“It’s raining, but the ocean still looks calm. You can’t even tell it’s storming.” My daughter’s observation as we drove along the shoreline in our new city struck me as all too familiar. She had unknowingly found the perfect metaphor for my feelings.
We recently relocated to coastal South Carolina, to lush, beautiful beaches and marshlands, to a gated community of pristine homes and a private golf club. Our relocation has taken us from our familiar and diverse neighborhood in Birmingham, a midsize urban metropolis where approximately three-quarters of the population is African American, to a neighborhood where I have yet to find another brown face.
I have traded a city with a noted history of activism and resistance for one that appears isolated from the storms brewing in the world outside. Here in this new space, I feel forced to maintain my appearance of calm and keep my peace.
On the day of the Charlottesville attacks, I was preparing to head out for a day of errands and family time with my daughters. As I dressed, I instinctively reached for my “Black Lives Matter” shirt — for me, a natural response, especially in times like these. It’s a way to demonstrate solidarity when I feel helpless.
But this time, I paused. I thought of my new surroundings, this unknown landscape of well-manicured politeness. Could I wear this shirt here? Would that be safe for me and for my children? I didn’t wear my BLM shirt that day, and that decision left me feeling homesick and ashamed.
In these very difficult times, I am attempting to navigate deep waters of discontent and injustice, while protecting my family in these uncharted seas. My new neighbors are kind and hospitable. They have shared desserts and local tidbits. They have not alluded to our differences, but are courteously curious. Do they know that there is a storm brewing beyond our gate? Perhaps they think we are beyond its reach, or simply do not know what to do when the clouds gather overhead: Should they take cover in their privilege, or risk being a beacon for change?
For me though, these storms are nothing new. I have navigated the subtleties of racism and intolerance my entire life.
I recently met the descendant of great-great grandparents who escaped slavery from a plantation that lies only a few miles from my new home. Their names are now displayed on the big house walls, among a list of people who were once property on those grounds. Hearing their story, I tried to fathom their bravery and the risk they took when they escaped the plantation’s gates and crossed waters to a nearby island of freedom that was occupied by Union soldiers.
Since we moved here, my daughters and I have enjoyed plunging into the community pool, a welcome reprieve from the stifling summer heat and humidity. It is the place where I have socialized most with my neighbors. One mother shared with me that this community is very isolated from the harsh realities of the world. She spoke of her children’s naivete about the world outside — the fact that they know nothing of poverty, or violence — let alone racial tension or injustice.
My children have had no choice but to wade in deeper waters — to know the complexities of this world they live in. While we have provided them with what many would describe as a charmed life, we have also had in-depth conversations on race, tear-filled exchanges about four little girls killed in a church, Trayvon Martin, Jim Crow and much more. They have visited museums, read books and watched documentaries chronicling their rich cultural history. My daughters have also politely smiled as older white women, astonished by their intricate braids, stroke their hair without invitation. They have endured their white peers’ reassurances about Trump’s politics and beliefs (“He doesn’t want to hurt you guys, he just wants to get rid of the illegals.”). They have challenged elementary school history lessons that sanitize the true complexity of America’s past. They understand injustice and racial hatred, both in their historical contexts and in our own times.
These are my babies, and while I try to protect them as well as I can right now, I know that I cannot save them from the overwhelming tides of emotion that rise from decades of microaggressions and questioning stares. That is the cost of living in these two worlds — living in privileged spaces in your blackness.
I think back to that couple who fled from the plantation up the road. Those who escaped the hell of slavery, who risked it all to cross to freedom. In doing so they made a way for me that I might not be so confined. That there would be no shackles on my body or spirit, and that I might be free of the prison of silence and oppression. And I carry that hope for my own children.
So I will continue to teach my girls that they do not have to maintain their calm. Rather, they, and I, can acknowledge the storms that are brewing. I want them to dance in the rain, to grow from its watering. There is no need to hide from it, or to pretend that the sun is shining when it is cloudy and bleak.
I will also teach them to protect themselves. Whether that be in silence or in speaking up, whether it be in confronting the pain or running from it.
They know I did not wear my Black Lives Matter shirt that day. Maybe I lost something in that decision, but I also gained something: I showed my daughters there is no shame in taking protective covering from the storm. They may hide from it or confront it — whatever keeps them alive and whole. In both instances, they are free to take shelter in whatever manner allows them to not just stay afloat, but to cross the waters safely.
Dafina Ward (@dafinamward) is a nonprofit professional, consultant and attorney whose work seeks to address stigmatized health conditions in southern communities. She is a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.