April 16, 2014

Rosewood, race, and an innocent kiss

by Talibah Mbonisi

How serendipitous!  Since last Tuesday, I was planning to write this post; but as divine perfection would have it, I didn’t.  Instead, I waited until I found myself caught up in the emotion of one of my favorite, albeit painful to watch, films, Rosewood.

I remember making very specific plans to see it on the Friday of opening weekend, knowing that I would need at least two days to calm myself down before I re-entered the integrated world of my grad school classes.  For those unfamiliar, Rosewood, based upon a true story about a false one, is the all too common tale of a Black town stolen and then destroyed by a white mob that latches onto a white woman’s accusations against some nameless Black man.  It’s an age old story used over and over and over and over and over and over and over again to justify the heinous lynching and mutilation of countless men and the overt theft of many similar Black towns.  While Rosewood is set in 1923, as recently as this year’s campaign season, we see the same tale propogated with the same evil intentions.  (Banished is another film that talks about this history.)

I will always love Mr. Mann and Sylvester.  As I’m writing this post, they have just saved a train car full of women and children after having defend not just their property, but also their lives…the lives of their children.

But that isn’t really what this post is about.  It’s just the subtext.

Several weeks ago, my son’s first grade teacher sent home a handwritten note saying that a little girl in his class had accused him of kissing her hand.  The note went on to suggest that my son’s account of the story may have been less than true (that her hand some how brushed up against his mouth when they were playing, his lips touched it, and she mistook it as a kiss.)  Her note suggested that I decide if he was telling the truth.

Initially, I was confused about why I was even getting a note.  What was the big deal?  They were six-year-olds, and this seemed pretty normal.  I also knew that the week prior, my son had told me that this same little girl was his girlfriend.  Apparently, she had broken up with him this week and had chosen a new boyfriend instead.  I just didn’t know how to read it.  Had my son kissed the child’s hand against her will?  Is that what she was suggesting?  Why was this issue so significant that it warranted a note asking me to sign the bottom?  And, as I pondered and then speculated, I became angry and protective.  I made calls to people whose opinions I trust, professors, attorneys and his father among them…learned Black folk.  And, they raised good points about the litigious nature of parents these days; about the need to teach our girls to speak up when they are violated; about the possibility that this was targeting based upon the fact that my son has a, shall we say, strong personality that makes him stand out; and about the consensus that this was probably just silly B.S.  By the end of my call campaign, it was clear that I needed to actually speak to the teacher, but that this coupled with some other things was an indicator that we might need to consider another school for our child.

I am finding that raising a Black son in this country is no small endeavor.  I confess that as much as I carry hopes and dreams and faith for him, I also carry many fears.  Many are the same as any parent has for any child, I think.  But some are the fears that only the mother of a Black boy here can know…I think.  And, the truth is, they inform, sometimes subtly, other times subconscioulsy and yet others, consciously, my decisions about how to navigate his experiences, opportunities, education and just about every other aspect of our journey together.

But, they also can misinform.  And, that is what this post is about.  Everything that I have written up til now is real.  And, I would wager this year’s salary that most Black mothers know the fear that gripped me that day.  They know how I could go from a note about an innocent kiss to that image of Mr. Mann hanging from that tree.

Anyway, I spoke with the teacher.  I explained that I wasn’t going to sign the note, but that I wanted to understand better what the issue was.  No, he hadn’t been accused of coercing the little girl.  No, it wasn’t a big deal.  It was just a she says/he says that she decided to leave up to his parents.

So, the punchline…Last week, I went in to help some students practice their addition facts.  I met the little girl.  Just as cute as she wanted to be.  Her addition wasn’t half bad.  No wonder my son was smitten.  Oh, did I mention…she’s Black.

Not only did I assume that the little girl was white, that assumption coupled with the fact that their teacher is a white woman colored (pun intended) my entire experience of that moment.  What is amazing is that, I wasn’t the only one who assumed.  There was a knowing among us all, everyone to whom I recounted the initial story.  It was key to the underlying premise of each of our discussions about the matter, but I don’t remember ever making any explicit statement.  The fact is, had the teacher been Black, or had we known that the child was, everything would have felt different.  It wouldn’t have changed the stories like Rosewood, but it would have changed the framework within which I processed the note and the incident that it documented.

Race in the United States is a complex and powerful construct.  History cannot be ignored; and parenting, well…it may take a lifetime for me to figure that one out.  I’ve learned something here, a few things, I think; but mostly I have gained another level of consciousness about parenting my son and the ways that my experience of race influences that process.

This post was originally published on The Mama Spot and is re-posted here with permission from the author.

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  • http://www.momontherise.com Kristina Brooke

    I understand exactly why you assumed. It’s hard not to because we have such fears about how “they” see us and how “they” treat us. Sometimes, we forget that “we” are all human. What matters is the realization that it is necessary to understand exactly where our response come from. That is a great lesson to learn and to teach our children.
    .-= Kristina Brooke´s last blog ..Product Review and Giveaway: Senario’s My Secret Circle =-.

  • http://www.comfortingplace.blogspot.com Ms. Bar B

    I agree with Kristina. The struggle for equal treatment continues generation after generation. And because of this, coupled with the fact that the era of Rosewood is not that far behind us, its is very easy for us to automatically jump into fight mode. It isn’t anything that you did in error, its just what we have been conditioned to do, because we’ve had to. I hope for the day that we will be able to left our fears subside.
    .-= Ms. Bar B´s last blog ..Decisions Move the Process Along =-.

  • Stephanie

    Wow. I had the same assumption as you. It is amazing and yet understandable how race continues to color (no pun) our experiences.

  • http://www.weparent.com Talibah Mbonisi

    I shared this post with his teacher. We both had an enlightening laugh about it.
    .-= Talibah Mbonisi´s last blog ..Support for Single Moms Raising Sons: Meet David Miller of Raising Him Alone =-.