The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Virginia’s blackface photos make me again wonder how much to tell my kids

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Lately, my 6- and 8-year-old children have walked in the door from school, dropped their backpacks and sat side-by-side on the floor, poring through images of brilliant African Americans in the book “Young, Gifted and Black by Jamia Wilson. There is explorer Matthew Henson in a white parka, Stevie Wonder with beaded hair and shades and Serena and Venus Williams, standing racket to racket, ready to take on the world in doubles.

These are images I want to capture my children’s imaginations. Stay right here in this bubble of black excellence, I think.

As a mother of black children, I cannot stop there. I am constantly walking the line between letting them be and not letting them be naive. Tangled within this tension is the belief I can help prepare my children by talking to them about racism and the heartbreaking knowledge that I cannot save them from it. In her essay “Raising a Black Son in the US,” author Jesmyn Ward imagines the moment when she will have to tell her young son about Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and Tamir Rice: “I will be denying his childhood. Burdening him with understanding beyond his years. Darkening his innocence.”

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Sometimes the need to discuss a racist incident with my kids is urgent and unavoidable, as it was when the Unite the Right rally erupted in our city. I had to explain why people filled the streets near the park and ice cream shop and why a man in a car had plowed into them.

More often, I am barely keeping up with the news cycle, uncertain which stories deserve my children’s attention and which I might just fume about on a text message to my husband. Unfortunately, stories about black people viewed as threatening or worthless or worthy of mockery are a dime a dozen. My friend Lisa calls it “racism as usual.” Even the now-infamous photograph from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook of a blackfaced and white-robed duo only had five days alone in the spotlight before Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface as a college student.

In “Making Whiteness,” historian Grace Elizabeth Hale describes the genesis of blackface: “Beginning in the 1840s, the mask of burnt cork and later face paint allowed white men to cross the racial divide and play with imagines of blackness …”

Is this garish and horrific form of entertainment, a wicked one-sided body swap, something I should bother sharing with my kids, who are currently soaking in the greatness of Mae Jemison, Bessie Coleman, and Sojourner Truth? I do not know, but I did exactly that.

As women of color, some of my friends and I swapped stories this week of how we talked to our children about blackface. Nicole’s daughters overheard their parents discussing Northam and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. She worked to provide an accurate answer, knowing her children had never seen images of blackface. Kristen, too, was talking to her husband, when her 5-year-old pressed her on this person who had “made a bad decision” and worn a costume. “He dressed like someone who doesn’t like black people,” she told her son, all while putting dinner on the table. Jaime was watching the evening news with her girls when the image from the governor’s yearbook flashed on the screen. “Welp, here we go,” she said to herself. She never considered turning the channel or ignoring the truth. “I don’t want to make this seem abnormal,” she told me.

I was driving, my children in the back seat of the van, when two incidents I had been stewing over prodded me to open up the blackface discussion. The first was an egregious act my kids already knew about. Last month, on his way home from visiting us, my 65-year-old dad was pulled over at night in West Virginia and searched by two cops and a K-9 without reason. When he first heard the news, my 6-year-old had called out: “Did they shot Poppy?!” What a twisted milestone, I’d thought. You get it.

The second was not an incident at all, really, almost the absence of marked racism. It occurred one morning this week at a local coffee shop. An older white man in a bow tie — no makeup, no dance or song — acted as though I did not exist or, at the very least, did not need room to breathe. This man, I knew, could not see me. That is why he worked to overtake my space. He is not alone. There are, I am certain, legions of white men who will never see me, my husband or my children. I wonder if, like Northam, they are trained physicians. I worry my children or I will one day need them.

That lack of sight beyond or outside the white gaze is exactly what concerned my daughter about Northam. “A governor is someone that takes care of people and is helpful, but he was not helpful.”

Unlike mine, her conclusion that he should resign was not grounded in rage or a knowing eye roll. “Maybe they should choose a different governor because I can’t trust a governor who doesn’t help people, because sometimes people really need help.”

Sometimes people need help. Sometimes people need to be seen so they can get help. Sometimes a mother’s job is to help make people seen.

Whether it is showing my children Bessie Coleman’s face in a book or exposing the faces under the ugly, dark paint in photographs or standing firm in the checkout line regardless of a white man’s inability to register my brown face. Maybe sometimes, in the darkest moments, it is envisioning my father’s face, his gray waves peering out from beneath a solid-colored beanie, as he stands, alone, in the middle-of-nowhere America, against a cop car. It is seeing his face, his thick fingers spread apart in compliance. Then swallowing hard, and telling my kids, “Poppy did nothing wrong. Let’s thank God he made it home."

Taylor Harris is a writer and stay-at-home mom living in Virginia. Her work has been featured in Catapult, Longreads, New York Magazine, Narratively, McSweeney’s, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @thurris.

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