About a decade and a half ago, when my career trajectory gave me the opportunity to serve as the first African president of a second community college, while stopped at a red light, a car pulled onto the fairly wide grassy road shoulder to the right of our car. It was about eleven or so at night, our chatter about the who’s who list of guests we’d just left at the event interrupted by the sight of the young white guy getting out of the car, hammer in one hand and papers in the other. Like synchronized swimmers our heads turned keeping him in sight as he nailed one of his papers to a telephone pole. We pulled away, the light having turned green, my wife saying ”I wondered for a minute if he was coming our way.” “Me too!” was my reply.
A few weeks later, we tried to use the experience as a discussion point to a group of mostly white community members. As an attempt to get people to see how experiences impact people differently, the response seemed to be a splattering of nervous laughter. You could see some shaking of heads. But in general, it seemed people did not get why we felt the anxiety we did.
After everyone had left, a young Hispanic woman lingered, barely able to hold back her tears. She confided helplessness in, as she related, listening to her husband, an African American, talk about how he often felt overwhelmed. Sometimes he would tear up, she said, confessing his fear of what might happen to him, her, and their baby simply because of their skin color.
FAST FORWARD FIFTEEN YEARS
Last December, my wife of five years and I moved back to the U.S. from the Philippines. Principally because we want our four-year old twins to be educated in the States. We believe the free public education they would receive here in Greenville, South Carolina, where we live, is better than the options elsewhere. Unless we want to spend thousands of dollars for private education in other parts of the world. To get this benefit of citizenship (yeah I know the immigration debate, but that’s a different article) is no small matter.
Having grown up poor in one of the poorest States in the U.S., West Virginia, educational preparation, through the attainment of my doctorate, enabled me to put poverty in my rear view mirror. In addition to a successful career, I’ve had the opportunity to live in, and travel to, other parts of the world. So, I know first-hand that the U.S. is one of the best places in the world where one’s history does not define one’s future. The twins’ Filipina mother on the other hand knows life from the other side of the equation. She’s lived in a country where opportunities are limited to the millions who live in poverty and are of a certain social class. Hope, is equally as scarce!
So, here we are, sitting at the breakfast table, plotting our twins’ futures — a task made more difficult, perhaps purposely on their parts, by their singing the alphabet song as loudly as possible. Nonetheless, reality washes over us like undercurrents pulling asunder our hopes, joys, and aspirations. We both know, probably me more than my wife, life in the U.S. is not always a picnic for folks whose skin color is darker than white. An obstacle course to most. A gauntlet, which causes so many others not to thrive.
Recollection of that young lady’s tearful admission seeps into my thoughts. I wonder if there are any words that could ever be enough. Our twins will be labeled Black or African American here. Their skin colors, a mixture of their father’s coffee brown hue and their mother’s brownish vanilla tones. Not because they desire such labels. They will be so designated because this society sees it fitting to do so. Their opportunities, treatment and regard will all be impacted by man-designed race and ethnicity designations foist upon them like yokes around their necks for the entirety of their existence here. Sadly, I feel, in this pigmentation obsessed culture this is their first inheritance.
The reality, opens the questions. How will we equip our twins to deal with the race based mind field in which we have chosen to educate them is the question. After all, there are many casualties (physical, psychological and spiritual) throughout this country’s four-hundred year reign of terror on people whose skin color is not white.
And if not here, then where? We do know there are other countries where one’s skin color does not tilt the chances of survival, sustenance and thriving against dark skinned people as much as it does in the U.S. A pigmentation conscious free utopia? I confess to not knowing one. If you do please let us know. All options are on our table.
If we are successful in equipping our twins with the skills needed to overcome the insidious nature of racism another worry exists. More erratic and deadly than the first. If you think that’s even possible. There’s the acceptable level of violence here in the U.S. which it seems has become normalized. Or worse, people have grown numb to it. There were over six hundred mass shootings in the U.S. in 2020, according to the N.Y. Times. The Times also reports there have already been two hundred and twenty-five mass shootings in the U.S. in 2021. And the Washington Post tells us twenty thousand U.S. citizens died from gun violence in 2020. That’s seven times the number of people who died on 9/11.
It used to be you only worried about being dying a violent death if you got caught on the wrong side of town. Of if you broke the law. No more! In the U.S. you can get catch a bullet going to a concert; hanging out at the bar where everybody knows your name; going to the movies; doing your job a short walk away from a police station; or even sitting in a high school, college, or elementary school class. Add skin color to the equation: you can get shot by the police forty-one times, hit nineteen, on your own front porch. Shit, you can get shot by police while in your bed with your boyfriend; playing video games with your nephew in your own house; or even sitting in your living room eating ice cream watching T.V.. Even private citizens can harass and/or shoot you for no reason other than you were jogging or walking through a community they claim as theirs.
The question that looms more heavily than we imagined, is whether good to great academic preparation is worth a daily game of Russian roulette. That every time they walk out the door, they will be faced with the probability of some racist act or attitude, the possibility of some random shooting, that there will be some confrontation with some white supremacist ideologue who sees them as a threat to his or her superiority. Equally, what will they be learning about life and living purposefully if pigmentation and guns occupies so much of their country’s consciousness. Is it right to even expect that they can, even with our help, be able to put these worries aside and focus on what most other children are in school to learn? Will anybody connect the dots? Suicide rates among African American adolescent girls and boys have skyrocketed over the past twenty years.
My wife, twins and I, like to walk after breakfast; before the South Carolina days turn hot and the pancakes, bowls of fruit filled oatmeal, or whatever bounty she’s fed us turns into a nap. One morning, in a neighborhood across the road from ours, we were flagged down by a Mr. John who’d been talking to his neighbor lady friend when they’d spied us strolling. We’d walked about a half hour and the twins noticing that his yard bordered on a small pond were excited to follow his urgings that they come see his wonderfully landscaped yard.
Eighty-four, as he told us, it was more than wonderful to hear how active he is in his life. I inwardly hoped he would be around then the twins got to the age they could really appreciate him. His yard was prospered by numerous well cared for plants. His garden boasted a variety of herbs, which he named for us pointing each of them out. He’s the local repair guy for several of his widow lady neighbors, he said. I asked if he was resident boyfriend also. And without missing a beat, with a wink of the eye, he replied, “when they have need I fill in as best as I can.” He’d just fixed the mail box of the lady he was talking with, he said. She’d also waved to us, smiling.
Mr. John also invited us into his house. He made the twins laugh with jokes and let them play with some of the clown toys he’d collected over the years. We were happy to have met Mr. John. Except we’d also been distracted from his kindness. He’d had a small axe in his hand when he walked up to us. And though we walked and chatted with him, both my wife and I watched that small axe until he put it down before showing us into his living room. After we left Mr. John, both of us laughed small and nervously, acknowledging, sadly, in the United States, we walk in fear.