My first time was innocuous, free of hatred or pity, a thought beginning and ending with curiosity alone. Twenty-nine years ago, Molly Johns and I met on the playground outside our kindergarten classroom, back when you could still eat peanut butter cookies in school and no one knew there was sugar in chocolate milk. One day, she and I walked into the bathroom separately and left holding hands. We stayed that way for much of the year, best friends, rarely speaking a word to each other.
My memory here is certain but not sharp: I am passing the playground’s plastic slide, and Molly’s arm is there, close to mine, and her arm is not the same as my arm.
And here I confess: I want that for my daughter. I don’t want to shield her, exactly; I want to hand her an heirloom, bequeath a moment of acknowledging race on her own terms, before the world rushes in to lay it all bare. I want for my girl to have just one she’s-not-the-same-as-me moment. Then I want the curtains to close, and I want the memory kept safe, hidden away backstage before she hears the drunk in the crowd call Obama an ape, before the adoring fan tosses a bouquet of microaggressions at her feet.
Perhaps you will find me naïve, at best, as you and I know this one moment can’t save us from the others. From Beeper, the short-haired girl who kicked at me on the monkey bars and said, “Black people are bad!” Or from David, a thin white classmate I’d considered a friend who said, “I can call anyone I want a nigger.” Or from a hellish army of white men with too-large mouths and too much sweat who filled the Lawn where I once lived and studied to cry out blut und boden.
Here, again, I confess: I did not want to tell my daughter, who has spent five of her six years growing up in Charlottesville, what happened in the city she calls beautiful. I’ve read the research; . we have to have these talks But less than a day before that homegrown terrorist drove his car into a crowd, my daughter walked that street for ice cream with her daddy and walked, her silver-strapped sandals slapping on the cobblestone, with no blood under her feet.
You will find me naïve, but will you hear me, as a mother, when I tell you that I don’t want to be the one to drop Du Bois’s veil down over her face? Because when you discover racism, there is no dipping your toes in the water, no testing the temperature out. There is no great scaffolding, no good metric or measure for how to best encounter this strange American birthright of flesh-based hatred. There is no Green Book of the Black Soul.
You must pray and follow the marks left for you in the soil and the fields and the trees, those which alternately bear witness to and grieve your heart. You follow the marks of both Emmett and Malcolm, of the fetus lost on the Passage and her mother sold a la carte, and of the brown-skinned professor with box braids who led protests when her tenure hung in the balance of white hands. You follow these marks, and you weep that your children, though wearing shoes, have little choice but to follow at your naked heels. And once they know that even one person detests their bones and breath, they know. You could take them by the hands; you could try to look back. But what is the point? You are already a pillar of salt.
So my husband and I stood, still like pillars on August 12th, absorbing the blow of Heather Heyer’s death; burning inside that a permit can permit murder; wondering about ice cream yesterday and white supremacists today and counterprotestors’ bodies flying through space; and all the while sinking into that well-worn groove where we go When This Sort of Thing Happens. And we have to tell her that This Sort of Thing Happens.
We’ve talked about her beautiful brown skin and thick, curly hair, and she has a sense for why Rosa sat and Dr. King died. But we’ve never discussed anything this present, this evil, this close to home.
Did I tell you she calls this city beautiful? She, gorgeous with her huge brown eyes and tight curls. She is proud that her daddy teaches at the university, the one she has no idea was built by her people. We don’t start there, though. We start with that day and what happened on 4th S treet on the downtown mall and why those white people were rallying in her hometown in the first place. We use the word racism .
And what happens next isn’t fair. What happens is that burden folds itself over her shoulders, a mantle I don’t want her to carry, and she says:
“Uh oh. We’re black people.”
I cannot bring her back.
“Is this gonna happen every day in Charlottesville?” she asks.
Which part? I want to ask. The racism, the destruction of black neighborhoods, the hidden pockets of public housing among great wealth? Yes. But a racist rally and a car crash? No.
Here she is, learning norms, feeling her way through fear, wondering if she’s next. She’s six, you know. Her school supply list still calls for blunt-tip scissors. I heard the terrorists hid weapons in bushes.
