When we adopted our son he was six. We were advised only that interracial adoptions required sensitivity regarding the child's race. We are white and lived in an area without much diversity (read white). I went to school back in Newark, NJ but had no local friends of color. I didn't have a clue.
My first mistake was to buy the entire "Roots" series and watch it with him. By the time we finished the series he was mad at white people (I wasn't white - I was mom). Then he was mad at me when I wouldn't allow him to change his name to Kunta Kinte. He was just too young.
We made lots of similar mistakes along the way. He was considered unadoptable because he had committed the horrible sin of turning six without a family. His early years were full of trauma I will not describe. But none of his issues back then involved race.
Then one day we stopped at a convenience store, coffee for me and a soda pop for my son. I had just finished pouring the coffee when three young punks walked in. Big, white, shaved heads, tattoos, fifty-pound boots. Need I say more? I was terrified and confused. Previously, I would have simply ignored and avoided them. But being with my son put them in a whole new light. He was mad when I rushed him out of the store. But because I was physically shaking, he knew I was really upset. As we drove home I guess I had "the talk" with my son. I had to explain to him about skinheads. And for the first time I had to actually put myself in my son's shoes and walk through his day. I felt so incredibly naive and stupid.
What happened next was even more upsetting. I suppose my fear resonated with him more than I understood. He was light skinned and I was informed by his teachers that he was trying to pass himself off at school as Native American or Italian. I was obviously doing a terrible job at parenting.
I started doing research and was absolutely shocked at how much black history I did not know. I was taught so few of these incredibly rich layers of the American experience. Hardly any of it was covered in my public school curriculum. I was embarrassed.
We started with Dr. King (at least I knew about him). Then Jackie Robinson, and then everyone from Frederick Douglas to Ali. We learned, together (and I for the first time in a meaningful way), about abolitionism, the civil war in more than just simplistic terms, and the great leaders of the civil rights movement. I couldn't bear to tell him the story of Emmett Till, but he learned about Emmett and researched his death in detail when he was older.
Later we had to "talk" about police specifically and people in positions of authority generally. We had long talks about the language his coach used. I had no words to explain this behavior, but I also had a "talk" with the damn coach. Then came girls. Oh, gees.
Our son drowned when he was seventeen. We only had him for eleven years. But I learned more about his heritage and the history of my own country in those eleven years than I ever would have learned without him.
I've shared previously here about my late brother. I know how loving you all are. Talking about my son is very difficult. But I keep reading posts about resurgent racism in America. And I wanted you to know why I made them sing "Amazing Grace" at my son's funeral. We're not church people, but that is what he was. He was amazing grace. He was supposed to be one of the unadoptable lost boys. But he died trying to save his best friend. He died a football and track star. He died an honor student who had already applied to the Coast Guard Academy to study marine biology. He died with his brand new drivers license in his wallet. He died strong and loving, with a desire and ability to stand up for little guys being bullied, turn the other cheek if pursuing some insult would not be productive, and - most of all - he died very proud. Not arrogant or egotistical. Just proud. Of himself, of his skin color, and of his heritage. Black history month deserves more than a month. This scandalous, horrifying, courageous, remarkable, inspiring part of our collective heritage deserves a lifetime of study. How I wish it loomed larger in public education.
We can't let the punks scare us, whatever they look like on the outside. And we need to constantly remind our kids - of all makes and models - of all the things that can make them proud. Because then the punks become the cartoon characters they really are.