One chilly January morning on the way to school last year my then 6-year old son asked me “Mom, are we black? And are we free at last?”
We had just dropped his sister off at preschool and I could tell he had been waiting the whole ride to school to ask me that without a 4-year old around to ruin the conversation. He had been studying Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in school. For a moment my mind wandered back to election night 2008 when I held Jon tight and watched as Barack Obama claimed the presidency of our country and I promised him he was growing up in a new world; I day dreamed for a split second that we had reached the post-racial utopia I’ve always imagined; Then I laughed out loud because, well, this is us:
We are decidedly not black. One drop of my blood will reveal the extremely limited social choices of Swedish immigrants in Southwest Iowa in the early 1900’s. My husband’s family comes from a slightly more diverse mix of white Europeans, but even half of them are Scandinavian.
As a grandchild of the Civil Rights Movement I grew up hearing the story of how my father had the best paying summer job among his friends at Iowa State so it was decided that he would stay behind to work and send money to his friends who went to register black voters in the south during the summer of 1964. So as truly funny as his question was, how could it be possible that my child didn’t know what it meant to be black? I struggled with whether this was a good thing or a bad thing in 2014.
(A family trip to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated)
After we established some people we both knew who were African American and how they were different but mostly the same as us, he wanted to know if they were free at last. He was disappointed but not surprised that my answer was “no, not really.”
“What about the laws that were passed,” he wanted to know,” so everyone can go to school and have a job and vote?” Trayvon, I thought to myself. How do you tell a 6-year old about cultural assumptions that people don’t even know they carry with them, the legacy of generations of poverty, struggle and the albatross of slave ancestry hanging around a child’s neck long before they can even write their own name?
“Will they ever be free at last?” he wanted to know. We live in a metro area that consistently ranks among the highest in the nation for the black homicide rate. And now in Ferguson, Missouri 2014: white police officers find humor in the suggestion that more African American abortions would reduce the city’s crime.“I hope so,” I answered while he grew increasingly frustrated with my vague responses.
“But we live in a free country!” he growled as we pulled up to school.
And that was it. I didn’t have time to talk to him about the fact that being free is complicated. That passing the right laws to ensure equal protection under the law doesn’t ensure that neighbors love one another, or look past skin color or bank balances or religious preferences or any number of things that ultimately divide us sometimes.
Later that night at dinner he talked more about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. He asked me if I knew that black people were actually not allowed to do the same things as white people, like eat at restaurants, go to good schools and ride busses. He was astonished. He couldn’t imagine a universe where that existed.
I thought back to that morning when he asked if we were black and my panic over what I had done wrong as a parent subsided. Maybe his is the generation where my dream of a post-racial society in America comes true.
Gina Malloy Primmer is the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Council Bluffs, Iowa and a graduate of Boston University. She is mother to Jon, 7, and Dori, 5, and is married to Chad. Originally from Iowa, Gina has worked at PR firms in Boston and New York and has owned a regional PR and Fundraising consulting business since 2001 in Iowa. In her spare time, Gina enjoys politics, working on her 100-year old home, reading, cooking and traveling.