"Mom-are we still slaves? Do people still hate us, African-Americans?"
Brennan asked me this last week while driving home. A few days before while shopping in HEB, he asked me questions about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves, the Civil War, why "brown" people were slaves...the same questions he's been asking me since he learned about all of this and Martin Luther King Jr in kindergarten this year. In the store, I answered them as best I could, bearing in mind to keep it age appropriate, yet honest. I don't believe in glossing over or hiding history from my kids or relying on the public education system to tell one version of it.
However when he asked me in the car if we were still slaves, if people still hated us, I faltered. The only immediate response I had for him was "let's talk about this later with Bertski, ok? I think we should talk about it together, alright?" He agreed and went back to watching Fantastic Four, going back to being the innocent 6-year-old boy I wish he could always be but know he'll grow out of.
I faltered at answering his questions because they caught me between two parts of myself that both bear a particular responsibility. As his mother, I carry the responsibility of trying to keep him as innocent, carefree, and sheltered as possible while encouraging him to grow into who he is, be inclusive with others, and have some responsibility for how he carries himself and interacts with the world around him. I want him to enjoy the freedom that comes with being a child...yet teach him what he needs to know about the world around him in stages of understanding that aren't marred by the ugliness that can come with increased knowledge about the world he lives in and life in general.
But as a woman of color raising an African-American son who has a Puerto-Rican stepfather and half-Puerto-Rican brother, I (and my husband) also bear the responsibility of teaching him about things like racism, white privilege, equality, how black and other brown men have been and still are perceived in American society, and really just about being a person of color PERIOD in the United States of America. I have to explain to him why "peach" people think he looks suspicious even though he might be doing the same exact thing they are-walking through a neighborhood, shopping in a store, hanging out with a group of his friends, wearing his favorite hoodie.
As a mother I have to worry about my child's quality of life, his education, his growth as an individual, how he treats others, help him shape a worldview that is hopefully inclusive, healthy, well-rounded, educated, rooted in morality...I have to help him navigate the nuances of engaging with the world around him and the people in it, the ups and downs of life, and everything that comes with being a man. But as the mother of a brown boy in the United States of America in 2013, I also have to worry about how to keep him out of prison, where a disproportionate amount of black and brown males are sent to and reside these days, more so than their white counterparts. I have to worry about him walking down the street or driving in his car and being profiled simply because he is a black male. I have to teach him how to carry himself, talk and express who he is in a certain way so that he's not viewed as "threatening," "a thug" "a criminal"...."an animal" even.
I have to teach him how to work that much harder than his peers just so he can *maybe* stand a chance at having the same benefits they do. I have to teach him that he can be more than an athlete, a rapper, or some other occupation white people have deemed "ok" for brown people to succeed in. I have to teach him that even if he became the President of our United States, he'd still have to prove himself worthy, articulate, capable, and not some terrorist hell-bent on destroying the country. I have to basically teach him that when he's done his very best, to dig deeper and push harder to do even better because our society (unfairly) demands he be more than just a human being like his white friends. I have to make him aware of how our society views him, but still encourage him to not let this societal perspective define him and who he wants to be as a man and a citizen of this country.
I have to teach him that because he is not "peach" others will deem him unworthy and dismiss him just by looking upon his face; that they will still feel they have the right to call him a nigger because "that's how they were raised," they "don't mean any harm by it," their black friend says "nigga" and Jay Z & Kanye have a song called "Niggas in Paris."
I have to teach him that people will often not see him at first-they will see a preconceived, stereotyped version of him that has been engraved upon their consciousness by their culture, the media, and sadly, even those who "look like" him. I will have to encourage him to remember that although white folks have always been taught on some level that black & brown people are inherently, at their core, evil, bad, incapable of being good, lack value, and lack intelligence that he is NONE of those things. I will have to constantly remind him that no matter what is said, what laws are enacted, no matter how many jobs or promotions he's denied, he DOES indeed have rights, he IS more than a stereotype and is not less than his boss, his friend, his classmate...
