'What's a slave, Mommy?'
A little boy learns about racism – and responds with love.
I'm sure that a better parent puts some thought into how to explain racism to his or her child. But for me, I didn't have time to decide. With a thump, my 6-year-old handed me the picture book about Martin Luther King Jr. and plopped down next to me on the couch. "Read this one, Mommy," he said simply. Then he looked up at me with his big brown eyes and watched me take a deep breath.
I read the words of Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Those words flowed from my lips like a potent syrup. I could feel my throat tighten and my eyes burn as I listened to my voice echo in our family room, imagining King's voice echoing over the speakers as people soaked up his powerful truth.
The words, in all of their grown-up ease, did a dance over my son's head. He couldn't understand what King was saying. But he did understand that it was strong. His face dropped into a silent somber pose as he looked up at me, eyes widening, searching for the tears that he heard in my heart.
And the pictures: powerful artwork depicting the abuse and injustice suffered by black people over the years. My son absorbed it all. When he asked me to explain each one, I sighed. Oh, how I wanted to shield his heart from this. He seemed way too young to realize that the world isn't all Transformers and baseball. But I spoke the truth. I plainly told what was happening in each painting.
"That man was a slave."
"What's a slave?" he asked.
"It means he couldn't go to school or own a house or take a vacation. It means that he had to do what someone else, someone with lighter skin, told him to do. He had to work very hard all day and never got paid for it."
I couldn't give an answer to a 6-year-old on that one.
"These people were protesting," I continued. "They're sitting at that counter quietly because that restaurant said that people with dark skin like them couldn't come in there. They didn't think that was fair. So they were letting people know that."
"But Mommy, why are those light-skinned people pouring ketchup on them? Why are their faces so mad?"
"Because those people didn't like dark-skinned people at all. They were very, very mean to them."
But the worst page of all was the page showing the black mother cradling her son's head on the side of the road. And the white police officer holding his club. I inhaled deeply when my eyes took it in.
And I glanced at my son: My son, who has always wanted to be a police officer. Who likes to recite to anyone who will listen that police officers keep you safe – they make sure everyone is following the rules.
I looked at him in his blue and white shirt. And I saw the plastic police badge pinned in the corner, given to him earlier that week when his father took him to the police station for a tour.
I saw his brown eyes reflected in the shine of the badge. His brows shot up as he absorbed the painting. And before I could even get to the words, I heard his desperate "Mommy!" His fingers touched the police officer's pants and his eyes darted up to me, searching for an explanation.
"Yes, Honey. That police officer was hurting that man because he had dark skin," I said. "Some police officers made bad choices like that. There were even some police officers who had all that hate in their hearts, too."
His mouth opened and closed several times in silence. I could see that his lips couldn't form the questions that were jumping through his thought.
Finally he settled on this one: "Who changed that rule? Who said that light-skinned people couldn't treat dark-skinned people that way?"
There he is, my son. Searching for a hero. So we talked some more about organizers and protesters. About the civil rights movement. About King and Malcolm X.
He listened as I talked, soaking it all in. I wondered how much was too much. When would he start to feel nervous or scared?
I told myself I was talking in past tense about these events because the pictures and the speech all happened 40 years ago.
Yes, I could have been more specific about racism. I could have told him how it runs through the hearts of many people even today. Racism is certainly not a thing of the past.
But I looked at his dark-brown eyes and chocolate-colored skin. And I couldn't. Not today. Let him worry about riding his two-wheeler and scoring soccer goals for just a little bit longer. He'll deal with this soon enough.
"Mommy, when I'm big and I'm a police officer, I'll make sure people are safe."
"I know you will," I said with a smile.
"And Mommy," he said, placing his hand on mine. "if I see someone being mean to a person with dark skin, I will help that person so he won't feel afraid."
I looked down at his hand, resting on my own – his chocolate skin patting my own peach-colored flesh, reassuring me with each tap.
"I know you will, son. I know."