Here I am asking what would happen if we were all able to protect our children the way the powerful have done for centuries. What seems like paradise would cripple the earth and the only home we all know. So whose daughters should be sacrificed? This struggle has already turned us against each other. Maybe we should think more about our stewardship of the earth and of each other.
The multiple levels of limited sight in these children is a representation of our society. As children playing a game, unaware of each other except through performance, they are connected through the universally shared history of humanity. I am not depicting enemies here. Nor am I creating a portrait of a pariah. Each of us begins life learning what we must in order to survive. We each enter the game from different places and perspectives, with differing levels of preparation or instruction. Some of what we were taught, some of what we believe, leaves us blind. Some of it is possible to fix; for some of us, sight may never return. Still, life supports us—until it can’t.
My sister posted this picture of us on the book of faces this morning. I don’t remember ever seeing it. While it must be over forty years old, I don’t remember when it was taken. Mom was definitely pretty. My younger sisters were definitely cute. As I look at it now though, I am struck by something…nobody would have recognized the invisible artist in the photo. There she is though; the little red-haired girl on the far right. I’d always thought folks were deliberately ignoring my dream to be an artist—as if they thought I couldn’t possibly have it. But no, it just didn’t show.
I knew she was supposed to be here. it just took me a long time to figure out how to get her in. Now, I can go on.
“From the moment at which a painter begins to strike figures of color upon a surface he must become acutely sensitive to the feel, the textures, the light, the relationships which arise before him. At one point he will mold the material according to an intention. At another he may yield intention—perhaps his whole concept—to emerging forms, to new implications within the painted surface. Idea itself—ideas, many ideas move back and forth across his mind as a constant traffic, dominated perhaps by larger currents and directions, by what he wants to think. Thus idea rises to the surface, grows, changes as a painting grows and develops. So one must say that painting is both creative and responsive. It is an intimately communicative affair between the painter and his painting, a conversation back and forth, the painting telling the painter even as it receives its shape and form.” —Ben Shahn, Biography of a Painting
No matter what has happened in my life, I always believed I could make it work. I don’t really know how to give up. But now, our phones are off. Even so, I went to the talent show at my daughter’s school this morning. I always cry. I cry when the first note of the first act begins, even when my child is not on stage. I cry when the first performer appears—not my child but I cry anyway. Such a sap, right? Maybe, but I have three children and what gets me every time is the realization that this experience of school is not a given for any of mine.
I’ve talked, somewhat in code about my own experience of school here. I’ve talked about what it feels like to be talented and yet cut off and invisible here and here, even here. I’ve even talked about my mother’s well-meaning yet destructive attempts to protect my sisters and I from a world she had trouble navigating herself. The more I struggle to raise my own family the less I can pass judgment of any sort on my mother. The reality any parent must navigate in order to raise children with any chance at a productive life is…never mind, I’ve talked about that here.
The world we live in is so complex that even if all we want is to have healthy children, eat dinner together, sleep safely at night, walk in the park, play outside, go to the library, attend the occasional performance or movie screening, and walk to school every day, we cannot do so without extensive education, training, and connections to wealth. Wealth? Just to achieve what should be universally valued and accessible in a country like ours? I never wanted to be wealthy. Yet, heart and will, integrity, even talent, are not enough. I know, people—especially here in America—do not want to believe that. It’s true. And it’s getting worse because we’re all afraid of losing what little we think we have. We have erected so many barriers between ourselves and others that almost nobody can get through. Believe me when I tell you, I am nobody.
Our phones are off and I have no idea how I am going to pay for our lives without a job. What do you think when I say that?
It’s okay, go ahead, and be honest. I must be some sort of loser, right? I posted this article on twitter because I have lived in at least five of the ten most segregated urban areas of this nation as presented here. Each time I have moved in order to start a job, it has taken as much work to find a diverse neighborhood to live in as it took to find the job. I do it because, while I really am black, I don’t think black. I don’t think anybody else does either. I don’t have any problem with being black, but maybe I should just accept the fact that so many others do. Maybe I should move into the center of one of the designated places for black people as indicated in these charts. Give up believing in the melting pot. The rent would be cheaper. Your rent might even be cheaper if we weren’t so afraid of folks that don’t look like us.
