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 )


Anonymous said...

I wish I was more articulate in able to express how I feel. IF only we could wrap our children in bubble wrap and keep them safe and innocent from the hate.
I can't imagine living for 88 yrs with all of that hate inside me.
I weep for our children.


that is just the scariest thing ever...
im so glad you missed that and are all safe..holy crap!
hate is the most evil sin of all...

Elizabeth said...

DF - When they were little, I was able to protect them from things, put a nice spin on the sad things, sweeten the sour. Letting them move out into the unsafe world is one of the hardest things for me to do, as a mother. But that's the job, isn't it? So tough for me!

Granny - I was pretty shook up by the thought that my beautiful girls could have been near that amount of hatred, could have witnessed it, could have been hurt or killed. I'm mostly not afraid of anything that could happen to me. But my children! My darling irreplaceable children! Unbearable.

Kirk said...

A beautiful post, and a heartbreaking photo. I guess one of the few things we can do is write and talk about it, and take strength from each other as we try to walk a different path.

SubtleKnife said...

It's a paradox. How do you keep your children safe whilst at the same time teaching them how to cope in an unsafe world.

I have to admit it all seemed terribly far away to me at the time. Reading this, you've just brought it so close to home to me.

jason said...

Oh my goodness!

I'm so glad you didn't make it there indeed.

The world just seems be getting scarier and scarier, doesn't it?

Maybe it's an illusion, I hope it is, but it's truly

more cowbell said...

mygod, Elizabeth.

I'm so glad you and the girls weren't there.

The Bohemian was in one of the DC museums when it happened. She goes a lot, to the museums. I was physically shaken, thinking she could've just as easily been in the Holocaust Museum. I mean really, she's in the museums all the friggin' time...

Emmett Till's mother was an incredibly brave woman ... her decision to have an open casket, so that the world could see the truth of what hatred brings ... I don't know that I could've been that brave.

When I saw the picture, I skipped to other posts first. Just imagining it takes the breath out of me.

I'm glad you and the girls weren't in DC.

a thousand shades of twilight said...

My God, I'm almost speechless. Shattering. Thinking of you all.

Elizabeth said...

Subtleknife - As a parent, that is the biggest paradox of them all. I bumble along, trying to walk that fine line between telling them enough to give them armor and street smarts, and not telling them so much that they are terrified to explore the world and grow.

Jason - Thanks dear. Honestly, I believe the world has always been a pretty scary place. Beautiful too, but scary. All we can do is play our hand and try our best to find the beauty where we can.

Cowbell - So glad the Bohemian is safe and sound too! It seems that he shot the first brown face he saw. Heartbreaking for the family of the guard, terrifying for those of us who have or love people with brown faces. Hugs to you.

1000 shades - We were all pretty shaken. It's hard to know how much it has affected the twins. They're deep, quiet girls. The youngest, who was with us but not going to the play, took in very little of it, for which I'm hugely grateful. She'll need to learn these lessons someday, but not now, while she's so young.

Anonymous said...

When saw the photo of Emmett Till's mother, which I had never seen before, all I could do was stare in a wordless trance of helpless empathy. Then like your other readers I too was stunned to learn about your planned visit to the Holocaust Museum on that dark day, and took a big gulp of air... After reading all the comments and returning to the photo, I am very moved by your chosing that photo to preface what you wrote. And it makes me think of this, by Lillian Smith: "Teach us to listen to sounds larger than our own heartbeat; that endure longer than our own weeping in the dark."

Kathleen said...

Mercy. Some grateful you were all safe.

Maybe it was this horrific hate crime that got me (and just about everyone I talked to last week) thinking and talking about love.

I truly believe in love's endurance. In the long run, I think hate can only burn itself out while love multiplies exponentially. But who knows when the tipping point will come.

Even not knowing, I'm choosing love. At least at this point in my life, I don't know any other way.

Elizabeth said...

Shiralune - What an absolutely beautiful quote. Thank you for that, and for visiting and commenting.

Kathleen - The Buddha said, "Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule."

sageweb said...

How scary all of this is..and to be within a few mis-steps of this tragedy is terrifying. I am amazed how people have churned up this ability to hate someone that they have never even had a conversation with. It will never make sense.

more cowbell said...

Did I miss the op-ed piece the first time, or did you add that later? Very interesting piece. I'm going to go back and read it again - I'd never thought about that with the memorials. I'm forwarding this to the Bohemian. She is one of those people who is very much into visiting historical sites and museums - I bet she'd get a lot out of it, as she probably knows the monuments referenced.

Sparkleneely said...

I've been thinking of this entry -- first of all, I'm so glad you're all safe. What a horrible tragedy that was, and how frightening that you were thisclose.

And last week I was in Illinois, and there was that horrible tragedy of a different proportion -- the cemetery where the manager and grave diggers had resold the plots and taken the coffins, crypts and bodies and just thrown them away, for the sake of a buck, leaving their families to mourn all over again. And one of those desecrated graves was Emmet Till's, and the woman had pocketed all the money for a monument in his name.

So sad. Imagine how that conversation between Emmet and Anne would be now...