THE LONG REACH OF RACISM

In my novel The Earth Breaks in Colors, which I published in 2015, two eleven-year-old girls – one black, one white – start out with a clear, innocent view of their different skin tones. It’s just one of God’s many color schemes. They joke about the “black and white” of them. But when they are swept up in a violent racial attack in which the black girl’s father kills one of the white men who came after his family, innocence dies too. By the end of the novel, their friendship is still intact, but the girls have learned that there is nothing funny or light-hearted about the black and white of them. Not in the world that was waiting for them on the other side of childhood.

 I think often about the children who are growing up now in this country, when racism is everywhere. When anyone who looks different – Black, Hispanic, Muslim, Asian, Indian – can be denigrated and attacked. I think about the fact that these children will never experience a time of innocence, when it didn’t matter that someone else had a different skin color. When it was no more important than what color their socks were. We all end up leaving the innocence of childhood behind; we all have to learn about the cruelties and prejudices of the adult world. We learn they were always there, we were just blissfully unaware.  If we can look back and remember a time before the painful realities of the world crashed in, we at least have a light to hold onto when things get really dark. We have some kind of touchstone for how the world should be.

 I remember when I stepped over the line and left the innocence of childhood behind. It began with a question I asked my father about a woman who came over sometimes – a friend of my parents’ – who had a small tattoo on her wrist. I didn’t know if I should ask her about it, so I asked my father instead. His expression told me I was about to learn something serious, something that would alter the world I lived in. He told me how she was thrown into a rail car with her family when she was a young girl, taken to a camp where people were starved and killed. Her father was killed, but my parents’ friend was allowed to live because she looked older than her years. Her mother survived, but barely, often giving part of her ration of food to her daughter. All of this horror, he told me, was because they were Jewish, and there were people in power who hated them simply for that. Sometime after that, he showed me a film of American soldiers rescuing people from Concentration Camps at the end of the war. 

 As clearly as if it happened last week, I recall the feelings inside me – the revulsion, the shock, but also a deep sadness that I would never again be ignorant of what people are capable of. My childhood stood on the other side of a deeply carved line. It was a time of innocence that would never fade from memory, but I would never be able to inhabit it again. 

 So, what happens when racism is so prevalent that children are deprived of that innocence? If they never know a time when people are just people, no matter what color their skin is or what facial features they have? What frightens me is the idea that something hardens in them, at an age that’s so tender everything is magnified. 

 This is how racism becomes permanent – by stretching across generations and eradicating any memory of a time when it didn’t intrude. It occurs to me that those of us who remember not knowing about prejudice have a responsibility to pass that along to children who have only seen a world in which it is everywhere. It might sound like a fable to them, but fables have a place in forming our ideas about how the world should be. They can’t help but be exposed to the protests and the rage erupting in cities across this country, but maybe they can be inspired to envision a world in which those protests are no longer necessary. 

 When I was in Sunday School as a young child and we learned the story of Adam and Eve being driven out of the Garden of Eden because they disobeyed God, the teacher told us that God wept. I’m pretty sure that was her coloring of the story, but it stayed with me. And I think about it a lot these days. With every life lost to a spray of bullets or a knee on the neck, I think about God weeping. By holding on to a fragile story about what innocence felt like, and pulling it forward through generations, we might be able to dry His tears. 

2 Responses to THE LONG REACH OF RACISM

  1. Joy kim says:

    Ah yes the innocence of youth….

  2. KEVIN BURK says:

    Thank you for this. Always enjoy readying your thoughts on issues that touch us all

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