I started three pleasant essays yesterday and today—one about a walk on the beach where we spotted a large sea worm that looked like a snake with an undulating fringe; one about going to the food bank and how much I have learned lately; one about the women who live on Vashon and how we have come together as a community.
I have erased them all. I was trying to avoid talking about this.
I have to tell this story.
This morning, before we were about to begin our school day, the kids bickered. They do, at least four times a day. It’s no big deal. They are learning to get along with each other when they have only each other. We are one week away from the kids having gone three months without seeing any other kids. If you had told me we would be enduring this when we started, I would not have believed it. Three months, mostly inside, other than walks on an empty beach near our home or a walk on a forest trail we love, and one trip to the grocery store a week.
Mostly, I think we’re doing great. I’m teaching Desmond to read, one hour a day. I read him two books every two hours. We found a little early reader book about a show that he and his two-year-old brother both love, so we are learning it, word by word, so we can record a video of him reading the entire thing to his little brother. Watching the old Electric Company silhouette blends, clips of people saying two parts of a word, and having them meet in the middle, is helping. I see him walk around the house and spot words, then say “B….ack. Back!” He’s just about to launch.
Lucy is making maps, designing book covers, taking a math class every day, learning Greek and Latin roots, writing essays, and talking with me about the news. Her mind has exploded into wanting to know the news. She wants to understand why things are happening, and not just what is happening. Last week, we sat on my bed and talked about the entire political spectrum, about why some people choose a party out of fear or because it’s the only thing their parents gave them, and why so few people in America own so much of the wealth. Her mind is wide open, hungry for more. Feed me, Seymour!
And so, this morning, when the kids were bickering about something—who knows, it’s the same fight over territory and power and misunderstanding that it always is—I went to sit them down and talk as we always do. But this time, I told them a story, the story that has been bothering me for the last 24 hours.
“Let me tell you about something. Yesterday, a video was going around social media. A man was walking in Central Park, looking for birds.”
That got Desmond’s attention. He adores birds. He has memorized the sounds of the birds that circle in the sky above our home. The appearance of a blue jay on our deck always makes him stop what he is doing and quietly go to the window.
“Yep. He was looking for birds. And when he reached a part of the park that is sort of wooded—as much as Central Park can be—he noticed a dog off its leash. Signs all around said that dogs had to be on a leash. And as a birdwatcher, the man knew that dogs running through the shrubs and ground cover would disrupt the habitat of the birds that liked to be in that part of the park.”
Desmond nodded. That made sense.
“The woman who owned the dog refused to put the leash on her dog. The man started filming a video on his phone, since the woman was growing so rude and loud, pointing fingers at him.”
Lucy looked puzzled. Always my little rule follower, she said, “Why, Mama? If the signs said that dogs should always be on a leash, then why was she so mad if she was breaking the rule?”
I looked at her and gave her a pat on the back. “That’s a good question, kiddo. I don’t know. Maybe she was embarrassed. Some people aren’t very good at admitting they are wrong. They grow defensive. And then they would rather blame someone else than look at themselves.”
In our house, we have one clear rule about apologies. You apologize directly. You don’t say, “I’m sorry you were upset.” You collect your thoughts and decide what is important and how you might have been wrong. And when you are ready, you look the person right in the eye, take a breath so your tone is kind, then say, “I’m sorry. It was my fault. What can I do to make it better?”
Anything else is not a real apology.
I wish I could teach everyone in this country to do this.
Oh, you’re upset because he asked you to put your dog on a leash? Take a breath. You were wrong. Put the dog on a leash. Say you were sorry. Ask what you can do to make it better. Engage in a conversation.
Why didn’t she?
The man was black and she was white. And I am certain that is why she started huffing, then pacing, then pulling out her phone. But before she called, she said something that sent a chill up my spine when I saw the video.
“I am going to call the police and tell them there is an African-American man threatening my life.”
Think about this.
The man in question sounded calm and polite. He spoke quietly. Yes, he took out his phone to film.
Do you know why?
The invention of cellphone cameras has saved some lives in this country. And in the worst cases, it has helped to bring some—oh, only a few—people to justice.
This man, whose name is Chris Cooper, spoke about this to a Washington Post reporter this morning.
“I don’t think there’s an African American person in America who hasn’t experienced something like this at some point,” Christian Cooper, a 57-year-old science editor, told The Washington Post in an interview. “I don’t shy away from confronting the scofflaw when I see it. Otherwise, the park would be unusable — not just to us birders but to anybody who enjoys the beauty…..I’m not going to participate in my own dehumanization.”
