Me with my parents in Warner, New Hampshire circa 1978
In 2013, the year that Renisha McBride was shot and killed, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin, Paula Deen was confronted for her use of racial slurs, culture-appropriating pop provocateur Miley Cyrus used black women as props in her now notoriously game-changing performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards, two major motion pictures about American slavery were released and grossed significant box office numbers, blackface made an imposing resurgence in Hollywood, on Twitter feeds and Instagram accounts, and “race” and “racism” became the year’s most exploited online click bait, I spent an unseasonably cool August evening in New Hampshire during which I experienced an undeniable epiphany.
I was at a barbecue fundraiser to benefit a local animal shelter with my parents, who had been invited as guests of our longtime family friend, Sophie*.
The barbecue was in Contoocook — I was raised in the neighboring town of Warner, a rural community of farmers, mechanics, gas attendants, school teachers and librarians, a small enclave of artists and craftspeople, and an even smaller number of wealthy New Englanders, often patrons of the arts who had moved to the area from cities like Boston to raise their children in a bucolic setting.
Sophie was among the wealthy patrons, my parents among the artists. My eight-year-old son, Kofi, and I had been in New Hampshire for only a couple of days — our annual summer visit to my parents had started with an overnight stay with a friend an hour north in Vermont, while my husband stayed behind to finish up the summer college course he was teaching in New York, where we live.
He was to join us toward the end of the week and then we would stay through the weekend. Some years we have rented a cottage, other years we bunk for a few days with my parents. This year we were lucky to stay at the unoccupied cottage owned by family friends.
I am always cognizant of the extreme whiteness of Warner (97.9 percent white according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau — it felt even whiter growing up) and its neighboring towns whenever I go back to visit, although for some reason this time I felt not simply aware of it, but nearly assaulted by it.
On our second day, Kofi and I went out for breakfast with my parents at a hometown restaurant, owned and operated by a local family — the waitress had been a few years behind me in school; the hostess familiar from the post office.
We had just sat down to look at our menus when Kofi leaned over to me after surveying the other customers in the relatively packed dining area, and whispered, genuinely mystified: “Mom, why is everyone here white?”
Even as my husband is white and our son is light-skinned brown, he is being raised in New York City where he attends school with kids and teachers from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds; his father is a college professor who teaches courses and writes books about race and the history of the Civil Rights movement; his mother is black and writes about race in the media; his parents have friends who are black and brown and gay and who visit and discuss race and politics openly, rigorously, often.
When I was my son’s age, this all-encompassing whiteness was all I knew. For my son, this all-encompassing whiteness had registered for the first time in his young childhood as nothing he knew.
I thought it was a good question, though, and so I told my son to ask my parents, since they had chosen to live in this town for over 50 years, and could better speak to the issue than I could.
My father responded: “Because many of the people who live here are descendants of the first settlers to the area — those who worked and farmed the land for their livelihood. And the first settlers were white.” It was a fair enough answer, but in my mind I thought, with decades-long resentment stewing: That may well be, but why then choose to live here while also raising a black child who will then grow up seeing white people everywhere she looks, everywhere she turns, every day, throughout her entire childhood? How is that healthy? Who does that?
For his part, my father continued, as a naturalist he needed to feel connected to and close to what little undeveloped land there was left in the country — like his philosophical mentor, Henry David Thoreau, my father places a high premium on the value of plants and wildlife, swamps and dirt.
My brother, Sean, my parents’ biological son, a master carpenter who built a vast and ornately detailed house in which to raise his family about six miles away from the house we grew up in, is also a master fisherman. He had taken Kofi fishing once before during one of our summer visits, and he had loved it. The day of the barbecue fundraiser, Sean offered to take him again.
The plan was for Sean to bring Kofi directly to the barbecue after they’d spent a few hours fishing — they left at about 3 pm, so I expected they’d arrive at maybe 6 or 6:30 at the latest. We saw Sophie right away, who pulled up ahead of us in her black SUV with its well-known vanity plates: “SGB” (Sophie Grace Bennett*).
In typical Sophie fashion, she brought a cashmere shawl for the two us to share given the unlikely chill in the air. We sat at a long foldout table under a tent — paper plates piled with coleslaw and pulled pork, burgers and pickles. It was well attended for a local event — probably 50 people, many of whom I recognized (my old babysitter with her now grown kids, the town realtor, the man we got our summer corn from), as I had at the restaurant the day before.
But there were also faces I didn’t recognize, faces that looked at me with expressions of wariness, dismissal and prejudice. I began to feel increasingly anxious and found myself continually looking toward the parking lot: Where are they?
My mother sensed my mounting concern and said, with a slight tone of irritation in her voice: “They’ll be here soon – Sean likes to put in a full day of fishing.”
My lovely mother, youthful looking at 72, positioned next to my father, less youthful looking at 72, and who had brought his regular stash of vodka in a plastic water bottle, as the barbecue fell squarely during cocktail hour and my father never misses cocktail hour no matter where he is or what the venue.
He was hunched slightly over his plate, cheeks reddened from the brisk weather and intermittent sips of vodka, affable and delighted as locals came up one after another to chat with the town celebrity. My father, even as we struggled our entire lives to make ends meet, is an artist and naturalist of great integrity, and immeasurable ego, and has always believed in himself and his work above almost all else.
In 2006, that belief paid off when he received a MacArthur “genius” grant for his environmental research and published books of natural history, followed by a National Book Award nomination a few years later. Subsequently, he was a big fish in a small pond and tended to revel in his standing with great ease. My mother smiled, ever the undying enthusiast and supporter of my father.
I suddenly thought to myself: Who are these people and why did they bring me here to this town surrounded by all these white people? Even my 8-year-old son thinks it’s arcane. What were they thinking?
When I finally saw my son come bounding across the parking lot, in his high-top sneakers and baseball cap tilted to the side, all grins and love, I had a revelation: a sea change had occurred.
In that moment and context, the very sight of my son’s face and skin, his brown hands and resolute pull toward me, crystalized how significant the subject and experience of race is and has always been for me.And too, as an adult and now a parent myself, what I believe white parents are signing up for when they adopt a child of a different race. My parents had parented and cared for me, and I always knew they loved me — but my son feels like family in a way that they do not.
Race and blackness and culture are part of his vernacular, his existence and identity — he is conversant in the language of race and racial dynamics, as is my husband. My parents are not, and never were. This lack of conversancy, of a particular fluency — the lack of racial awareness and cultural contact in their role as white parents of a black child — played an enormous role in my thinking at various points throughout my early life and young adulthood that I likely would have made a much better white girl.
When Trayvon Martin was shot, my son was concerned about how the shooting might impact his own life, but also mine, his mother’s: “Will people shoot you because of the way you look? Will they shoot you and me?”
I explained that yes, there was a chance that people might shoot us because of how we look, because we are black, because there is a long history of violence and unrest between black and white people in America — a power struggle, residual anger and hatred — and we, black people, and especially young black boys, are left with the burden of fear that we might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That’s part of my son’s life — I can’t and won’t pretend that it isn’t.
It’s also part of mine, although I didn’t really understand that until I became the parent of a black child. When Willie Turks was shot by white police in 1982, the first of several shootings of young black men by white police in New York during the 80s, including Yusef Hawkins, whose shooting death prompted a protest march led by Reverend Al Sharpton, there was no discussion of it whatsoever in my family.
Although I don’t recall specifically whether or not I asked my parents anything about it — if I did, their response would very likely have been something along the lines of: “Nothing like that could ever happen to you.”
But it could, and I needed to know that then.
*Name changed to protect privacy.