Two weeks into Black History Month 2003, I experienced a horrifying moment in the kitchen of my mother’s home. My then five-year-old son was watching me wash dishes after a meal, when he made the following announcement. “Mommy, White people hate Black people.”
He had my immediate attention. I asked him to repeat what he had just said. He stated more confidently and louder (as if my hearing was the problem) that White people hated Black people. I suffered a familiar sinking feeling (which I now know to be dread), to which I succumb when my (then) child (now children) says (say) things that will cause potentially embarrassing or awkward situations.
My stomach seemed to seize and plummet simultaneously. I knew I had less than an instant to intervene, because upon his second pronouncement, my highly excitable, easily offended, very opinionated mother had screeched out an unintellible response from the next room. I heard her rapid footfalls, advancing toward the kitchen. I knew that if I didn’t do something, my son would be terrorized into thinking he had personally done something wrong, which warranted Granny’s warlike response to his statement. In an instant I relived visions of myself in the same position, on the receiving end of my mother’s ill-timed rants in response to an innocent question or statement. Our one-sided conversations went something along the lines of:
“Mommy what is sex?”
“Sex? Who told you about sex? What filthy-mouthed heifer is polluting your mind with that garbage? I bet it’s that fast girl down the street. I told you to stay away from her and her ol’ nasty friends. They’ll probably be pregnant and on welfare before they make it to high school. She’s nasty! You hear me? I see the way she let’s boys slop all over her. But you don’t listen to me! I’m gonna go tell her momma all about her nasty daughter! You are not allowed to go to her house any more! Do you understand me, Sheeri?!”
“I saw it in the paper.”
I was surprised by my son’s statement. I knew that he had not heard that sentiment expressed at home. His father and I deliberately did not speak of sensitive racial matters in front of him at that age. We took pains to educate him about his heritage, on the level that a kindergartener would understand. On the whole, however, he was largely unaware of the subtle forms racism took. He had never experienced any overt forms until quite possibly the instant that he received this information he was now sharing.
My mother was already fuming. Before I could silence her, she spewed out something along the lines of: “I told you not to send him to that White school. I knew something like this was going to happen. You know we are surrounded by the Klan out here.” My son was already getting scared. I silenced my mother with an urgent stomp and a hard stare. She got my message and held her tongue. I drew my son’s attention back to me. Calmer and a little more in control of my own emotions, I knelt down so he and I could be eye to eye, and I spoke in the calmest, friendliest tone. Our conversation went something like the following:
“Hey Buddy, where’d you hear that?”
“Jennie (not her real name) told me.”
I remember thinking, who the heck is Jennie? Of all the little girls in Chase’s class, I could not ever remember meeting a Jennie.
“Does Jennie hate Black people, Chase?”
“Does anyone in Jennie’s family hate Black people, Chase?”
“Then why would she say that, Buddy?”
“I don’t know, Mommy. She just did.”
I went on to explain to him that there are some White people who do hate Black people, that there are some Black people who hate White people, and that we Mitchells hate no one, but do our best to love and to pray for our enemies as well as our friends. We talked about how God did not create us to hate anyone, and that it makes the Holy Spirit very sad when we do. I reminded him God made us to love each other.
At this point in his life, my son was already saved. He understood what sin was, who Jesus was, and what he had done for him on the cross. Of his own volition a little less than a year prior, he had asked Jesus to come into his heart. I had had the privilege of being there, and to lead him in the salvation prayer. He knew that people did bad things because they wanted to, and that God let them, even though he did not approve. I let him know that hating people for any reason was a sin. I assured him that I would speak to his teacher and ask why Jennie had said what she said. That was good enough for him.
My challenge was going to keep my mother from polluting the air with cries of injustice and retribution until the matter had been settled. I love my mother. But she is a firecracker!
I made good on my promise and mentioned the conversation to Chase’s and Jennie’s teacher, Miss April. Surprised, she agreed to speak to Jennie’s parents. She assured me something was amiss. “That doesn’t sound like them,” I distinctly recall her saying. She spoke to Jennie’s mom and dad, then got back to me. The whole matter took perhaps a few days. I was ill prepared for her explanation. Perhaps you won’t be as much so.
Jennie had older siblings. Her parents had taken it upon themselves to educate their older children on the Civil Rights Movement in honor of Black History Month, by watching the PBS presentation of “Eyes On The Prize.” The older children had watched and discussed the series with mom and dad, while Jennie had wandered in and out from time to time, not showing much interest. She did, however, glean one thing from the program. This was the information she shared with my son.
As Miss April was sharing the details with me, I stood speechless. I had expected something quite different. I don’t know what I had expected exactly, but it wasn’t what Miss April shared. I was incredulous that this White family had taken the time to educate their children about the Black struggle in America. There are few documentaries that rival EOP for quality, flow, vivid imagery, and brutal honesty. I was pleasantly surprised. Miss April, who is also White, told me that her immediate and birth families both celebrate Black History Month every year, and go to great lengths to make sure that in their corner of the world there is no room or excuses made for racism or discrimination. I believe her declaration included something like, “No Rednecks Allowed.” One of their yearly rituals was to watch, you guessed it, “Eyes On The Prize,” so that in her words, “we never forget.” Wow.
I had no words, so she continued. She went on to tell me that Jennie’s parents were absolutely mortified by what their daughter had said and expressed repeated, deep remorse and concern that I and my family had been wounded. I assured Miss April that we were fine and even encouraged. I asked her to convey to Jennie’s parents that we bore them no ill will and stood ready to laugh with them over the “darnedest” things children say. Miss April encouraged me to pick up Chase early the next day, as Jennie was a half-day student. That way I could “run into” Jennie’s mom and assure her personally. She seemed to think it would go a long way. I was certainly willing. Heaven only knows how often I have been the victim of enough of my child’s poorly timed, ill-worded proclamations as to readily offer forgiveness and reassurance to any parent in a similar bind. I felt this mom’s pain.
The next day Jennie did not come to school.
The week after that, Jennie stayed much later than Chase’s usual pick up time – so I missed her mom again. After a couple of weeks of “missing” Jennie’s mom, I asked Miss April where they were. She sighed and explained that Jennie’s mom was still so embarrassed over her daughter’s remarks that she had been deliberately avoiding me. Not wanting to press, I figured I would bump into her eventually and set her mind at ease. But I was wrong.
Not long after Black History Month ended, Jennie stopped coming to school. It seems her father landed a job in another state and the family relocated. I never saw Jennie again and I never met her parents.
Upon hearing the news, I experienced deep disappointment. What a missed opportunity for two Christian households to come together and celebrate the One who unites us all. If I could have met them, I would have extended my forgiveness and thanked them for making the effort to educate their children. I would have shared some of Chase’s “doosies,” which had had me backpeddling with strangers and family members alike, trying to explain what my child “really meant to say.” I am sorry to say that I never got that chance.
What I did get was a good lesson in not assuming the worst about people – especially where race is concerned. Whenever I am tempted to make broad, sweeping generalizations about White people, I remember my friends from Chase’s former school, which include but certainly are not limited to the principal, Chase’s kindergarten teacher – Miss April, Chase’s fly first grade teacher – Miss Aimee, and most of all the family I never met, who made an effort to teach their children about Black History.
I wish Jennie’s family every success and hope that they are still making the effort to provide their children with a multi-racial/multi-ethnic education.
Happy Black History Month! Spread the Love. Share the vision.
Be blessed Family!
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