My daughter balances herself against the cracked-vinyl-covered chair and wraps her fingers around the chrome leg of our kitchen table. She pushes open the frosted glass door of the freezing bathroom and touches the hot air from the always-running space heater. The water tank that stands in the middle of the kitchen between the cabinets and the sink intrigues her most. Its copper pipes, taps, and gauges are all exposed. She toddles towards it, eyes wide, fingers spread, ready to lay her palm flat against its hot metal sides; to explore the tank’s sharp edges.
In 2009, my daughter had just started to walk. She was nine months old when she took her first steps across the narrow space between the tv and where I sat facing her on the floor. I leaned against the futon couch—my outstretched legs framing her body. My feet almost touched the wall behind her. She took two steps. Her face serious and still. I held my arms out, ready to catch her. But she didn’t fall. She stood straight up, looked down, and examined her feet. Within a couple of days, she could move quickly from one end of the apartment to the other.
That rented, railroad apartment was our first home in Jersey City. Dan and I had moved there seven years earlier, before the waterfront got congested with office buildings, high-rises, restaurants, boutiques, and yoga studios. We could walk from our tenement building, past the Polish Catholic church, around the corner and down what was then a barely lit, narrow street with only a few row houses on either side. Sometimes we’d stop at Captain Al’s, a low-ceilinged dive bar which served bottled Budweiser and greasy fries. From there, we would go out onto the peninsula and look out across the Hudson River toward Manhattan. The Colgate clock filled the space where the Twin Towers had been.
That apartment was the place we’d come home to after we got married. The apartment we’d worried would not measure up when the social worker visited for the required home-study before we adopted our daughter. The apartment with the tiny room was where Dan had painted the ceiling above her crib to look like a late-summer English sky—pale blue behind white and grey clouds.
Two months after my daughter learned to walk, we moved to Montclair, a suburban town ten miles away. Montclair’s magnet school system was supposed to have eliminated segregation, but the town was still divided by race and class. “Upper Montclair” was a predominantly white, wealthy area a few miles west near the college, while the South End, where we bought our house, was historically Black and middle class. When we moved, almost all our street’s residents were Black—teachers, retired police officers, a firefighter. Most of them were late middle-aged with grown up children. Here, my daughter would be part of a community that was welcoming, watchful, safe.
The house we bought was the second one we visited. The first time we looked at it, Dan and I stood on the paved patio and watched our daughter march, wide-legged, around the backyard. She gained momentum, stopped suddenly and studied the ground. She picked up individual autumn leaves between her thumb and forefinger, brought each one close up to her face, then dropped it and continued to walk. A trail of discarded orange, yellow, and red pieces formed behind her. I thought, I can tell my daughter’s birth parents that in this part of Montclair at least, our daughter would grow up among people who looked like her.
Three months into the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, my daughter graduated from elementary school in a virtual ceremony of prerecorded speeches and PowerPoint slideshows. The weekend before, Dan and I had taken her to a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Montclair. It was the first time we had joined a public gathering since mid-March. We had spent months reminding our daughter to stay away from people, to wear a mask, to wash her hands, to not touch her face. She had been isolated from her friends. Her taekwondo school was closed. She hadn’t taken her skateboard to the park or gone to the pool or to the beach or trampolined in our neighbor’s yard or played video games in her friend’s basement.
It would be OK to go to the march, we had told her, if we wore our masks and kept six feet away from others.
A few days earlier, local people had assembled a makeshift memorial around the Martin Luther King monument in the park where we now gathered. Cut-out images of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and other Black people who had been killed by police officers were arranged in a semi-circle around the low stone wall which surrounds the monument. The pictures had been decorated with flowers, balloons, tealights, prayer cards. “Black Lives Matter” and “Rest in Power” were written in Sharpie pen on cardboard signs placed between each shrine. I stood with my daughter at the memorial’s makeshift entrance. I asked her if she wanted to walk with me around the monument to look at the pictures, to read the signs—to join the commemoration and the mourning. She angled her body away from mine, her head level with my collarbone. My forearm rested on her shoulder. I pressed my fingertips gently against her back.
