Not too long ago, I perused the White House gift shop online, looking for a piece of Obama memorabilia to bring into my home for my children, for me. I was never one for placing the president’s photo in my home or room, although as a middle-schooler I did teach myself how to accurately fold an American flag and wrote multiple letters to the White House while Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton were there. But now, knowing that the ghastly rhetoric that has consumed the developing ears of my little ones for the past couple years is likely not to end, I must be armed.
As a mother to two African American children who are 5 and almost 3 years old, the age where they are cognizant of words and actions, and who do and copy what they hear, I am carefully creating an environment where I hope they will thrive.
My mother was no different, though she seemed pretty preoccupied with race when I was growing up. And that was my perception of our world: Black dolls, black books. I knew that a gift from my mother would usually have a black figure on it. She was a product of the ’60s, as she would say, and the 1960s in Detroit were as racially divided and charged as they come. She also had to arm herself.
My seemingly cozy childhood during the 1980s and ’90s was not without racial acknowledgment, but my mother’s concerns felt a little less urgent to me. I wasn’t facing the discrimination she had. By many accounts, my brother and I were quite privileged and living in a sort of race and economic bubble, with our parochial schools and family vacations. For us, things were okay.
Sure, both the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson verdicts were racial milestones during my childhood where teachers and students cheered or jeered as we watched in our classroom. But many of my elementary and high school friends were white Polish, black, Albanian, Yugoslavian and Chaldean. We all seemed to move through life with a fair amount of discourse but nothing particularly alarming. Nothing that made us feel as if we were moving back in time like I feel today.
Today, the adult version of myself knows that my mother wasn’t preoccupied with race, more like she was arming us, her two black children who were growing up in a world different from our parents’ world. She saw two black children who were pretty comfortable living a colorblind existence. All of this began to change when I went away to college, making discoveries as a black woman.
Now I’m mother to my own girl and boy who are half Senegalese. Both of them were born during Obama’s administration. I felt at ease because our country made a step in the way of progress by electing an African American to the presidency. It was such a thrill to know that my children would come to understand that someone who looked a little more like them was in the White House at the beginning of their lives. And with my assumption about the impending election of Hillary Clinton, the world was really beginning to feel a little more just. Certainly not perfect, with the killings of young black men, but we could fight those things with a black man, and then a woman, in office. Or so went my thinking.
It was that bit of naive thinking that set me up to be shell-shocked late on Nov. 8.
What has occurred since the election has been even more frightening for a generation, many of whom experienced this sort of racial upheaval only through their parents and history books. The world my mother grew up in is re-emerging for my children’s generation. Richard Spencer, JCC bomb threats, Nazi fliers, swastika graffiti. As any parent does, I think of my children and this world they are now living in. If you believe that life is cyclical, have we reached the end of a cycle while we head full throttle toward a new one that our children will have to manage and endure?
Our jobs as parents are complex as we decide how to talk to our children who might now be seeing more overt racism and hatred.
As parents on either side of the election, have we not all taught our children a basic human tenet: respect? Respect is how we exist in a world with others that do not share our views. We explain that in various ways to even the smallest of our citizens.
But this election has ripped off the mask that many African Americans knew to always be there. I can’t stop thinking about the words of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar:
We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes —
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
This poem was written during an emergence of black artists who assembled to create work on their experience as Negros. Blacks were second-class citizens at that time who were regularly prevented from exercising their right to vote. There were miscegenation laws in place and although slavery was illegal, there were other ways to keep them down, keep them out of the workforce, keep them uneducated. African Americans were portrayed in films and on the stage as brainless servant, with worth only in manual labor.
It was a time I hoped not to visualize in my own life, one that I was almost blind to growing up but for my mother’s arming us. I am accustomed to the disappointment that comes with being black as seen through my parents’ eyes, but felt that my children would see that less.
And like my mother, now I must prepare. With books and groups and quotes and photos, trips to national monuments and museums. We must remember who led our country from Jan. 20, 2009 to Jan. 20, 2017. We must remember that a black woman who bared her arms and opened them wide for all children stood next to her African American husband. We must remember that two little black girls entered and two young black ladies left. I must help my children remember. I must arm them.
This moment in history also makes me think of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods”:
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say “Listen to me”
Children will listen
Our children are watching and listening, so we must bring them close to us, teach them what we know, put them out into the world with the type of demeanor we saw from a model first family who just so happened to be black.
So as a mother of these two nonwhite children, I am looking around, taking stock and preparing my lessons. Looking through the gift shop among the magnets and bobble heads and mugs and calendars and deciding what will adorn my walls to remind my children to see beyond our household.
I will prepare, and arm myself. So when they ask about their world, I will have my answers.
Garlia Cornelia is a mother of two, a freelance writer, playwright and Obie Award-winning theater producer. Follow her on twitter @garliacornelia.
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