We have dinner plans that night, and as we get into the minivan, she murmurs, “I just can’t believe what happened in Charlottesville.” She still conjugates some of her verbs incorrectly, and this time I don’t fix it when she says, “Is Mimi white or brown? Would they have foughted Mimi?” She wants to know if her light-skinned grandmother would have been in harm’s way. Look at the world opening like a pop-up book before her.
You are right to say we can’t hide her from it. Just know I’m losing my breath as I watch.
I listen as she processes this by trying to explain it to her younger brother: “Some white people don’t like black people. There were police cops that were really, really helpful and some that were not that helpful. So I can tell you more about it later.”
My son, five, won’t give her the time of day. He wants to get a toy from Target. I worry about him one day with the police; could see a problem with him processing their demands. Today, though, in his mind, he still lives unburdened.
“Do white people love black kids?” my daughter asks us.
And I’m taken with her mind and taken, in my mind, to Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”:
His mother lumped all children, black and white, into the common category, “cute,” and she thought little Negroes were on the whole cuter than little white children. She smiled at the little boy as he climbed on the seat.
I think of white strangers who admire my daughter’s Afro, who stop to gaze at her large hazel eyes. How can we know their hearts?
“Some do,” we say.
I did not plan to visit the memorial with my children. We were supposed to go to the Discovery Museum, eat lunch, and find glasses for the eclipse while my husband worked. But in order to visit the museum, we had to drive into the garage and over the pavement where white supremacists beat Dre Harris with metal poles while he blacked out again and again. They were following the marks of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam , hoping to pulp him and then disappear him once and for all. Only his friends and God, not the police, not the well-meaning bystanders, kept Dre Harris alive. Only they saw him, even with his head split right open. In the words of Ralph Ellison’s narrator:
When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me . . . I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.
As I near the ticket dispenser, I look—not for wispy shadows of the moon goading the sun—but for his blood. I thought he might still be there. A piece of him lost, even though the doctors pulled his skin taut and stapled him eight times. I do not find him there beneath my tires.
Nerves worn, flanked by my five- and six-year-olds and pushing the baby in her stroller, I move from the garage toward the mounds of dried flowers, signs, and once-dripping wax. I don’t even know if this part is right, if the kids should be here, but I can’t walk another way. There’s no magnetic field; I am not drawn in; today there is only one path for us, so we follow.
My daughter stares at words chalked on brick walls and all down the street. My son jumps along the sidewalk, hopping the length of long-stemmed roses pressed flat by rain and grief. My baby girl babbles and kicks her chunky legs in the sun. I hear the question Du Bois heard all those years ago.
How does it feel to be a problem?
Someone, in all the words of hope and sorrow and stands against hate, has created a finish line of roses, perhaps marking where the car first plowed into the crowd. There is a point, even here. No turning back from where his bumper tore into flesh, into very images of God the man hoped to destroy.
“Were these gates here before?” she asks, seeing the street blocked off.
“No, baby. I wish they had been.” Too little, too late; not too much, too soon. We knew they were coming.
She wants to know about her baby sister. “Is Juliet white or brown?”
“Brown,” I say.
I’m not feeling relief, but she is. “Good thing we weren’t here in Charlottesville, because they could have foughted us because we’re brown people.”
We weren’t here. We have moved away from our home for eighteen months, moving two hours north to train with a pastor so that we can come back and start a church here. Here, where the car crossed the line of roses.
I don’t know whether to feel thankful or guilty we weren’t here, but I am more prone to the latter, as this is our home. I sense she’s grateful, though, so I don’t say how I’m feeling. Instead, I take a photo of her, and the jumping boy, and the baby in the gray shark stroller, and I let them be—right next to the words to which their sweet brown backs are turned:
let it be known that hate has its moments but love has many more . . . thank you for your sacrifice Heather WE LOVE YOU!
“Can we turn around and go to the museum?” she asks.
Yes. I am glad to have a plan. We head back up the hill—the mother, the baby, the boy who still dances over memorials, and the girl who now knows they wouldn’t have spared her. That, I think, is enough for one day. Enough for one lifetime, I’ll confess.