The Indecent Question
With a few snaps, Simone is safe in her car seat, and I run through a mental checklist.
I shut the door on the compact car I bought long before I considered having a child, strap myself into the front seat and steer the car toward the hospital. It is week seven of this thing called Motherhood, and Simone and I are embarking on our first journey together to a postpartum appointment on a crisp March morning.
I drive up to the front of the building, hand my keys to the scrawny guy, and unload Simone. Again, I rely on a list.
Thirty minutes later, I am standing outside waiting for the scrawny kid to return with my car. That is when I see her, the woman with the short-cropped hair and sun-tinged skin. She is someone’s wife, someone’s mother. She spies my daughter and launches into a conversation.
“How old is she?”
“Is she sleeping at night?”
I answer all of her questions with confidence. Our journey to the hospital, thus far, has been a success. My little girl is asleep in her car seat, the scrawny guy is on his way, and this nice lady is cooing over my child.
The lady starts up again, this time with advice.
“When I had children I didn’t let anyone touch their hands.”
“Yes,” I say, now bonding with this woman, this mother. “There are so many germs out there.”
She pauses for a moment and we both look toward the street, wondering what is taking the scrawny dude so long. Finally, the woman asks the question she has wanted to pose for the last few minutes.
“Is she yours?”
I think for a moment about how I will answer this latest query and decide to keep it simple.
“Well, she’s beautiful.”
Afterward, I studied my little girl’s face. With my finger, I traced the shape of her eyes, the curve of her lips, the bridge of her nose. I saw myself in every bend. The way she crinkles her brow before she cries. The way one of her eyes dances more than the other. The way she favors her left hand.
Is she yours?
Yes, she is all mine.
That night, I broached the subject with my husband Ken as we lay in bed, enjoying a moment of silence and watching late night television. It is in that room, in the back of our three-bedroom house, where we share the day’s events. It is our first house, the one Simone will remember when she’s all grown up, the one with a yard big enough for a toy poodle and a yorkie-poo.
“She didn’t mean to be ugly,” he said, half listening to me and to the late night monologue. “She was just curious.”
I cut my eyes at him.
“What do you want me to say?”
That was his way of telling me he once again disagreed with his wife of four years — and that he wasn’t about to change his mind.
Fine, I thought.
Secretly, he was relieved he wasn’t the one fielding such questions. Both of us figured Simone would look more like me. She would look black, and her white father would be the one on the defensive.
I had met him 12 years earlier in an Alabama newsroom. He was an easy-going editor, a life-long Alabama football fan who was losing his hair on top. I was a reporter, a wannabe artist, and not at all sure of myself, least of all my writing.
It all started with his ties — Beetle Bailey, Looney Tunes, Star Trek. He cherished almost anything popular, anything that reminded him of times gone by. I would compliment him on his tie collection, striking up a conversation almost daily. Those exchanges led to long talks about office politics, our likes, and our dislikes. It didn’t matter to us that he was a white man or that I was a black woman.
But early in our relationship race was an issue. Ken wondered whether people judged him while he shopped for groceries with a black woman, and I was uneasy the first time I accompanied him to a University of Alabama football game, fearful the crowd at the school where former Gov. George C. Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door would somehow turn on us.
For six years, we were constants in each other’s lives, as I went to graduate school and hopped from newspaper to newspaper, advancing my writing career. I was searching for another job when Ken hinted he would like to leave Alabama and join me. I told him point-blank that I didn’t want to live together; I wanted a life partner. So did he. We were watching a movie in 2000 when he walked out of the room and returned with this: “So, you know, I have a question for you. Will you marry me?”
My husband didn’t mean to fall in love with a black woman, and I never thought I would marry a white man. We were just people, two military brats who shared a love of writing. Of course, we don’t always agree, especially when it comes to race. As a white man he doesn’t have to wonder whether someone disrespected him because he is white, while I revisit experiences unsure whether a slight was racial, or just a slight. That’s why I should have known he wouldn’t share my outrage about the woman’s question.
Undeterred, I called my girlfriend, Tanya, the one friend who doesn’t mind telling me how she feels. After all, it was Tanya who announced shortly after my engagement that she wouldn’t be a bridesmaid under any circumstances. She wanted no part of the wedding drama, the endless discussions about matching shoes and dresses. Being a part of my wedding would break her streak. So, she wasn’t a bridesmaid — at least not in name.
If I overreacted about the indecent question, Tanya would tell me.
“Huh? Is she yours? What does she mean is she yours? Why does that matter?”
“I don’t know, it just took me aback sort of and I just said, ‘Yes.’ ”
“But why would someone ask that question? And what difference does it make if she is yours or not? That’s just rude. I mean, did she think you were a nanny or something? I can’t believe she asked you that.”
“I hear you. I knew I was having an interracial child. I knew people would judge her based on the color of her skin, but I didn’t think it would play out this way. I really didn’t.”
Race is always there. It can’t be tucked away like a secret or erased like chalk from a black board. Each one of us views life through a filter, a tinted lens. My daughter is just one example. Black women see her and know she has black ancestry; white women see her and immediately identify with her European heritage.
That truth makes my task as a parent much more complicated. I can’t simply explain to my daughter where she came from. I will need to show her, teach her about her background. I don’t want her to have to choose one race over the other like so many other interracial children.
As soon as she is old enough, her father and I will teach her about her roots. We will tell her about her maternal grandfather, a career military man, who grew up picking cotton in the same west Tennessee town author Alex Haley called home. We will make sure she hears about her paternal great grandfather, a newspaper columnist, who was a drum major for the Louisiana State University marching band. She also will learn about the strength of the women who came before her, about one grandmother’s fight against cancer and the other’s battle with the Department of Defense for the rank and pay that was rightfully hers.
None of that will prepare her for the questions she, too, will field one day. My husband was right. Strangers are curious about what they see and hear in life. They don’t mean to show their preconceived notions or their prejudice. They don’t mean to show who they really are. And Simone and I don’t have to ease their minds.
When I push Simone in her stroller at the mall or take her for a walk in our neighborhood, I sometimes see men, women, and children even who want to ask me something. They see my daughter and smile. Then they look up, meet my eyes and a puzzling expression crosses their faces.
Sometimes I answer their question before they ask.
“She has her father’s coloring,” I say.
Other times, I let them stew in their own prejudice.
Weeks after I met the woman outside of the hospital, I saw another woman who could have been her best friend. I was at the craft store, looking for scrap-booking supplies. I carried Simone inside a contraption that resembles a kangaroo pouch. The closeness kept her happy and allowed me to shop. She was making those noises that babies make when the woman rounded the corner.
“I knew I heard a baby,” she said.
“We were trying to be quiet.”
“She’s so young.”
“And I see you’ve lost all of your baby weight already,” the woman said, looking me from top to bottom.
“I didn’t gain much,” I said being coy.
“Lucky you,” she said.
“Yeah, lucky me.”