That’s it, folks.
The woman was so mortified and mad that he pointed out she was in the wrong that she knowingly called the police and told them an African-American man was attacking her.
Judging from her pauses, and what she started saying on the phone, my guess is that the police dispatcher didn’t know what to make of this call. As she repeated herself, her voice contorted into a tearful, rushed performance of someone in pain and terror. She began acting like a woman threatened by a black man in Central Park.
What seemed to bother most people upon watching the video is the way this woman treated her dog. She jerked on his collar, pulled him up so he was in the air with his legs dangling, then slammed him on the ground as her voice rose into the cell phone, shrieking. It was abominable behavior. Abominable.
However, it’s not lost on me that more people online seemed to be upset by how the dog was treated than what she was doing to the man.
And again, this is expected.
I didn’t tell any of this to the kids. That nuance will come later. I told them about the video and a bit of the outrage. I told them that the woman was wrong. And that she seemed to be tapping into a centuries-old trope—a white woman claiming to be attacked by a black man to cover her tracks.
Desmond looked up from his drawing. “Wait, he was a black man? And she blamed him? Mama, we have to fly to New York right now and teach that lady how to behave right.”
Oh, son. If it were only that easy.
Desmond’s birth mother and I were texting back and forth about all this a few hours ago. She and her boys have become family to us. We talk every day, through text or video messages. Whenever travel can resume again, we are trying to bring them all up to Vashon for a bit, to experience life here. We are counting the days.
Arizona’s stay at home order has expired. Everyone seems to be out and about again. The science of this virus doesn’t support it and I don’t understand it. Desmond’s birth mother is still cautious with her boys. They’re not going out much.
But she told me today that her oldest son, a boy we adore, went out with some friends. They knocked on doors and ran away. It’s a prank old as time and less annoying than when Bart Simpson called the bar and asked for a naughty name to be called out loud. For kids who have been inside for months, it’s pretty darned harmless.
One of the neighbors called the police, telling them that criminals were bothering him in his home. Would he have called if it had been white kids? I don’t believe so. And so the police came out. Luckily, they stayed calm. Nothing happened to the boys.
She and I talked about this, how scared we are for our boys. But, as she wrote to me, she sat her son down and had a long talk. “I told him that people like that man don’t see age. They see color. They see a black boy who they feel will be a danger to society, so putting him away or killing him will not be a bad deed. I hate to break it to him the real way, but it’s not like something like that could never happen to him.”
We were talking about the black man who was killed in Minneapolis yesterday. George Floyd. The police suspected him of using a fake $20 bill at a grocery store. So four of them chased him, held him down, and handcuffed him. Then, one of them knelt on the back of that man’s neck for five minutes. FIVE MINUTES. George Floyd moaned that he couldn’t breathe. He cried. His face was smashed into the ground so hard that his nose started bleeding. After a minute or so, George Floyd wailed that his entire body hurt. And then he went limp. Unconscious. Dead.
That could be my son. Murdered on the street, with a policeman’s knee on his neck, driving him into the ground, because he was black.
Do you remember a couple of weeks back, when armed self-named militia members showed up at the Michigan statehouse, with more ammunition than most members of the military carry around? And they leered close into the faces of police members and screamed and spat? They weren’t arrested. Certainly not beaten. Not killed.
This is where I’m supposed to say, “….not all police.” That’s true. I know some good cops here on Vashon, officers who act as community keepers. But could we get past that? As soon as anyone brings up police brutality against black folks, we’re labeled police haters.
No, I just hate what some cops are doing to black men and women.
I worry about my son, every day. Danny and I agree—we have to discipline him differently than we did Lucy. After all, Lucy used to feel so guilty if she had done something wrong that she would walk over to the stairs and give herself a time out. Desmond is boisterous, smart as the day is long, and eager to push the boundaries. We feel—and his birth mama agrees, since she raises her boys the same way—that it is our job to teach him to respect people, to say please and thank you, to make sure he doesn’t make trouble and listens instead. He’s a genuinely sweet kid, sensitive, a lover of birds and small animals. He’s funny and joyful and sometimes a bit mischievous. Any other 6-year-old? That’s fine. But it’s our job now, with kindness and firm boundaries, to make sure he does not question our authority when we ask him to do something.
Sometimes I look at him and say, “You say ‘Yes, Mama. And you come here now.”
He does. And I give him a big hug. I want to reward him for listening, for not making a fuss. As I always say, “You can ask me why later or sulk on your own. But you have to respect me when I say that and do what I ask.” He nods and hugs me harder.
