It was going to happen sooner or later. This is what I signed up for; but there is so often a vast gulf between anticipation and experience.
It started out as an innocent everyday play session in the school yard. Mothers gathered near the building, soaking up afternoon winter sun. A mild day in the 50’s, it was perfect for reconnection after Christmas break. A handful of kids scurried from play equipment to soccer field. There was no reason to suspect that a gathering on the far side of the grounds was anything but the continuation of a pleasantly warm, after school play time.
Little did we know that an ageless monster would rear its ugly head.
With the sun waning and another son to pick up from a different school, I said my good-byes and headed across the field. Two of my sons broke out from the huddle along with their cousin and a friend. All babbled at once, I only caught phrases.
“…calling us bullies!”
“…said we’re cuckoos!”
But one phrase slipped into my soul and sliced me to the core.
“Mom,” my son said quietly, so that even the other kids couldn’t hear, “she called me black trash.”
“She called you what?!”
So, it’s happening; my mind tried to register the words in disbelief as all other voices faded away. I glanced between two beautiful blond-haired little girls, younger than Jedd, perched on a slight rise in the ground, faces defiant. My son’s earnest brown eyes gazed up at me. This was a new experience for him, but he intuitively knew that the line she had crossed demanded justice. I am a very calm person, non-confrontational, quick to encourage and soothe. I marched over to the girls.
“Jedd said you called him black trash. You absolutely cannot do that. You absolutely cannot joke around or make fun of someone because of what color they are. God made us different colors and you absolutely cannot talk like that.”
I was livid, shaking. So angry I couldn’t even register how or even if they were responding. They ran away. I didn’t know what to do next.
“Mom, are you going to talk to her Mom?” my son prompted. His voice was urgent. My outrage outweighed any fear of confrontation.
We walked back to the group of mothers. I didn’t know the name of the girl, and guessed to whom she belonged.
“Nancy,” I said, “is the girl in the orange shirt yours?”
“Yes,” she replied, “I mean she’s not mine, but I’m watching her.”
“Could I talk to you for a minute?” I asked.
My words tumbled over each other. She was appalled. I told her that among other reasons I needed to tell her about the incident, I wanted my son to know that I would take a stand for him.
“Yes, of course,” she said emphatically.
When our son, Justin, was born, my husband and I were pondering racial issues, exploring a world previously unknown to both of us growing up in communities with very few Black people, where prejudice towards Black Americans seemed to be a non-issue. Suddenly, through friends and teachings in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an entire world of injustice crashed at our feet. How could we have been so ignorant? Justin means justice, and giving our son this name reflected our growing awareness and longing. Little did we know that his name would also prove to be prophetic. Two months after Justin was born, God suddenly shifted the sands under our feet and shoved us into the heart of the issue.
Through friends, we became aware of an abandoned baby in an orphanage in Kenya, the same age as Justin. We were not planning to adopt at that time, but our hearts broke for this little one alone in a large institutional orphanage, the same age as our own son. We could picture him in our minds so clearly, about the same size, even described with a similar temperament. But, with two significant differences: he had no parents, and his skin was, of course, Black.
We wrestled with racial questions. Despite our lack of personal experience with Black people, what prejudices had we absorbed from the culture around us? Could we be honest and acknowledge the ugliness within our own hearts? Could we repent and dispel the myths? What would it be like for a Black child to grow up in a White family? Would he grow to resent us for taking him into a world where he would always be the minority? Did we really understand enough of the issues that divide America to care for a Black child? Would members of our family and community accept him? Would they accept our family? Would he be persecuted as a Black person? Would we experience prejudice because he belongs to us? If we did, were we willing to receive others’ hatred? These are questions with which we still wrestle; but, in the end, the outcry of our hearts at racial injustice became a motivating factor for us to pursue adoption. Receiving a Black child as our own, we reasoned, would be the closest we could come to walking in the shoes of those who suffer simply because of the color of their skin. It was, for us, a calculated willingness to be wounded.
The only surprise for me is that the wounding was held at bay as long as it was.
Justin and I cuddled on my bed later that day as the shadows gave way to evening. I told him how furious I felt. His heart was hurting, too. I warned him that it will most likely happen again; this is an issue that has divided people as long as history extends. Wars have been fought, blood has been shed, lives have been sacrificed. He had studied Martin Luther King, Jr.; he nodded his head in agreement.
As raw and broken as my heart felt, this was a long-awaited wound, and mild in comparison to the potential. I received it with open arms, even as I stumbled under its weight, pleading with God for the strength to bear it. Mixed with the fierce love I harbor for my Black son is a timeless yearning, a longing for which men and women have given their very lives; a passion for justice, for racial equality, for each of us to value one another as a fellow creation of one Creator. A school girl’s careless taunt is but the beginning of a long, long-expected road. It is a journey that by God’s grace, I choose to walk, side-by-side with my son.
Although I wrote this piece several years ago, seeing the movie 42 reminded me of this experience. Within a few days of seeing the movie, I saw a news report about a county in Georgia that is holding its first integrated prom. So, if I lived in that area and my two sons were in high school, they would have attended different proms before this year, due to the color of their skin. I encourage you to see 42, and I’d love to hear what you think.