Growing up, I’d never seen a picture of my mother as a child. She’d misplaced the few she had, so when I tried to conjure up the girl she’d been, the best I could come up with was an image of a dark-haired girl in high shoes and an old-fashioned dress, her face turned from my gaze. Then one afternoon I came home from intermediate school with a paperback copy of The Diary of Anne Frank.
“There,” my mom said, tapping the black and white photo on the cover. “That is just what I looked like. That could be me.”
I knew it was true. Anne Frank resembled me too. She looked like family, and the more I learned of her story, the more haunted I felt by my mother’s words. That could be me. Were it not for the twin accidents of time and place, my mother or I might have been killed by the people who hated our people and felt threatened by what we represented and despised how we looked.
That family connection to Anne Frank’s photo came back to me the night I turned on my computer and saw a picture of Trayvon Martin for the first time. I felt so drawn to those warm dark eyes, those round boyish cheeks. All week, I’d been listening, horrified, to NPR news reports of seventeen-year-old Trayvon’s murder — how a self-appointed vigilante gunned him down because he felt threatened by this young black man’s presence in his gated community. The murderer, George Zimmerman, who at this writing has yet to be arrested, claims he killed Trayvon in self-defense, despite the fact that he pursued Trayvon, and that Trayvon was armed with nothing more than a packet of Skittles and a bottle of tea.
That could be my son. President Obama had the same reaction. “If I had a son,” he said, “he’d look like Trayvon.”
This must be what the George Zimmermans of the world are lacking — the ability to see themselves and the people they care about in the faces and fates of others. That’s how the Nazis worked. They trained themselves to consider their victims to be less than human. When George Zimmerman began trailing Trayvon, he didn’t see someone’s son or nephew or a younger version of himself. He saw a threat in a hoodie. With that mindset, he shot an unarmed boy in what felt to him to be an act of self-defense.
As the mother of a son I’m left with two questions. First, how do I protect my son from violence and hate crimes? When he was born, surprising his dark Jewish parents with his light blue eyes and golden hair, we used to jest that we could hide him among an Aryan family if we had to. It was an awful joke, made from the beguiling safety of the nearing twenty-first century; it was a thin veil for the fear I felt about bringing a fragile and trusting new human into this dangerous world. To this day, I call “Be careful,” almost every time Ethan leaves the house, hoping that those words stay with him as a talisman.
My other question is how do I raise my son to value every human life? I strongly believe that children, without exception, begin life compassionate and non-judgmental. Racist feelings, like those that prompted George Zimmerman to pull the trigger on Trayvon, are somehow fostered. In fact, I understand from my own experience how it can happen.
I grew up in Far Rockaway, a neighborhood in Queens New York that was suffering growing pains along with me in the 1970s. When I first entered I.S. 53 where I received that copy of The Diary of Anne Frank, I faced daily run-ins with racial strife. The school was across the street from an affordable housing project where most of the black kids lived. For grade school, they’d taken the bus to our neighborhood, but now that the commute was reversed, they’d grown furious for reasons I couldn’t understand. They stuck us with thumbtacks as we moved through the halls between classes. When winter came, they threw snowballs at the backs of our heads as we waited in the bus lines to go home.
“Did you hear?” my friend Kerry asked me one day in homeroom.
She looked over her shoulder to make sure no one was listening. “They’re saying white kids should stay home tomorrow. Otherwise they’ll beat us up.”
That afternoon the snowballs came flying as I waited to get on the bus. The one that hit me had a rock in it.
“Why do they act like that?” I asked my mother when I got home, showing her the bruise on my back. “It’s like they’re animals.”
I expected her to make a fuss over the fact that I’d gotten hurt, but instead she answered calmly. “You don’t know what their lives are like. They may not have enough food in the house. Maybe both their parents work and they’re alone a lot. You just don’t know.”
This surprised me. It seemed so wise and right that I felt something actually open up inside me. A space where I could step back and think about people more fully. What I began to understand was that the animosity my black schoolmates felt for us had its roots in the mistreatment they and theirs had received at the hands of white people.
Still, that night before bed, I asked, “Shouldn’t I stay home tomorrow?”
“No, honey,” my mom answered. “Just be careful.”
“I’ll try,” I promised, though what I thought as I lay in bed listening to the planes that flew low over our house on their way to Kennedy Airport was that being careful had nothing to do with it. The thumbtacks and rock-filled snowballs were used in sneak attacks.
Now, of course, I understand that my mother was offering those words as a kind of prayer. Kine-ahora, we say in Yiddish, a phrase that is meant to ward off the evil eye.
This is what we have, isn’t it? Words and hope. I learned from my mother that words are great tools for passing on our values. Sometimes, words are effective in shielding our kids from feeling the brunt of prejudice and fear. But what they can never do is protect anyone from actual bullets. That’s where hope comes in. Every day as we bravely send our children out onto the sidewalks of this imperfect world, we whisper our own versions of Kine-ahora. Then we return to our words and fight and write and insist that justice be done about atrocities like the murder of one of our boys.