realize they’re black, and that in certain situations some will treat them differently. But for now, I savor these years when they haven’t a clue about discrimination and race.
After finally finding my keys in the pit of my purse, we headed for the nearest mall exit. Annlyel happily scampered along by my side, commenting wildly on everything in our path. Life, to her, is simple. As well it should be.