My daughter narrowed her eyes and walked away from me. She did not want to look at the memorial. She would not make or hold a sign. When I asked her if she wanted a bottle of water from one of the coolers dotted around the park, she shook her head and flicked her hand dismissively in my direction. She kept her distance. Maybe out of eleven-year-old defiance. Maybe because there were too many people, too close together. Maybe because it was so hot and there was no shade around the memorial. Maybe because she recognized herself in the faces of those who had been killed and felt a kind of terror I had never explained to her. A terror I had never known myself.
I moved to a less-crowded spot under a tree and sat down on the grass. My daughter followed but sat apart from me, her back half-turned so I could still see a quarter-profile of her face. She looked down at the ground between her legs, pulled up blades of grass, then threw them sharply out toward her feet. She was afraid, probably, of germs, of disease, of what would happen if she broke one of the many rules which had been imposed on her life over the last few months.
I shielded my eyes with the side of my palm and squinted at the top her head. What should I say? Not, I know how you feel. Not, this is how I have survived the hurt you will experience. I raised my voice only slightly and called her name. She turned her face quickly toward me, eyes flitting beneath her brows, annoyed that I had drawn her attention.
The crowd chanted, “No justice. No peace. No racist. Police.”
Adults, teenagers, and children weaved around each other at too close a distance, trying to find some shade. Some of them lowered their masks to take a sip of water.
When my daughter got braces the previous summer, the orthodontist had told her that candy could snap the brackets, so she would hold her favorite sugar-coated gummies on her tongue until the sweets melted into sticky syrup. Twice a week, before I dropped her off at her taekwondo class, she would ask if we could go to the grocery store to get Sour Patch Kids or Swedish Fish. I would follow her to the shelves at the front of the store. Her black duffel bag filled with her sparring pads and helmet swung awkwardly from my shoulder.
Once, as we got to the register, she held a bag of candy by her side, close to her coat pocket. I grabbed the bag from her hand and put it on the counter to pay. As we left, I told her not to hold candy, or anything else she had picked up in a store, near her pocket or bag before she had paid. She asked me why. Her eyes widened. The muscles in her face tensed.
She looked contrite, like I had told her she had done something wrong.
My voice had sounded too anxious, too agitated. At the register, I had grabbed the packet from her hand too suddenly. I had reacted as if I’d seen her step out into the street without thinking or looking both ways.
I told her that people would think she was stealing. And that if she was accused of stealing, she would be assumed to be guilty. And that if even if she was just a kid, she would not be able to have made a mistake. I left out the most important part:
Picking up candy in a store is dangerous for you because you are a black child and soon you will be a black teenager. I will not be able to protect you.
When my daughter was five, I bought her a comic book about Harriet Tubman. She learned that Harriet had rescued more than three hundred people from slavery and how, as a teenager, she had been beaten with an iron by a white man. In first grade, my daughter learned how Rosa Parks became a leading figure in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and we read a book together describing how, when Rosa was a child, white boys threw rocks at her head from the window of their school bus. When my daughter’s pre-K teacher told her Martin Luther King had been “hurt badly by someone who didn’t agree with him,” I told her he had been shot dead by a white man. In kindergarten, when she colored pictures of George Washington for President’s Day, I told her his teeth were not wooden but had been made from teeth forcibly extracted from the mouths of the Black people he enslaved. She pursed her lips, angled her eyebrows, took in a half-breath—indignant that her teachers had withheld this information.
I had thought not sparing the details of white people’s violence toward black people would help my daughter contend with the racism she would experience as she got older. I bought her other books about Nat Turner, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis which she dutifully skimmed. She preferred Spider-Man, graphic novels about Greek Gods.
