Thursday, June 11, 2009
Suffer the little children
I am the mother of some obviously "different" kids. My twins are Asian, adopted when they were six months old. Another daughter is noticeably autistic. We get a lot of stares, questions, double takes, but I've worked hard to make sure we mostly live in a little protective bubble of a world that enthusiastically embraces the many differences we humans have from one another. I've also tried to talk about how the world treats and mistreats difference, and that it's not all goodness and light, but luckily for us these talks are mostly theoretical. To this end, however, when we were invited to a play called "Anne and Emmet," an imagined dialog between Anne Frank and Emmet Till, we decided to take the twins with us. It would be a cultural experience and good opportunity to broaden their knowledge of the world, but at a safe historical distance. The play was to take place at the Holocaust Museum in Washington on Wednesday. We drove to DC that day, arriving in the late afternoon. We were tired from the drive and, though my mother was urging us to leave immediately for the Mall, we dawdled and delayed. Finally, we got ourselves organized to go but, as we were about to leave, we got a call saying a white extremist had come into the Holocaust Museum and shot and killed a black guard. Had we left early to avoid DC rush hour, as my mother was urging us to do, my beautiful brown-skinned daughters might have been in the sights of a man who would have seen them, because of the simple fact of having extra pigmentation in their skin, as a threat to his idea of what America should be.
I can't express how grateful I am that my daughters were spared the violence, bloodshed, and trauma of being there. I tried my best to distract them from the shock that a man had been murdered that day, at a place we had been about to go to, for the crime of having brown skin, like theirs. I took them shopping, swimming, out for ice cream. But everywhere we turned, TVs and radios were blaring this man's twisted and hate-filled vision of the world or the tragic image of the man his hatred killed. The twins are level-headed girls and, having been abandoned at birth by their biological mother, having spent the first six months of their lives in an orphanage, they know that hard shit happens in this life. But this was different.
When they were little, they used to ask me, "What would you do to keep us safe?" And then they would proceed to make up scenarios that included all my worst phobias. "Would you bungee jump naked from the Empire State building?" And I would say "Yes, even though I would throw up, wet my pants, and faint if I did that, I would do it to keep you safe." And I would. And I'm sure that the mothers of Anne Frank and Emmet Till - those now no longer so safely historical object lessons - would have too. As would the mother of Stephen Tyrone Johns, the guard who died Wednesday and who lived, as do we all, in a world that, heartbreakingly, we cannot keep safe for our children.
(My husband was asked to write an opinion piece in the Washington Post putting the shooting in the context of the history of the Mall. Here's the link if you're interested:
Outlook op ed )