I thought about all of this as I sat in the shower this morning, hot water mixing in with the tears streaming down my face, my heart heavy. I thought about his questions to me last week, and whispered, "Yes-yes we ARE still slaves and yes, people do still hate us, my son...even our own people are still oppressed with the self-hate fostered in us when we were just property." In 2013, 40+ years after desegregation and Martin Luther King Jr's speech on Washington's monument, we. are. still. slaves. We are free, yes, and slavery is illegal...an amendment in the Constitution says so. But systematically? In people's minds? In our OWN minds as people of color? No....we are far from free. No we are not free, and since Obama started his run for office back in 2007, the hate for the color of our skin and our culture has been getting louder, bolder, and more vile than I can remember hearing and experiencing growing up. Yes. We ARE still hated, still thought of as less than human.
As my heart weighed heavy with this answer, the thought that came next was "I'm brown. I am a woman. America's not here for me. I have brown sons, a brown husband. America's not here for them either."
Somehow, in 2013, America is still not here for people of color. For men of color. And for women of color? Well..."For some folks being black and being a woman makes us less of both." -A Letter to Rachel Jeanteal (Note: You WANT to read this....and this.)
America isn't here for me and my family because our skin is brown and we are a mixed multi-cultural family. Response to Cheerios latest commercial is just ONE of the recent events to reinforce this belief for me. Add SCOTUS' gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the defense of Paula Deen's use of racist language, her blind eye to discrimination and harassment in her own establishments, and the reaction to the George Zimmerman trial to the equation and that's what it all adds up to, doesn't it?
So my question is this: Who IS America here for?
I'll give you a hint: It's not you, citizen. Not unless you are white, straight, rich, Christian, AND male, the 2013 America is not for you and is barely better than what it was in the past.
If you are poor....
If you are gay....
If you have a mental illness...
If you are an atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or any faith other than "The Bible is the innerant and literal Word of God" Christian...
AMERICA. IS. NOT. FOR. YOU.
White, male dominated America doesn't care about you as a human being if you're brown or gay, and doesn't care about your rights and freedoms to make your own choices about your body and reproductive health if you're a woman-even a white woman.
America only stands for life...ONE kind of life. One that is privileged, entitled, elitist, and democratic only in theory.
You want to stand for life, America? You want to stand for life American Church?
Stand and fight for the millions of children living outside of the womb who are hungry, homeless, abused, in foster care, neglected, and living below the poverty line.
You want to stand for life? Stand for the kids in Chicago, Philly, D.C. and even in rural areas where our public schools are failing and having funding ripped from them.
You want to stand for life? Then fund schools. Fund innovation and technology. Fund the arts. Supply food deserts. Fund your local food bank. Stop taking money from schools in the inner cities to build $400 million prisons. (I'm looking at you Philadelphia)
You want to stand for life? Get real about who can purchase a gun, what kind, how many, and how much ammunition they can have. Get real about gun safety and gun control. Care about violence in urban areas just as much as you do in the suburbs where you live comfortably encased in your "hard-earned" privilege.
You want to stand for life? Volunteer at a Veteran's home, clinic, hospital or service organization. Spend some time giving back to those who sacrificed their time and lives so you can make your "stand" for life.
Want to stand for life? Man a suicide hotline.
Want to stand for life? Stop enforcing your way of life on others and allow them the same benefits and rights you enjoy. Church? We aren't a theocratic nation-people can marry, love, and believe who and what they want.
Want to stand for life? Support SNAP benefits and your local food bank. Feed and clothe the homeless, whether you think they deserve it or not.
So you stand for life? Do you stand & vote for deep cuts to food and other welfare programs?
Want to make a stand for life, Church? Stop demanding hungry people sit through your tired ass, patronizing sermons to get the bags of food you offer every week. (I'm looking at you Black Church)
Want to make a stand for life, Church? Be just as mission-minded here in our country as you are in others.
Want to make a stand for life, Church? Be inclusive. Extend your outreach and support to those with mental illness. Stop the sexual and emotional abuse happening in your congregations and institutions.
Hear me: if you stand for the unborn who you claim are more worthy than the women impregnated with them and than those who are already living? If you're an apologist for racist behavior, attitudes, beliefs, and ideals? If you aren't here for my rights as a woman and mother of color? If you aren't here for my mixed family who works just as hard as your privileged ass despite the systematic racism we encounter in various ways every fucking day?
Well then, I'm not here for you. Or your God, or your so-called God-blessed America.
I'm here for a much different country. Maybe I believe in a different God and perhaps I AM living in the wrong "democratic" nation. Guess I should take my black ass back to where I came from, huh?