The work I do does not exist in or near an all black neighborhood. It should, we buy as much stuff as anybody else. Now, when so many people are out of work, and submitting employment applications is as impersonal and frustrating as online dating, how can I support my family? I‘d have to give up struggling with my stupid dream to use my talents in work that I am fully qualified for even though there supposedly aren’t many blacks that are. Why don’t I just do that? I’ll tell you why. I don’t think with my skin. Neither do my children. Not only would I have to shut down my brain and destroy the most valuable part of myself, but what happens to my kids? Even as I have been willing to commute great distances for work, the schools in all black neighborhoods all across America suck. I do not know why. I have tried to follow all of the arguments. Honestly, the arguments are obnoxious and rarely have anything to do with children OR education. I didn’t move to private schools. I paid just as much by moving to a neighborhood with a strong public school. Either way, I would not risk my own children waiting for this to change. You know what this makes me? It makes me just like every other decent parent, in the census. Only, some of us don’t really count.
So, I sit in the auditorium at my daughter’s school and I do as I always do. I look around. The demographics are changing. The upper grades, while diverse, have more Black and Latino students, fewer White, Jewish and Asian students. The lower grades, those preschoolers and kindergarteners sitting on the floor in front of us, are mostly white. My own daughter is the only one of her friends who actually lives in this neighborhood—her friends are racially, culturally and economically diverse. Seriously though, the rent here is astronomical, but I had to do it. She wouldn’t have gotten into the school if I hadn’t moved into the district. We moved from another state, she would not have been part of the lottery or voucher system or whatever it was that allowed her Black, Latino, Jewish, Asian and White friends to attend this school though they don’t live in the neighborhood. I moved from Shaker Heights, Ohio—another of the very few diverse school districts in America—and into this apartment without even seeing it first. It’s a good school. It’s not an ivy-league bound, college-prep school—btw, my daughter managed to test into one of the best college-prep high schools in the city, her and a few thousand smart, diverse, multi-interested students. Right now, she attends a good, solid public elementary school. A school within walking distance of her room where she keeps her stuff. A school where she could not only learn basic math and science, but where she could form friendships based on shared interests, just like any other normal person. Not special. Why should it be so hard, so costly, for a family that is not wealthy to find a decent school in America? This is especially true if one is Black or Latino.
My daughter is brilliant and amazing—no, really. Last year, in an awful staging of Beauty and the Beast, she had an auditorium full of us crying over the certain death of the scrawniest looking beast anyone could imagine. The year before that, it was the lead in Annie. There was also the year she mesmerized us with a stunning and precise dance with Japanese fans. (Three of this year’s talent show performances were Japanese inspired. These kids have been practicing for months. Their interest is genuine.) In this year’s talent show my daughter performed last. The screaming that happens at the mention of her name is all deserved (I’m broke, I didn’t pay anybody). She closed the show with an original composition. She accompanied herself on her guitar. She looked and sounded like a star. Like she should already be famous. The lyrics, the form and shape of the tune, the emotive quality of her voice, the story she told, her presence on stage—even the small kids on the floor in front of us were soundless until she was finished. Then the place erupted in screaming and cheering again. And then again when her name was called so she would return to the stage to receive her certificate. I whispered to her grandfather, my own absent father who is long dead and cannot hear me, “Do you see your granddaughter?” He would have been proud. She really is amazing. She stands out. So far, she is not persecuted for this. So far, her attitude and her awareness of herself work to protect her. I have done my best, but she needs so much more than I can give her. She needs to be somewhere where she can learn to capitalize on her talent. Apparently, I cannot, did not run fast enough, learn fast enough to escape the limits of my upbringing, my birth, my race? My kids have a chance. Maybe yours do too. According to the song my daughter wrote, I am not allowed to give up. It’s never over.