‘Only children weep’
It was a dog and a buddy who formally introduced Big Guy to the concept of racism. It came one night over dinner, as Big Guy's friend and I talked about the troubles I'd had feeding his pet while he family was out of town over a recent weekend.
"He's just like that," the friend said. "He doesn't like white people. He's racist."
I can't vouch for the dog's attitude toward an entire race, but I can confirm that he holds at least one particular white person in low regard.
That would be me. As I opened the door to check the food and water bowls, the dog snarled and growled. I gave the dishes a quick glance to confirm that Cujo wouldn't starve and quickly backed out the door lest he'd never heard the old cliche about not biting the hand that feeds you.
The boy's mom and I joked about it later when we thought the kids weren't listening.
"He's like that," she said. "He doesn't like white people."
"You have a racist dog?" I laughed. "Maybe he needs diversity training."
I tried to laugh off the 8-year-old's sincere proclamation about the dog. "More likely he was just upset because he didn't know me and didn't want a stranger in your house while you were gone," I said, and he nodded in agreement.
Still, the word was out there now, and it stuck in Big Guy's head. It was the first time he'd heard it.
"When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness' ... sake. But don't make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles 'em." - To Kill A Mockingbird
"Momma, what's racism," Big Guy asked the next night as we were driving home. It seems that all of our in-depth conversations occur in one of two places: the car or bed, just before lights out.
I thought for a second before finally saying, it's when someone doesn't like other people based just on the way they look.
You mean, like, the color of their skin?
Yes, that's usually it.
Well, that's just stupid, Big Guy said. Tan or brown, it doesn't matter. People are people. Why do some people not like others?
It's often because they don't feel good about themselves, and they try to make up for it by putting others down, I said.
That's just stupid, Big Guy said again.
" 'Things haven't caught up with that one's instinct yet. Let him get a little older, and he won't get sick and cry. Maybe things'll strike him as being - not quite right, say, but he won't cry, not when he gets a few years in him.'
'Cry about what, Mr Raymond?' ...
'Cry about the simple hell people give other people - without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they're people, too.' " - To Kill a Mockingbird
A few days later, Big Guy's class saw a movie about Martin Luther King Jr. It was historical fiction, involving a child who had a pocket watch that allowed him to time travel.
The child went back and watched firefights hose off protesters and police sic dogs on brown people.
"It was really, really sad," Big Guy said. "Hecka sad. A lot of kids were crying in class. I was crying, too."
"Why was it sad?" I asked.
"Well, B's my friend and he's brown. D's my best friend, and he's browner than I am. They shouldn't be treated like that just because they're brown. I'm glad Martin Luther King helped them. It's too bad they killed him."
Martin Luther King was about helping all of us, I told Big Guy. He had a dream that everyone would get along, no matter their skin color.
Oooooh! Big Guy remembered. He said a speech about that. "I Have A Dream."
Yes, he did, babes, and if you listen to it closely, it's a beautiful dream.
It was in the movie, Big Guy said. Can we listen to it at home? Can you find it on your computer?
You bet I can, I thought, because I share that dream. It's one that my generation has made great progress on, though we haven't been able to fully realize it. Perhaps your generation can.
"So it took an eight-year-old child to bring 'em to their senses. ... That proves something - that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they're still human. Hmp, maybe we need a police force of children." - To Kill a Mockingbird
Big Guy knew that I was reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" recently. He'd heard about it on a "Hannah Montana" episode, and he'd wanted me to read it aloud to him and his brother.
Not just yet, I said. It's a little too adult for you. He took that to mean that the words were too big, but I meant the concepts. I am not ready to discuss rape with a 7-year-old.
But someday, Big Guy, yes, we will all read it together. And I hope that when that day comes you're still able to weep. It's our only hope for making that dream come true.
Copyright 2011 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.