On the first of this month, as we were riding the bicycle on our way home from a meeting, I heard you exclaim, “Look at that black man!”
I was a bit startled. What? Since when does my little girl identify people on the basis of race? Then I saw that you were pointing to a statue. I assume it’s made of bronze or something, but it’s tarnished and the metal does indeed look black. But the funny thing, to me, is that this was a statue of none other personage than Jefferson Davis.
Do I have to explain why this was funny? I don’t know when you’ll read this, assuming you ever do. I’d like to imagine a future where this moment really does need to be fully explained. Such a future seems a long way off, but indulge my fantasy for a moment.
You see, at the time of this writing, we divide people into groups in many different ways, and one of the biggest ways is racially. There’s no genetic or biological basis for this, but our culture constructs things this way, and these racial groupings are a pretty big fact of life today. Two of the biggest racial groups are “black” and “white,” which is kind of silly since these terms are based on skin colors more accurately described as “brown” and “pink.” That kind of conveys the heart of the problem, how these labels deny our essential common humanity and exaggerate differences. There are many wonderful things to celebrate in the rich cultural diversity of humanity, but this has also been the basis for much pain. It may seem hard to believe, but a lot of blood has been shed over these groupings. Our nation was built in part on the principle of one racial group exploiting and enslaving others. It almost ripped the nation apart. We live in the part of the nation which fought, among other things, to maintain this system of racial slavery. That was over a hundred years ago, but we are still living with the legacy of those issues. Even after the war, we maintained a social system that kept black and white apart and maintained the supremacy or one group over the other. In fact I work at a University that was founded to give black people an education because they weren’t allowed to go to white schools. The laws have been changed since then, but inequalities remain and racial separation remains and the pain remains. It’s still a big issue for us and a cause of much consternation. We hope that some day some future generation will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. Yet I wonder if that day will ever come. My parents taught me not to be racially prejudiced, and I will try to teach you the same, yet the structures of inequality persist. Studies indicate that very young children — babies — will discriminate racially, preferring a white doll to a black one. You seem to prefer you black doll, but it talks and your white baby doesn’t, and besides that’s not the point. The point is, it will be tricky for you growing up in this racially diverse and divided city, nation, and world. Certainly it will be more complicated for you than it was for me, as I grew up in a city that was almost completely white. I care about such things. So I had a little twinge of anxiety when I heard you say, “Look at that black man!” So I felt a bit of relief when I saw it was a statue. And the fact that the statue was of Jefferson Davis, well, that was just the icing on the cake. Jefferson Davis was president of the faction that fought for slavery. He died here in New Orleans, which is why there’s a statue of him here. He remains a symbol of white supremacy, and the notion that anyone would call him a black man is humorous. It’s humor born of pain, but then so is most humor.
Except for puns.
Dang, I knew that would take some explaining.
Also in the last month, you started a sentence with “I think” for the first time ever. It seemed like another minor milestone, and indication that you are now capable of a certain amount of self-reflexivity. To further your intellectual development I taught you the basic structure of the “knock knock” joke. You also helped me play a prank on my co-worker Olivia.
I have taken to saying a chant together with you each morning. We go out onto the front porch to take the air and see what the weather’s like and we say this:
Good morning dear earth, good morning dear sun
Good morning dear flowers and stones every one
Good morning dear beasts and birds in the trees
Good morning to you and good morning to me
Apparently they say a version of this at the Waldorf School of New Orleans. I gather the original poem was written by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian esoteric/mystical philosopher, so it was probably written in German. A number of different translations seem to be floating around.
I like it because of the nature focus. Perhaps it’s sinking in, because one morning I heard you say, “I like the planet Earth. I live on Earth.”