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Practicing Hope

He’s seventeen, handsome, graceful and smart, plays mid right wing for a very good soccer club. His shoulders are broad, so is his smile, and he is getting taller. He is African American and I am his white mother.

We live in Vermont, where hippies still thrive raising carrots and kids on small farms. This is a state with only 626,630 people, 95.2% of whom are white. There used to be more cows than people, but those days are gone — well, at least the cows are. Folks answering demographic surveys around here are predominantly well educated, and aren’t partial to organized religion, though we have a lot of Buddhists practicing in these hills. Despite such mindfulness, I hear comments like, “There is no racism here.” “Everyone knows everyone and everybody helps one another.” The state motto is Freedom and Unity; Kindness could rule if Vermont were a separate Republic.

Even so, the Southern Poverty Law Center gives Vermont a grade of ‘F’ for civil rights instruction in the public schools.[1] It seems like teachers want to do the right thing and, along with most white people, they don’t want to say the wrong thing about race (or class or LGBT or adoption or disabilities) so they just don’t bring it up. Most white folks I know here don’t see any evidence of racism unless someone points to specific incidents or talks through the issues, like Driving While Black or Shopping While Black. Even then, some of my white friends, and many of my students, get exasperated, “Racism is so old-school,” I’ve been told. They don’t want to believe that racism exists. This essay is for them, and for my kids.

None of the parents I know have had to teach their white kids the skills to be safe in stores, schools, highways and neighborhoods, as I have. I thought about this as I read a piece by self-described upper middle class Attorney Lawrence Otis Graham in The Washington Post.[2] Graham and his family are African-American. He offered a list of nine rules he and his wife have taught their children, among them, never leave a store without a receipt, keep your hands free and visible, and always be polite, even in the face of disrespect. Even with this careful preparation, Graham’s fifteen-year-old son called home terrified, having been harassed by white men in a car, shouting the N-word as he walked on the sidewalk of his elite prep school.

African-American men and boys are incarcerated or killed by the weapons of racism in countless numbers. Most of us have learned about Emmett Till, brutally murdered for the possibility that he had whistled at a white woman in Money, Mississippi in1955. His mother braved threats and opened his casket for the world to see what happened to her 14-year-old-son in. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, walking home with a fistful of Skittles in Sanford, Florida in 2012 is in our more recent memory. The summer of 2014 presented us with many more dead black young men and boys: in Ferguson, Missouri. Staten Island, New York. Los Angeles, California. Beavercreek, Ohio. Victorville, California. [3]

I recently discovered the stories of two boys (they called them Negro then) shot after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. They are not remembered as are the four girls who died in the blast.[4] The New York Times, September 15, 1963 article describes the shooting of one of the boys, 13-year-old Virgil Wade, “The Jefferson County sheriff’s office said ‘there apparently was no reason at all’ for the killing, but indicated that it was related to the general racial disorders.”[5] No apparent reason. General racial disorders. Our nation has a long history of bullets flying into innocent black youth. I knew this history, but it became mine when I became a mother.

I also have a daughter who is a year older than her brother. On my first trip to the grocery store in 1996 with my eentsy weentsy baby girl, a white employee collecting carts in the parking lot asked, “Is that a Negro?” I immediately responded, “Yes! And isn’t she beautiful?” Despite my initial (and intuitive) reaction, I have learned to be ever wary of the inexperience and obliviousness of other white people when it comes to my children. Sometimes I get a pleasant surprise; when my daughter was only a few months old, I steeled myself for a diatribe when a guy came over to my table at a diner. I confess, he fit the stereotype of “redneck” that I hadn’t yet overcome. The baby was too small to sit up on her own, so she was in my lap. He extended his finger for her to grab as he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. He was smiling ear to ear as he proudly showed off a picture of his biracial granddaughter.

On another occasion, my son came home from kindergarten to report he’d been washing his hands after art with other classmates and one told him his hands were still dirty. My son responded, “Mine are clean but yours are covered with paint!” Another time, an elementary teacher was adamant that “black” was the proper term for her to use when teaching civil rights. My daughter was uncomfortable, “But I’m not black, I’m brown,” she told me. I asked her what she’d prefer the teacher say. She thought for a moment and proudly said, “African American.” When I talked to the teacher, I suggested she talk to the kids in the future to find out what they liked to be called. I have had a lot to learn about negotiating the world crisscrossing color lines.