He has no idea I am training him now for how to behave when a policeman pulls him over. I won’t be there with him. I need him to know this through my voice.
It’s not just Desmond who has my concern. I’m worried about Lucy too.
My darling daughter, now that she has hit the preteen years in quarantine, has become a stompy sulker. When Desmond is anxious, he grows angry. When Lucy grows anxious, she cries and huffs and comes to us and says, “Desmond did something wrong to make me feel bad.”
She was five when he was born. She grew up as an only child until then. And she spent until she was seven without her hearing aids, which breaks my heart. Lucy adores her brother. And their bickering is typical for two kids trapped in the house for nearly three months without a break.
And yet, I don’t let her go on this one. In that moment of pure emotions, she makes her little brother the bad guy. I see it, four or five times a day. He hears that she cries to us and he starts feeling like the bad guy. So he acts like it. On and on.
I will not let her become a girl who cries to get out of trouble. Not my kid. No white girl tears for her.
This afternoon I pulled her aside for one of our long talks that she loves. I told her why I had told her the story of that cellphone video. Desmond is too young to hear about it yet—even though we talk about black history, the ancestors, and the role models he can emulate—but Lucy? It’s time.
I told her about Emmett Till, the young black man—all of 14—who was murdered and brutally beaten for saying lewd things to a white woman. It turns out, decades later, she admitted that she doesn’t remember what he said or if he actually grabbed her. She might have made up the story. As she told a writer who asked her for a book that was published in 2017: ““Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
That is still true in every single case. And they just keep happening.
I told Lucy the story about Emmett Till because she is ready for more of the hard things of the world. And with her brother in her life–plus the other black boys she considers her brothers now too–she has to know their reality. She was shocked. She was saddened. She said, “Is this going to happen to my brother too?”
Before, I might have said, “No, he’s safe here with us.”
But now, I told her the truth. “I don’t know, honey. We will do everything we can but there is no guarantee. When he is your age, he will be a full head taller than you. And people will think of him as a black man.”
She cried. I cried. And then I held her face in my hand.
“This is why I keep talking to you about how you treat Desmond. Stop making him the bad guy. You’re always part of it too. I see it. You dig at him, then he responds, then you yell that he has hurt you. Your dad runs over to protect you. But I don’t buy it anymore. I know.”
She lowered her head. “I’m sorry, Mama. You’re right. It’s my fault. What can I do to make it better?”
And I said to her, “The world does not need any more white girl tears as a manipulation technique. You have to stop it. You have to change the way you treat him now.”
She brightened up and said, “I will work on it. It might take me some practice, but I will.”
I know she will. I will make sure of it.
There’s always that statement the next day, like the one issued by the hysterical woman in Central Park today. “I’m so sorry. I’m not a racist…..”
Oh, you call the police to tell them a black man is threatening your life and harassing you but you’re not a racist.
America, you are racist. We all are, to one extent or another. We have been raised in a country whose history began by displacing and killing the indigenous peoples who lived here first, then for hundreds of years brought men, women, and children from Africa, against their will, to work as enslaved people as cheap labor with which the Southern elite could grow rich. The underpinnings of the American economy are racist. Face it.
We have never, as a culture, held a national conversation about our unconscious bias against black people. We have never addressed the egregious harm of slavery, then Jim Crow laws, then lynchings, then how hard it was to gain the most basic freedoms and rights during the Civil Rights movement, then redlining, then Welfare Queens, then the War Against Drugs, to where we are now. We are in a time where a racist cop kneels on a black man’s neck until he dies. And a football player who takes a knee during a game, to protest that brutality, is excoriated and thrown out of the game.
America, we have work to do.
Here’s the only thing I know going forward. We can be racist or we can be anti-racist. There is no middle way on this. There is no pleasant, passive, “I’m not racist like the KKK” folks. We have to decide.
Are you racist? Or will you pledge to listen? To call out racist behavior or language every chance you have. To not be defensive. To say Black Lives Matter, without any hesitation. To learn from the stories of people who have led different lives than ours. To question every bias we have. To not call the police on a black man, then say you’re not racist.
I led a very sheltered life for the first 30 years of my time here. I taught James Baldwin and Maya Angelou to high school students, with all the best intentions. When Desmond was born, I was shocked and horrified to realize that of the hundreds of well-loved children’s books we had in the house, only a few had any kids of color in them. I had so much learning to do.
I still do.
My darling son, whose other mother has become a dear friend now, has been my teacher. I am eager to learn more.
I hope you are too. We have a long way to go before we have equity in this country.
Until then, thank goodness for cellphone videos and social media accountability.