My golden-haired, five-year-old grandson couldn’t wait for his turn to talk at the dinner table. “Do you know something special about Barack Obama?” he asked. His parents and I replied, in chorus, “No, what?” “He’s the first African-American President!” he yelled, so pleased with himself that he could say “African-American” with all the vowels and consonants in the right place.
“Do you know any other African-Americans,” I asked. This was a trick question and the adults looked at him expectantly.
“What IS an African-American,” he asked. He could tell it was a trick question. He’s pretty smart for a five-year-old.
His mother answered, “An African-American is an American who has family from Africa, even if that family was in Africa a very long time ago. And,” she said, “sometimes you can tell if they have ancestors from Africa because they have darker skin. But not always.”
Before I tell you the trick part of the question posed to my Oh, so smart grandson, I want to take us back to 1958. I, the tricky grandmother of this tale, was seven years old. I was in the second grade in Anderson, Indiana. There was only one child with dark skin in my school and this was fascinating for a child surrounded by only one ethnicity. I found her waiting in the kindergarten line-up one day and asked her, “Are you a …..? I can’t even think the word now without an internal battle, but it was already in my vocabulary in 1958. The other child just looked at me and I said yes you’re a ……., you have black skin, so you’re a ……. Tears began welling in her eyes. My teacher, Mrs. Poffenbarger, took her out of the line and I don’t remember ever seeing that fascinating child again. Mrs. Poffenbarger called my mother that night to explain what I had done. My mother took in ironings for grocery money in those days, and in 1958 she had rarely traveled farther than Indianapolis. My mother’s own mother remembered the country’s last public lynching in Marion, Indiana. My mother sat me on the kitchen counter that night and began a series of lectures about race and history and slavery and injustice. And about looking for gifts on the inside of the box, not in the wrapping paper.
Those lectures allowed me to grow up with a mission, even in Anderson, Indiana. My mission? To learn as much as possible about other cultures, other races, other languages, other ways of living. To be a part of creating a world in which children would not be hurt by ignorant prejudice.
I was feeling the weight of those lectures still guiding me last week, when my grandson asked, “What IS an African-American?”
Very gently I said, “Well, your great-grandfather is a famous African-American. (Lt. Walter J. Palmer, Sr, of the Tuskeegee Airmen.) And your grandfather (my ex-husband) is African-American. And your mother. And you.”
“No way!” he yelled.
I realized that he sees skin color, but because his cousin has dark skin and his aunt has light skin and his grandfather has dark skin and his grandmother has light skin—because of his history of loving hearts while seeing differences—he is able to see skin as love, as beauty, as a way of telling light from light.
He will learn the whole history of race, dominance, politics and power as he becomes older. But here is what he knows now.
“Yes, you ARE an African-American,” said his mother and father.
And he stood up, crowing,
“THEN I CAN BECOME PRESIDENT OF THE WHOLE UNITED STATES!!!”