July 9, 2016
Thursday morning. Jill left the house early for a few days of work and work-related travel; Shiv, who seems to be in some sort of extended toddler/teenager growth spurt, was sleeping in—past 8:00 am, even. Normally, this would be a boon to me, time to get writing done in a quiet house, except: the news. The heart-rending, live-videoed, goddamn-not-again news.
It’s the most fucked up sense of deja vu, to feel like we’ve done this all before. There’s even a procedure: I obsessively follow Twitter, sign out of Facebook before I say something I’ll regret, follow links and re-tweet and weep because I let myself forget again; I let myself settle comfortably back into a life that doesn’t have to confront the world’s brokenness every day.
On my 32nd birthday, Jill & I came home from dinner to discover that a grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. About a week after that, a grand jury in New York decided not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner. On my 33rd birthday, Chicago PD released the dash-cam video of seventeen year-old Laquan McDonald being shot sixteen times. On December 28th of this past year, the first day of Winter Break that I had set aside to work on my book proposal, a grand jury in Ohio decided not to indict the officer who killed twelve year-old Tamir Rice, round-faced and big for his age, like my son, whose growth percentiles are currently listed at “ > 99%.”
I like to think that, were I not Shiv’s parent, I would still be outraged, paying attention, learning, reading, altering my perceptions and perspective, listening to people who know much better than I do about what it’s like—what it’s been like and continues to be like—to be Black in America. I like to think that, but I can’t guarantee it.
It’s a futile thought experiment, in any case; not only is it impossible to separate who I am now with the fact of my son’s existence, and his Blackness, it would only be an attempt to redeem my hypothetical self, which serves nothing but my own ego. I am not going to be useful to him if I’m busy trying to look good. There is way too much at stake.
He doesn’t know yet. I am writing this at what I feel fairly certain is the end of his unawareness of the Truth About Things; he turns four in nine days and it’s coming. He will see something, or hear something, or experience something, and he will ask. He’s done it already with death and how babies get made, and it seemed right to follow his lead on those particular topics. This, this feels like something else altogether—because it isn’t some necessary “fact of life,” but rather a fact of life as we know it. As we have made it.
There’s been no colorblindness about his upbringing; we have no patience for that bullshit. Not to mention, kids figure it out on their own, regardless of whatever pasty Kumbaya diet you feed them. As soon as he could talk, Shiv began noting the different shades of members of his family, characters in books, strangers out in the world, often gravitating toward people who looked like him. Jill had a tennis match on a few weeks ago (she’s a rabid Serena fan, or worshipper, I should say) and it was Shiv’s first time watching the game. It’s not a simple game to explain to an almost four year-old, but when it came down to it, he really just wanted to know one thing: “Did the Black one win?” But oh no, kids definitely don’t see color!
Race is one thing. I’m not at all sure how to talk to a four-year-old about racism. But I know that I’ll have to. Neither Jill nor I believe in sugar-coating the truth; we don’t use euphemisms for body parts, and we won’t allow our own dread to dictate the terms of our conversations with him. To do so would not serve or honor him. We will do what we do what we try to do in all aspects of our parenting; we will tell him the truth, in whatever way we can figure out how to say it aloud, to his face. He has to hear it from us, and that fucking breaks my heart.
My heart breaks not only for my boy, but for all of the boys, and girls, for the parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and siblings who have to talk them through the truth that many of us are able to spend our lives avoiding. For the terror that people are living through. For the children who’ve lost parents. For the parents who’ve lost children. For all of us; those of us who believe this is not about us, and those of us who do.
For some time now, I have turned to listing “What I Know For Certain” as a source of comfort and healing. It was a tactic I first used after my father died, back when grief felt personal and specific, but it still works. Only now, the list is a lot shorter than it used to be. And basically everything on it is restating one thing: love. Love is all I know for certain.
I love all of the people I know (and some people I only know via the screen) who send messages of powerful solidarity, who use their privilege for good, who are asking all of the right questions, who read, who are smart, who want to be better, who make me better. I love my mom, who is as tough as she is generous, who isn’t on any social media but uses the internet to great effect and is proof that you can be almost seventy, always learning, and willing to break your worldview wide open. I love my friends Lisa & Christian, who invited me and Shiv out to the farm on Thursday, in case we wanted to “pet goats and be with people.” Why yes, yes we did.
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
Because we have not made our lives to fit
our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded,
the streams polluted, the mountains overturned. Hope
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
place that you belong to though it is not yours,
for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.
Belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are
your neighbors in it: the old man, sick and poor,
who comes like a heron to fish in the creek,
and the fish in the creek, and the heron who manlike
fishes for the fish in the creek, and the birds who sing
in the trees in the silence of the fisherman
and the heron, and the trees that keep the land
they stand upon as we too must keep it, or die.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work.
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
and how to be here with them. By this knowledge
make the sense you need to make. By it stand
in the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
before they had heard a radio. Speak
publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
Listen privately, silently to the voices that rise up
from the pages of books and from your own heart.
Be still and listen to the voices that belong
to the streambanks and the trees and the open fields.
There are songs and sayings that belong to this place,
by which it speaks for itself and no other.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
No place at last is better than the world. The world
is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
-Wendell Berry, “2007, VI”