On Charleston and Guns and a White Mom’s Black Kids
a poem on Juneteenth 2015
by Paula M. Fitzgibbons of Mommy Means It
When my kids were little and we were the conspicuously adoptive family,
the comments I heard most from random onlookers who felt the right to comment were,
in order of frequency:
“Goodness, you have your hands full.”
(In all fairness, I did, so I smiled.)
“Your family is just beautiful.”
(In all fairness, we are, so I smiled.)
“Your children are so lucky.”
(You can’t smile at this one because it’s all so complicated,
but they want to think of the kids as lucky
even though they don’t know anything about them)
Now that they are older,
with my two Haitian-born children being full-fledged teenagers,
the comment I hear most often comes after a tragedy,
when a black person is shot dead,
and goes something like,
“YOU don’t have to worry.
Your kids will be fine because you are raising them to be good kids.”
“What does that even mean?” I ask.
“Well, you know. You are raising them right.”
It’s pretty clear by now
in these conversations
right = white,
so I say as much.
“Do you mean to say that because I am a white mom, I am raising them right?”
They lurch. They know exactly how to spin this.
“I’m saying you are raising them to know better
than to engage in anything that is going to get the cops called on them
or have a concerned citizen pull a gun on them.”
Gun owners = concerned citizens, you’ll note.
Right = white
Gun owners = concerned citizens
“And what exactly is it Trayvon was doing wrong?
What was Tamir doing?
That girl at the pool party?”
(nobody remembers her name because she wore a bikini;
I forgot too at first,
not because I saw her mid-drift, but because I couldn’t believe I was having this talk again).
“Look!” they usually respond.
Look! = shut up; you’re wrong; I know what’s right
I can see hundreds of years of racist tropes spinning behind their eyeballs.
They are trying to find the one that fits best, the one that will make the most salient point,
but really, the one that fits their narrative,
a narrative molded by centuries of systems,
generations of privileges
What I don’t see behind those eyes is any indication that they are questioning their beliefs,
recognizing their own biases,
parsing those centuries.
(shut up; you’re wrong; I know what’s right)
You are not raising your kids to be disrespectful
and to resist arrest like everyone seems to be doing nowadays.”
Or, “You know how bad black-on-black crime is. You are breaking that cycle.”
This one is intended to make me feel good
because right = white
I don’t feel good.
I know I have to make a decision.
I can say what is on my mind and hope they’ll see
the world for just a moment
through my kids’ eyes,
the eyes they have always claimed to adore.
Most likely, though, I know,
they will shut it down.
Shut it down.
I say it anyway
my children’s lovers,
“I want you to know that I am worried about where this is going
because it sounds like you are stepping into waters
that feel like they are flowing rapidly towards being racist.”
(I never say it so eloquently.
I am always flustered, heart pounding, head exploding.)
I did it.
I said the magic word, the one that makes people disappear.
I want to be diplomatic, even when I can’t be calm.
I could sugar-coat it.
Could say, “uncomfortable” or “upsetting” or “disconcerting.”
(People are flummoxed by “disconcerting” because nobody ever says “concerting”; it’s a verbal trick)
But I don’t. I didn’t.
I see the veins pop and the eyes blaze. Or I see capital letters flying. Rage on a tiny screen.
“I AM SO SICK AND TIRED OF BEING CALLED RACIST JUST BECAUSE I RECOGNIZE HOW THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY IS DESTROYING ITSELF!!!!!!!!!
(then a bit more composure)
I am sick and tired of being made to feel guilty because I want African-Americans to stop killing and raping and stealing.”
They never say black. Always African-Americans. Always formal.
It reminds me of news reports that say, “The gentleman is on the loose and has raped 8 women so far.
Because when they say “African-Americans” what they really mean is “those bad people”
right = white
gun owners = concerned citizens
Look! = shut up; you’re wrong; I know what’s right
African-Americans = those bad people
This is about when I lose them, when they jump ship.
“All I am saying is that if you raise your children right,
as * you * are * doing,
then they won’t have to worry about anyone arresting them.”
(*The pauses are for effect. Silent punctuation is deadly)
“Friend,” I try to throw in.
(I know my time is limited.)
“Trayvon was walking through his own neighborhood with a snack.
Tamir was playing with a toy gun in the park.
Renisha was seeking help after an accident.
And Dajerria Becton
(they respond with puzzlement),
the girl in the bikini,
was at a pool party to which she was invited and,
when the cop was screaming at her to sit down, was, in fact, sitting down.
Are you saying I should teach my kids not to walk in their neighborhoods,
play with their toys,
seek help after an accident,
or go to neighborhood pool parties?”
They do not hear that part. Never.
They have one final thing to say,
“I am trying to give you a compliment.
By telling me my compliment is racist, you are being racist against me.
Clearly we are not going to agree on this.”
racist does not = what they think it means
Then, if they’re online, they unfriend.
If it’s in person, there’s an awkward good-bye.
If it’s a text, blocked.
But you were the one who brought it up, I say to nobody in particular,
because I know for sure they are gone.
You wanted to know what I thought about Trayvon, Tamir, Reneisha, and Dajeeria.
How would that argument go today, I wondered when I heard about Charleston?
What lesson is it I am teaching my children
so they might never be shot dead during a Bible study?
What right thing should they do?
“They should bring a gun to church with them,” says the NRA.
“If they’d been allowed to bring guns to church, they’d still be alive.”
So what if I do?
What if we all do?
What if everyone parenting a black child sends our children to church,
to the library,
to the pool,
to the park
with a gun in their pocket?
Then, when they are shot because someone sees a gun in their pockets,
another mother of black children, somewhere, will hear,
“Don’t worry. That will never happen to your kids. You are raising them right.”