Happy Juneteenth a day late. If you’re oblivious to African-American culture (and you’d be shocked how much you are until you start learning – prepare to die of embarrassment, people), yesterday’s the day that we celebrate the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation (if you’d like a little more than the bare-bones wikipedia entry, this article from the South Carolina Black News is far more comprehensive). The historical background for the date, and the history of the celebration, merits plenty of reading – though neither longform.org nor any other media I’ve perused today has specifically mentioned it. News of Paula Deen’s slavery fantasy have dominated the news cycle. Someone better come up with a meme of her riding a Klansman.
The fact the spellcheck is not recognizing “Juneteenth” shows we have a long, long way to go, y’all.
So rather than use this space to talk about cute Juneteenth crafts we can do with toddlers or Juneteenth pinterest shit or how my kids read a book by Desmond Tutu before bed (which they adore, by the way), let’s talk the way we head-on dealt with race this week. We had two specific incidents – one awesome, the other super awkward – and let’s not forget to mention that having only two racially-charged incidents in one week is a testament to our whiteness*.
The first happened at a local playground. We were having a mama meetup, so Manic Pixie Boy got to play with a ton of kids. One of the girls he adored – sweet, five-year-old African-American A who, God love her, actually played with him. I’m always grateful for older kids who pay attention to him; he’s so used to hippie homeschoolers who include him that the ageist ostracism most kids practice baffles and depresses him. Well, me, at least. I don’t know if he notices. ANYWAY, she was into superheroes, and Spiderman and Batman and The Flash have replaced Fireman Sam in MP Boy’s Hero Pantheon recently, so they got along swimmingly, swooping around the plastic play equipment and, I assume, saving the world.
Several Little League games wended on in the fields around us, so some random unattached and unsupervised siblings hung around. One was about seven, a stereotypically cornfed white kid, who kept asking Bear obnoxious questions, like how he could understand what Manic Pixie Toddler was saying because it sounded like gibberish, and claiming MP Boy was saying ‘bitch’ (he was saying “POW!” or something). He clearly wanted to play, but the Law of Child Ageism said MP Boy and his friend A were beneath his notice. So he hovered around the edges of it.
At some point, MPB and A divied up superhero roles. “I’ll be Batman,” MPB said.
“I’ll be Captain America,” said A.
“Shouldn’t she be Batman?” Cornfed boy smirked. “Because she’s black?”
They both looked at him like he was too dumb to live. “No, I’m Batman!” MPB said. “She’s Captain America!”
“Duuuuuh,” A retorted.
They ran off.
I’m glad neither MPB nor his buddy thought they should listen to a racist seven-year-old. Not like he was making sense anyway, but still. He clearly mentioned A’s blackness as some sort of negative, and tried to engineer it as a means to achieve social dominance. Five- and three-year-olds shouldn’t have to listen to that. Seven-year-olds shouldn’t say it. Welcome to the playground, kids.
The second incident took place at the Mothership, also known as the local Target. A vicious stomach bug had hold of Bear, so I had both boys, a long list of stuff to buy, and an intent to stay out as long as humanly possible so he could snatch some sleep. I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful girl, about six, with the most awesome afro-puffs of all time. I mean, seriously amazing, tied up with curled, colored ribbons, curls framing her face. Someone spent some serious time and love on that child’s hair and she was damned proud of it. You could tell.
“Oh wow,” I said to MPB. “Look at how gorgeous her hair is.” As we walked by, I told the girl, “Your hair is beautiful, sweetie.”
“Say thank you,” her older sister prompted.
“Thank you,” she said to me politely. And to MPB: “I got Hello Kitty stuff. Look.”
He went over to see. “Oh wow, cool. I like that. I like your hair too. It’s very black.”
Insert needle-on-record sound. The teenaged sisters giggled nervously. The girl looked confused. I sort of laughed and sort of died and said, “I am SO sorry,” which was all I could muster, and fled. MPB was oblivious. Because he meant her hair was colored black, which is, to him, the coolest of colors, what with his fluff of dandelion fuzz, and of course it sounded like he read the afro-puffs as some racial coding. Like your hair is black girl hair. I sort of tried to explain to him, but how do you explain African-American hair to a three-year-old? I ended up with a lame, “She thought you meant black like her race, and you meant black like the color of her hair.” Which didn’t really say anything at all.
That poor little girl. I hope she’s still proud of her hair. She knew what it sounded like; she’s aware of the racial coding. Mr. Dandelion Fluff remains blissfully ignorant. The nervous laughter came because we all knew he’s blissfully ignorant and we aren’t.
And still, I don’t know what to say, or what to offer as analysis or conclusion. Race exists. We need to talk about it. It’s ugly and scary and we’re always afraid of saying the wrong thing. It’s hard to be confronted with your own ignorance, which is one thing when you’re three and another when you’re thirty. So there it is. Maybe if we share these awkward moments the laughter can move from uncomfortable to genuine.
And maybe then white people will know what the hell Juneteenth is.
* This isn’t to say we only talked about race twice. We talk about it a lot and try to mention white privilege when we see it, like how mama wouldn’t get arrested or searched if she’s pulled over for speeding, because she’s white and female and a mama, and this is the South, but if mama was an African-American the situation would be different.