My – And Our – Responsibility

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!

That line – taken by James Baldwin from a spiritual, or slave song, has haunted me since the day I read it many years ago.  It is seared upon my consciousness.  In the last few years, and in particular the last week or so, it is a throbbing constant churning over and over again in my head.  Are we headed for the fire?  Are we in the fire? What would Baldwin, one of my favorite writers, think of us now?

I often think about what Maria Mitchell would think of certain situations.  Maria Mitchell was a Quaker.  She believed that all people were equal.  The women’s rights movement – at least initially – was closely tied with the slaves’ rights movement.  Unfortunately, a schism developed within this movement.  Maria remained in the camp of all or nothing – meaning that they would fight for the universal rights of all.  In fact, she turned down speaking at a meeting of “the other side” – she turned down Susan B. Anthony.  And frankly, I’ve always been pretty proud of her for that.

Colour is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.  – James Baldwin

It’s always hard to place a person of the past in a present day context for a myriad of reasons.  She doesn’t have the benefit of history – seeing what she missed and learning from it.  She did make comments in her journals and letters about the sickness she felt traveling in the South before the Civil War.  I believe she would have spoken out in some form.  She would have supported her students of all walks of life.  I believe she’d be shocked at where we still are.  That people continue to be brutalized and ill-treated based on their gender, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs, their skin color.  I believe she would be disappointed.  I believe she would be deeply saddened.

Her family members were also at the forefront of fighting for the rights of all.  Her brother left his wife and daughter behind on Nantucket to travel to the South to work on behalf of the Freedmen’s Aid Society during and after the Civil War.  And later, he would be a founding faculty member of Howard University.

My connection and hurt during this time runs even deeper than history.  If you do not know me or my family, then you do not know that we are a transracial family.  My husband and I are white.  Our son is African American, Haitian, and Korean.  We became a family at his birth.  Before my Father passed away, he said continually to my Mother about what was happening in the country, that, “We are going backwards.”  He was, unfortunately, right.  It seems like it is getting worse.

It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.     –  James Baldwin

I’m not going to write this eloquently – there is too much emotion involved.  There is sadness, anger, fear, hysteria.  I see what has happened – especially in the last few months – and I have flashes of what life will be like for my son.  Sure, I can protect him now but I have found myself already having “the talk” with him – starting even before the age of six.  And, as a white woman, it has not been easy.  I have lived in white privilege.  Any interactions he witnesses are within this privilege.  Just think of what my experience might be when stopped by police compared to one of our African American friends.  He witnesses my interaction – not theirs.  And as a full-of-life little boy – and one who doesn’t stop at, “Stop!” – my fear is ever more increased.  He is surrounded by people from all walks of life – different shades, different sexual orientations, different religious beliefs.  His “uncle” is an African American man raised in Mississippi who has had horrific experiences and unfortunately continues to have them.  My son’s “uncle” will also be relied upon to help us work with our son to have him better understand the unfortunate world we live in – his words may and will resonate better with my son than those of his white parents.  I truly hope, plead, beg that the world we live in will be different by the time he is a teenager but history has shown it differently.  It makes my stomach twist in agony, fear, and anger.

Whoever debases others is debasing himself. – James Baldwin

I know that I will use Baldwin’s words with him.  His bookshelf is already groaning with books by Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, John Lewis, J. Drew Lanham, and others – mentors on paper.  This is in addition to what I have been able to find in picture books – frankly, not an easy task.  Books and quotes don’t do it – but they are a start and something I have been using and will continue to use as my husband and I – and our village – try to show him the way, arm him with the tools and knowledge he needs to protect himself and others, and as we try to make this world better for him.  Perhaps that sounds trite but that’s all I can do.  As the mother of a child of color, I can’t breathe.  I won’t breathe either until the day I die – or the day this world is finally equal and a young black man or woman can walk down a street or go for a run – NOT in fear.

Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity. – James Baldwin

The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands. – Maria Mitchell