The past few weeks, months even, have left me in a quiet place of pondering and self-examination.
Racism in America.
What is it exactly?
How will it affect my African-born son with very black skin, or my Haitian-born daughter?
And the thought that has plagued me most: how do I prepare them for what’s ahead?
I’ve been searching everything I can get my hands on and (as mother to twenty-three children) everything I can squeeze in time to read.
One of my favorite sources has been a little book called, Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope, written by Jasmine L. Holmes, daughter of Voddie Bachman — a theologian Scott and I have greatly respected since first hearing him speak at a weekend adoption conference years ago. Jasmine’s book is beautifully written in letter form as the Black, biological mother of a sweet, little, Black toddler.
However, one of the first things I read in this book filled my heart with discouragement and fear: “There are conversations that I will have to have with my little boy—conversations similar to the ones my parents had with me—that are unique to our ethnicity.”
“Wait a minute!” my heart screamed! “I don’t know that script!” The conversations I grew up with, as a little white girl in the American South, were completely different kinds of conversations. Talks about being afraid of big, Black boys when forced integration began at my very white school in the early 1970’s, and talks about how to protect myself if necessary. Although these talks also included statements that “they aren’t all bad” and that “some of them will be nice,” the messages of fear and misunderstanding and labeling that had been sifting down through generations since failed Reconstruction in the South, were passed on to me. Only in the last ten years have I begun to understand the history behind these preconceived ideas, the evil they represent, and the damage they caused and are still causing today. And my heart breaks.
So what does my script look like as a white mother to Black children (and brown/Hispanic and Asian children, who will also face some of these same challenges in life)?
My son, like her son, is tall and shows clear signs that he is going to be a pretty big man. She writes, “. . . he is likely to be seen as the biggest kid, the strongest kid, and the one least likely to be seen by outsiders as a kid. We know that he may be perceived as more threatening and aggressive than his non-black peers. We know that . . . he might grow up with stories of having been made to feel ‘other’ because of the color of his skin.”
The reality of these words was not a new idea for me. I’ve known since we adopted our precious Nolan at the age of six-and-a-half (and the same for his sister Madlin, adopted at the age of five) that we would have to learn how to prepare him for life in the world as a Black man. We’ve even had a very few brushes with racism. We knew we had a lot of learning to do ourselves before we could understand how to prepare him for this. But the first years of this baby’s life were not good ones. He was the victim of so much trauma and neglect and abuse and fear. Now, he is finally happy and safe and feels snuggly secure in his family, surrounded by unconditional love.
I don’t want to rob him of these years of joy and safety. For now, he is the son of white parents, this allows him—right or wrong, good or bad—to, in some ways, reap the benefits of our white privilege in spite of his beautifully very black skin tone. That is a fact; a consequence of living in a diverse family parented by a white mom and dad. For now. But what about later when he’s out in the world where people see him only as a tall, Black man who might be wrongly perceived as a threat no matter how polite he might be?
How can I gently prepare him for this future scenario without casting a shadow over the happy, innocent, and safe life he finally has now? I don’t want to take away any of the sunshine from this period in his life.
I still don’t have all of these answers, but we are learning. And as I have begged God to lead me along this path, he is answering those prayers. Jasmine’s book brought me encouraging and hopeful guidance:
“But because of your brown skin . . . your exuberance will sometimes be mistaken for recklessness, your passion for anger. Your affection will make some people nervous, especially if your flirtation veers in the direction of the wrong white man’s daughter . . . Some people won’t even take the time to get to know your tenderness. Sweet boy, I do not say these things to jade you. As I teach you these lessons, I pray that they don’t come from a place of bitterness or a life ruled by fear, I want them to flow from a place of wisdom. I can’t just see you as my sweet little boy. I have to visualize the man that you’ll become, and I must prepare you to face the world in his skin. But there is no better preparation for that than to know that you are not defined by the cruelty that some in this world wish to offer you. You aren’t even completely defined by your mama’s love. You are defined by the God of the universe who purposefully gave you that beautiful brown skin for his glory. No matter how the world might perceive you, hold your head high knowing that you are matchlessly loved by your Father in heaven. And you will be fiercely protected by your mother on earth for as long as I possibly can. . . It is no accident that you are black. He placed you in a lineage of glorious complexity and gave you the task of learning how to glorify him in light of the ingredients he stirred into the pot of your identity. He invites you to delve into a deeper understanding of who you are as an individual so that you can see yourself in light of who you are in the grander story that he is writing. You are black. And it is good. . . you will be tempted to question the wisdom of God in speaking your brown skin into existence . . . you will wonder whether God is holding out on you for making you so different from the world you live in. But I pray that you will come to an understanding of who you are that moves beyond your earthly heritage alone. I pray that your heavenly identity will not only supersede your earthly shell, but also give it deeper and fuller meaning as purposeful evidence of God’s grace toward you and everyone around you. My dear, sweet little boy . . . I pray that you will grow to acknowledge your Creator in all aspects of who you are, bowing your knee in gratitude for every single manifestation of his providence toward you . . . He made you a little black boy on purpose. He stuck you into this particular moment in history with intention. I am not your mama on accident.”
“I am not your mama on accident.”
I have held tightly to the truth that God ordained before the beginning of time that each of our twenty-three children would be ours. He brought them each to us in his perfect time and in his perfect way. I am Nolan’s mama! I am Madlin’s mama. The same holds true for every one of my kids. He is not going to leave me alone to figure this out. He will teach me and guide me in the ways necessary to prepare each of them for a life that I pray will be in his service—a life of fulfillment and joy that he has planned for them. A life that will, I pray, enable them to embrace and celebrate their brownness, their Blackness, their “Asian-ness,” and even their blindness, their paralysis, their physical deformities, or their cognitive limitations. They are each “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and Scott and I were the ones chosen by the Creator of the universe to raise them. What an awesome and breath-taking honor!
For now, among other things, we are relearning the truth of history in America for all people created with black skin. This history has been distorted and re-written in abominable ways. We want to know the truth, and we are teaching that truth to all of our children, regardless of their skin color. What happens in the past, matters so very much in the present and in the future.
If you also would like to begin educating yourself about the past, in order to help you better understand the present and hopefully open your heart to fuller acceptance of the racism that is a reality of life here in America, here are a few links to get you started.
And I especially love this admission by Christianity Today, of how the Church has failed miserably at carrying this torch. If you don’t read any of the others, please at least read this one:
God will continue leading us and bringing others into our lives, as needed. Black, white, brown, Asian friends—we welcome their perspectives in this journey, and we trust God to work through their experience, their wisdom, and their love for our children to continue conducting us along the path he designed for our family.