My 7-year-old daughter Chekesha sat in our living room the other night and cried.
We had been watching the movie about the 1957 integration of a Little Rock, Ark., high school. One minute we were looking at the TV set, and the next minute, she was crying. I asked her what was wrong. "Nothing," she said.
The scene where the tears started showed the nine black children walking up to the school amid crowds of angry, screaming white people -- men, women and children -- yelling, "Niggers, go home!"
When my daughter's tears stopped, I asked if she wanted to talk about what was bothering her. She wanted to know why the white people were so angry at the black children. She wanted to know what they had done.
As a black parent, I was caught in a dilemma. I know that other parents -- regardless of color -- have to face this situation sooner or later. I had to explain to her that there were -- and are -- people in this country who dislike black people. She asked if the movie was real; I told her it was about a real incident. She couldn't believe that people really acted like that. She didn't want to believe that people would dislike her because she was black. She wanted to know why people would dislike her without knowing anything about her.
Part of me wants to tell her that there are white people in this country who are prejudiced. Part of me wants to let her make up her own mind about people. I wonder how other parents handle this?
I've been around long enough to know (consciously) that good and bad people exist in about equal numbers across color lines. But when I re-live incidents like those in the movie; when my daughter asks why black cab drivers won't stop for us, but will for white people; when I think of all the pain and suffering that has gone on in the pursuit of civil/equal rights, my gut feelings come into play. I am angered, upset, outraged.
But do I dare transmit these feelings to my daughter? I think not. But where do I draw the line? I don't know.
I looked at my daughter while her child's mind grappled with making sense of what she had seen. She thinks her brown skin is beautiful. She has always felt good about herself. She couldn't understand why anyone would dislike her because of her color. I had to explain that there are, unfortunately, some ignorant, some hateful people in this world.
While we were walking to the bus stop another day, she said, "I'm a lucky black child." It sounded like such a strange thing to say that I had to stop and ask what she meant. "I'm lucky," she said, "I don't live in Atlanta." (She was referring to the now 20 black children who have been murdered in that city.)
I found myself wondering again what I should tell her about racism and prejudice in America. What do white parents tell their kids? I wonder how I should prepare her to face a world where color still makes a difference. hI don't want her to grow up racist, but I damn sure don't want her to be naive, either.
I wonder how much she has seen and heard in her short life about race relations in this country (I can't control all the variables). I wonder how she interprets what she has has seen and heard. Does it make sense to her? Does it make sense to white children? I think she was particularly upset when she saw other other children yelling "Nigger!" (which I have told her not to say).
If you ask me, I think we are seeing, in the murder of black children, in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, in the brutal mutilations of black men in Buffalo, in the sniper killings of blacks across the country, a return to a time when it was "open season" on black people. I ask myself if authorities wouldn't have acted faster in Atlanta if the children involved had been white.
I hate to think that, but experience in America makes me do so.
But although my gut reaction might be to declare the Atlanta killings part of a conspiracy to do away with blacks, I have to remember that they are not the first mass-murder case. What is upsetting is that this is the first that I know of involving black children exclusively.
And I'm distressed by the empty lapels I see every day. Blacks and whites wore yellow ribbons to remind us of the 52 living, adult American hostages.
Can we not at least wear red, black or green ribbons to remind us that 20 black children are dead? There is no hope of their coming home, only the hope that by Focusing public attention on the case the killer(s) will make a mistake and be caught.
If this is seen only as a black issue, then I grieve not only for those children and their families, but for all of us.
At a symposium I attended at Howard University in May 1978, Dr. Kenneth Clark, the black sociologist whose studies provided data for the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954, said that we were going to see a new wave of racial violence and unrest in this country. He said that we would see more subtle forms of racism and discrimination, in which people in three-piece sutis would not actively participate in violence, but who would politely stand on the corner and watch others, all the while proclaiming their inability to do anything.
Clark also said something I was reminded of when I watched that movie: He said that white parents to do their children a disservice when they raise them with racist viewpoints. He said that such white parents ill-equip their children to function in a country that is about 25 percent non-white and in a world that is two-thirds non-white.
Until then, I never thought of segregation, racism and prejudice as being detrimental to white children. I know what it's done to black children: I only hope white parents realize what it does to theirs.