I first started working on this piece when my older daughter, Leni, was five years old. At sixteen now, she has a more formed opinion about her mother’s obsession with race relations, and has even written a few posts for me on WJSS.
“Mommy, I have a secret to tell you,” my then, five-year old daughter Leni exclaimed, as we sat eating lunch in a Pennsylvania pub-style restaurant.
We were on a summer road trip, traveling from Tulsa, Oklahoma where we had lived for several years, to my home state of Connecticut. Leni and her little sister Darla were going to visit their grandpa, their “Poppy.”
Cupping her hand over my ear, Leni whispered…
“Is Poppy a Black American?”
Leni’s secrets were often questions, like, “Mommy, is oh yeah a bad word?”
“Why do you think that about Poppy?” I laughed, but not too hard so she wouldn’t think I was laughing at her. “Is it because of his hair?”
My father has short, curly brown, and now graying, hair. In the 1970’s he was known for his large, moppish Jewfro.
“No, his skin,” Leni answered, with conviction.
My father is white. He has dark hair and brown eyes, but I never thought of his skin as dark and swarthy.
“Well, Leni, Poppy is white, like me. He’s my father,” I answered, holding her hands in mine.
While I sat there mystified by her question, Leni had already lost interest in the topic and ran back to her seat to take another bite of hot dog. But I wasn’t done thinking about our little conversation. Could it be Leni would develop the same interest, or what recently feels is more like an obsession, that I have with connecting with black people?
Leni was at an age where she noticed that people had different skin colors. Her public school had a student body that was over 50% black. Aside from her direct experiences with diversity, I wanted to know if Leni wondered why there were so many black people or references to black culture in her Mommy’s life.
She’d ask questions like, “What color is she?” if I talked about a new friend I’d met.
“Is she brown-skinned or white?” she’d ask.
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because,” she answered, as if I could expect my five-year old to articulate exactly why she wanted to know, and how she processed race.
When driving in my car, Leni liked to sing along to the Black-Eyed Peas, Prince, and Alicia Keys Cd’s that revolved in my car stereo. There was a phase when she’d request to hear the Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross duet, You’re a Special Part of Me, over and over again. When I volunteered in Tulsa at a local library’s African American Resource Center, Leni would sometimes come with me.
During Black History month that same year, Leni’s pre-kindergarten teacher talked to her class about civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr., and that’s when I heard her start to use the term, “Black American.”
“I need to bring in a picture of a Black American to school,” Leni said.
And not like I was trying to influence her as a parent or anything, but I remembered when I was a young girl, I had read a biography on the singer, Marian Anderson. I had been enchanted with her and her struggle to overcome the racist attitudes toward blacks during her time. That she persevered and succeeded by becoming a famous singer who got to perform at the White House made my heart melt.
I brought up her name to Leni, while I also thought of some contemporary “Black Americans” that she might find inspiring. But Leni wasn’t interested in Russell Simmons like I was—not as gushy about this role model for me—a true entrepreneur, a fashion and music mogul, a philanthropist that I was lucky enough to meet after I founded and directed a non-profit art organization for New York City artists with special needs. She didn’t care that Russell was often called the godfather of hip-hop music for introducing the world to the groundbreaking sound of rap music with artists like Kurtis Blow, Run DMC, and the Beastie Boys. She couldn’t get into who Madame C.J. Walker was, the early 20th century entrepreneur of black hair care products, who was also a philanthropist. And, she didn’t seem impressed when I mentioned Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for United States President. Once I started sounding like a history lesson, she became disinterested.
So, Marian Anderson it was. Leni and I found a biography and photo of her on the internet. Leni pasted the photo onto pink construction paper and decorated it with a colorful crayon border of squiggles and hearts. Then we lucked out. There were postage stamps of Marian Anderson out for Black History Month, which Leni brought in with her framed photo. I think that Marian Anderson made an impression on Leni too, because, a year later, her photo still had a place taped on our refrigerator.
Yet, the next day when we brought Leni’s project to school, I felt humiliated. I walked down the hallway and saw at least four other posters of Marian Anderson, along with the perennially popular George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King Jr., and Harriet Tubman. There were a few contemporary athletes and a few Oprah’s sprinkled in for good measure. Aha, I thought. Here are the few, acceptable recycled images of Black Americans we were fed in History class, while so many other valuable African-American contributors to our history and culture are passed over in lieu of sports, entertainment and hip-hop figures, as if they were the only faces of black America, the only black people that mattered.
As for Leni, she had already found her own truth.
As we pulled into the driveway of my father’s house in Winsted, Connecticut on that summer road trip that started with Leni’s secret question, I asked her, “Well, Leni, are you going to ask Poppy if he’s a Black American?”
“No,” answered back my weary little road warrior.
“Why not?” I begged to know.
“Because, I already know” she said, matter-of-factly. “He is.”