A pivotal moment in my awareness occurred one luscious summer night at the beach. The kids were two and three, we were walking along the shoreline as sunset approached. It had been a lovely day, just the three of us, strolling around town, playing tag with the waves, tossing stones in the water or watching construction on the wharf. We could while many hours away in these pursuits. Our after dinner stroll was the icing on the day. Big sister was leading little brother down the strand. As they wandered ahead, I followed along happy to be in the midst of their joy. The infant and toddler years were receding and I was thinking how big and independent they were becoming. A tall and very strikingly handsome African American man watched us approach. I waved and called, “ Hello.” He boomed from his doorway, “Are they yours?” When I nodded he continued, “They’re cute now but what are you going to do when people cross the street when they are bigger?”

I had no words. Was this one of the what- right-do-you-have-as-a-white-woman-to-adopt-black-children challenges I had heard before, or simply a bold forewarning? There was no way to have a conversation; his was not an invitation, and the kids were already far ahead. That man’s question has not haunted me with doubts about whether I was right to adopt my children. Their birth giver settled that for me when she decided their destination and made sure brother got to be with sister. No, his question has provoked all of my work as an educator, community member, and mother.

I don’t want women to fear, as Sandra Bullock’s character did in Crash (2004), the sight of my son on the sidewalk approaching her. I don’t want people to duck into a store when they see my kids coming. I’ve led ‘interrupting oppression’ workshops and classes to guide people to understand the amazingly complex intersections of all prejudices and to appreciate and honor the variety of perspectives and ideas a diverse group can inspire. The forewarning of the man on the beach, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea to have our children recognized for their character rather than their color—- are motivation to always be in conversation about understanding skin and gender and privilege and power. And fear.

The Color of Fear (1994), a documentary by Lee Mun Wah,[6] features eight men talking about race in North America. They are African American, Latino, Asian American and Caucasian. The clothing and eyewear is dated but the dialogue is still, (sad to say), relevant. One of the men, African American Victor Lewis, tries to find the words that will get White David Christensen, to understand the depths of the differences between them. David only wants to see America as just, full of people with the kinds of positive experiences he’d had. He resists believing that the lives of men of color have been traumatically different from his experience as a white man. My white students get very uncomfortable watching the scene where Victor declares that he is black man, not white, as it seems to him white people want him to be. He says he cannot trust David until David is willing to really listen to the stories of the men of color in the room. After the film someone always says, “He is so angry!”

When I first saw the film, I saw anger too. But having lived the years since, learning to see the world through my children’s eyes and paying attention to current events, I now say, “I see him as frustrated and extremely passionate. Wouldn’t you get impatient and heated while trying to talk to someone who so resisted the truth of what you were saying, the truth of your lived experience?” I have learned that passion is often misinterpreted as anger. I have been thus misinterpreted, as I get riled trying to be understood. Every time I watch this film I also think of my son. Will he be misconstrued?

Just as that man leaning in the doorway on the beach knew he would, my son has grown beyond cute. Will people cross the street when they see him coming now that he is no longer a small child but a tall, graceful young man?

My son wanted airsoft guns when he was 13. I told him then of an 8-year-old I had read about who would not hand over his toy and was shot by police. My son immediately dismissed my concerns, “But Mom, I’m playing in the woods with my friends. And really, come on, we’re in Vermont.”

Is that enough of a safety net?

It’s true; Vermont is not Ohio or Mississippi. Men We Reaped is Jesmyn Ward’s (2013) memoir remembering five men in her family circle who died young. These African American young men were whole, until they were thwarted by the economic and educational apartheid of their Mississippi. The young men she describes were hindered and emboldened by stereotypes of masculinity and African American. Drugs, guns, despair or white men driving while drunk murdered them.

Guns and guys. Economics. Rural landscapes. There are differences and similarities between rural Mississippi and Vermont. Our winters are for sledding, skiing, reading by the woodstove. Folks in Mississippi rebuild after hurricanes and slog through heat no Vermonter could abide. If it reaches 98 degrees folks practically faint around here. Many Vermonters want to do right, be good, be green, be advocates for every cause. They take pride in the history of the stalwart New Englander. There are many markers of Civil War veterans in Vermont cemeteries. Vermont is the first state to approve of civil unions for same-sex couples. They want their guns for hunting. They tend to leave one another alone but help out in a pinch without being asked.

