My little brother is 45 today. Let’s not talk about how old that makes a bird feel.
What’s on my mind is another of his birthdays, the one in 1968. Our dad was in the U.S. Senate, and we lived in a suburban neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia, and a few days before my little brother’s birthday party my parents decided it might be wiser to have it in the backyard than in a public park, as planned.
I was nearly 7, and I could tell something was wrong, that we were not simply changing our minds about the best venue for a party to suit five-year-old boys. I’m sure I asked my mother, more than once, why the plans had changed. I was a big girl, a first-grader, wise to the ways of the world, or so I thought, imagining myself as more of a colleague to my mother than her child.
Persistence paid off, and my mother, worn down, told me that she was afraid to go to the park. People are angry she said, because a man has been killed, a man people cared about, and there are riots going on, and people are setting buildings on fire. It’s better for us to stay at home, she said.
What strikes me most about this memory is that there was no judgment against those who might be rioting, and no indication that race had anything to do with the troubles.
I lived in an idealized world.
My little brother’s birthday party took place in our fenced backyard on Belle Haven Road. It would be hard to imagine a more safe-feeling place outside a gated community. I went back to the neighborhood with Pure Luck several years ago, to show him where I had once lived. We stopped across the street from 2209, a house I dreamed about as recently as last week, and before we had been there two minutes, someone stopped to ask if we were lost? I guess we looked like we didn’t belong there.
I never knew I lived in a place where some people didn’t belong, and that is perhaps nearly as bad as believing people don’t belong in the first place.
Ruby, my childhood
friend, had some similar experiences. In our nearly apartheid-like
hometown, Jane Austen’s Village, we grew up in homes where we did not
internalize the prejudice many of our peers did, but that did not
prepare us for the real world.
I’m not sure how long it took for me to realize that Dr. King had been killed because he was a person of color.
I can’t even remember hearing my parents say "Negro," but wasn’t that
the word then? I remember being 8 or so and hearing "Afro-American" for
the first time and wondering why these words even mattered?
I fear there is such a thing as being too sheltered.
I understand now why my mother felt frightened. My father had received his own death threats for his political positions, and there were more to come. The world felt too big and too uncertain to her. I’m not sure what she thought of Dr. King then; she didn’t say. She was busy overseeing the play of little white boys who came to a birthday party in plaid jackets and bow ties.
But I have a vivid memory of sitting with her in the Bubble Room at the Children’s Museum in Jane Austen’s Village, many years later, watching #1 Son interact with the other children, the first place in my hometown where I ever white and African-American children playing together, the first place in my hometown I saw a hint of Dr. King’s dream.