Roads Untraveled Can’t Be Taught

The boy says her train can’t get through, and my five-year-old daughter’s immediate and emphatic response is: “You just don’t want black people’s trains to pass.”

It turns out the boy had only meant to say he wasn’t ready yet; he had needed more time to lay the tracks.

Later, the teacher asks my husband whether our daughter is happy at the school, where she is one of too few children of color, many of whom are biracial, like our daughter.

She has been happy. We have all been happy to have joined a community of kind, caring, engaged learners, teachers, and staff. Our girl has made enough friends to have the busiest calendar in the family, and she is getting as stellar an education as she would anywhere.

We have spoken of race many times. Not speaking of race in an interracial, adoptive family would be the equivalent to the mind and soul of the body getting no water.

But when we sit down to talk this time, we begin our first family conversation on race in which our daughter is a subject. And although she has always identified as brown–“brown like daddy and Daniel, but not like you”–for the first time, this evening, she is identifying not with the skin color of brown people, but with their oppression.

“Has he ever said anything about black people, or about you being black?”

“No.”

“Has he ever done anything that made you think he doesn’t like black people?”

“No. Sometimes, I think about things that I don’t tell you about because I think it’s wrong to think about them,” she says.

She tells us she worries that our family will be hurt. She is especially worried about her father and brother.

We ask questions, offer advice. She is soft spoken and meek, as she is only when she is feeling either shy or guilty. We tell her that nothing she ever feels or thinks about being brown is a thought she needs to hide, and that there is nothing about which she cannot tell us. We tell her she is safe, we are safe, in that way that sounds more like a prayer than reassurance.

We tell her she is beautiful. We tell her Jamaica and Armenia are beautiful. We tell her her skin and hair are beautiful. We say all the things we’ve whispered to her since before she arrived into our lives, when she was still a part of my own body, before she had revealed her skin to the world.

I am emphatic when I tell her that should anyone, ever, anywhere, say anything about her skin color, she must tell me.

“Or daddy?” she asks.

“Always, daddy.”

“Or any grown-up?”

“Any adult who can help you if you are uncomfortable at the moment, but always, always us.”

“Yes, mommy,” she says, and she slips out of my arms and walks back to the tiara she had been coloring when I had summoned her into this conversation.

I’m left with one of the most devastating memories of my life.

I realize that I can’t tell my little girl anything about what it takes to grow into a confident, strong, happy black woman.

I realize I know nothing about this.

And I realize, suddenly and acutely, that anything I tell her would come from assumptions, albeit ones born of love and the most sincere of intents to soothe and empower her.

I realize that imparting these assumptions to my daughter as wisdoms she should heed would reek of dishonesty, entitlement, and racism, enough of all of which she will be dealt in life without facing them in her own mother.

And I realize that I am paralyzed by helplessness, bent under the weight of the most unbearable of all the pains a mother carries: Knowing whence comes the suffering of my children, and not being able to do a goddamn thing about it.

I realize that this suffering is my children’s. I don’t share it with them. And it is the world’s, not mine, to heal and cease.

I realize that even the deepest love and empathy, a mother’s for her children, can’t keep away the suffering this world will cause them.

And I turn to men and women who have walked the earth in brown skin, for wisdom that comes from knowing how to live through pain, with pain, injustice always blowing in the wind.

And I realize that perhaps the most useful of gifts of love I can give my children is a village to help me raise them well.

Perhaps, then, it will be less important, less painful, maybe, that I don’t share this part of my children’s journey, which they will always walk without me, even in my unwavering presence.

I realize that to love my children means not only to give them all I can, but, also, to find ways to bring them together with people in our beautiful village, who can give them gifts I don’t have.

I realize that this village can grow wide and strong enough to encompass everything my children will ever need. And I think, perhaps, building this village is the most urgent, purposeful labor of my life.

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