But perfect we are not. Vermont has a statewide problem of prescription drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers and an economy that prompts our young, educated population to go out of state to find good jobs. Vermont gets an “F” while Mississippi gets a “C” on the Teaching Tolerance report card. Drugs, guns, and economics are all factors confronting youth in Vermont and Mississippi. I have faith that, with support, Vermont educators will rise to meet this challenge, teach beyond tolerance and tests, to deep understanding of stereotypes and prejudice. It is time to inspire students to desire and create a society, a new civil social paradigm, which will address school shootings by white children with high powered artillery and which does not accept the shooting of unarmed children, young adults, and citizens of color.

Vermonters are proud of the state’s dedication to justice and hold kindness as a rule. I’m grateful for that. But if we are too attached to an image of being kind and progressive, we miss the real racism that occurs to those who are darker skinned. We miss opportunities to understand our privilege as white people to walk down the street and not have someone cross the street or call the police because we are here. We miss the fact that our white children are not being shot for holding toys, as seventeen more brown children have since I had that conversation with my son four years ago. [7]

We don’t have to wait for this to change. History offers examples of non-violent activism that resulted in fast-moving changes. In the early days of AIDS activism we shouted, SILENCE=DEATH. No media, government agency, or pharmaceutical company seemed to care that so many gay men were suddenly dying. Men and women organized to work with doctors, lawyers, medical researchers, poets, and playwrights so political activism started to bring change and hope to people who were HIV positive. The primarily privileged white, male, educated provocateurs of this movement were determined to get their demands met, they assumed they had the right to health care and attention. That civil rights movement was organized with unprecedented immediacy and voice. We need that kind of momentum to gain justice for black boys and men dying by excessive police force and incarceration.

As I write this, there’s a huge crescent moon in the clear Vermont sky. That same moon shines over all of us. It shines in Ferguson, Missouri still smoldering after the riots over the grand jury’s decision in the case of Michael Brown’s death by Officer Wilson. It glows over Cleveland, Ohio where just last week twelve-year-old African American, Tamir Rice, died when white officers didn’t distinguish his pellet gun from a real one at a playground. Why are lethal shots fired? Not one shot, but many?

Thousands of lives – my son’s life — depend on our not being silent.

We have wonderful mentors and models for our crusade for justice —Suffrage for Women, Civil Rights for Native Americans and African Americans, Women, Gays, Lesbians, Transgender, and Disabled, Peace Movements and the AIDS movement. None of these efforts has lead to permanent success though. Constant vigilance is our responsibility.

At seventeen I was marching against the war in Vietnam. Now, I see that we were practicing hope. Hope for change, hope for humanity, hope for kindness. I adopted my African American daughter because I wanted to walk into the future as the future would be—multicultural, full of difference. I adopted my son knowing I had to guide a boy to becoming a man. I became a mother in the anticipation of joy and hope in a bright future for my kids. I am an educator because I believe knowing history and social constructions provokes understanding, especially of people who are different from us somehow.

Every young person killed is a son or daughter. Every shooter is too.

Shelley Vermilya, Ed.D. is a progressive educator who adores creating new knowledge with all kinds of learners. She teaches at the University of Vermont and Saint Michael’s College. She is a reader for the Central Vermont Reading to End Racism project working with elementary school kids and lives in Plainfield, VT with her two kids and partner.

Notes.

[1] Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States. http://www.tolerance.org/TTM2014

[2] Lawrence Otis Graham, http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/06/i-taught-my-black-kids-that-their-elite-upbringing-would-protect-them-from-discrimination-i-was-wrong/

[3] Summer of 2014

Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.

Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York smothered in a chokehold.

John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio shot in the chest in Walmart holding a .177 calibre BB rifle.

Ezell Ford of Los Angeles, California shot in the back after an “investigative stop.”

Dante Parker of Victorville, California Tased repeatedly and died in the hospital.

Trayvon Martin of Sanford, Florida in February 2012 and, always, Emmett Till on August 26, 1955 in Money, Mississippi.

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0915.html (accessed 10.17.14) 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair) were found beneath the rubble in a basement restroom. Ten-year-old Sarah Collins, who was with the other girls, lost her right eye, and more than 20 other people were injured in the blast.

[5] http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/birmingham-church-bombing

[6] The Color of Fear. (1994). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nmhAJYxFT4

[7] http://www.mydaytonailynews.com/data/news/17-shootings-that-involved-fake-guns/ (accessed 10.17.14)

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