When my daughter walked out of the store ahead of me, she hadn’t asked about what I had said. I had focused on the points her elbows as she ripped open her packet of candy, relieved that I wouldn’t have to tell her yet about store owners who had killed Black children they had accused of stealing; that I didn’t need to mention the penny candies and pencil-top erasers and cherry-scented lip balms that my white friends fondly recalled shoplifting when they were in high school. For now, I tell myself, our differences could wait.
When we got to the crosswalk, my daughter pushed the metal button. WALK flashed white in front of us. I rested my hand on the top of her shoulders. The sides of our bodies stayed parallel, an arm’s length apart.
People started to assemble for the march. We waited together under the trees next to the parking lot where, for the last five years, I have dropped my daughter off to take the bus to day camp, grateful that the mix of kids was more diverse than at her elementary school. Reassured that, unlike almost all her teachers, most of her camp counsellors were Black. This was the same park with the town pool we usually visit in the summer, though some of the moms at my daughter’s school have told me that the pool in Upper Montclair, or the pool at the country club, or the pools in nearby towns are much “nicer,” “cleaner,” more “kid-friendly.”
The march headed downtown to the police station. My daughter walked ahead of us at its edges with her neighborhood friend. Many of the houses we passed had Black Lives Matter signs posted on their landscaped front yards or stuck to the outside of their painted stone walls. My daughter and her friend laughed together. They glanced at each other’s phones and shared TikTok videos. They complained about the heat; hatched a plan to get frozen yogurt once the march was over.
A week later, on Juneteenth, I stand under the shade-less sun at another rally, in another crowd. Dan circles behind me and raises his phone into the air to take a wide shot of the high school students who have organized this event. He moves to the side of a scaffolded platform and kneels to take pictures of the speakers. He works his way back to where I am and takes more pictures of people talking, faces listening, hands holding homemade signs. He touches my upper arm, concerned I am getting burned.
My daughter looks through her phone at a Black Montclair High School student who describes an experience she’d had in middle school. A white teacher had made comments about her hair. She had tried to explain micro-aggressions to the teacher who was defensive and dismissive in response. The high school student says, after that, she never spoke in class again. She says this teacher had been her favorite and she felt betrayed by her. She says her guidance counsellor had told her not to worry about the incident, because the teacher would be retiring soon.
She starts to cry. I see my daughter begin to record what she is seeing. She stops after a few seconds, looks at her feet, and then turns her head slightly toward her right shoulder, not quite in my direction but far enough to, I think, catch a glimpse of me watching her. She turns back and stares straight ahead.
I want to ask her what she thought about the high school student’s speech. Why had she recorded that part? Did she know that the speaker went to the school she would go to when she was older? Had any of her teachers ever acted like the teacher the speaker talked about? If a teacher did act that way, did she know she should tell me or Daddy right away? Did she know why it was wrong for the teacher to talk about a student’s hair? Did she know what a micro-aggression was? How had she felt when the student cried?
I stay quiet believing she won’t want to tell me.
When my daughter is nervous or afraid, she closes in around herself, arms by her sides, feet together. She doesn’t gaze outward to see what might be happening or to look around for help or support. She rejects attention. She pretends not to hear questions. She becomes detached, perhaps to protect herself. Or, she gets silent. She can be quiet for hours before she gets a shot at the doctor. If she does badly on a math test, she won’t talk to me when I pick her up from school or on the car ride home. Before a taekwondo match, she communicates only by gesturing me to go away. I worry that as she gets older, if something happens to her, she won’t tell me. So, I ask her too many questions. Even as I’m doing it, I tell myself to stop. I expect her to explain too much.
My daughter lowers her phone and turns around to face me. Beads of sweat have gathered on the top of her eyebrows. She squints behind her glasses.
“Can we go?” she asks.
She is tired of all the talking. She wants to go to the comic bookstore. She wants to get ice-cream. She would like to go to the taco place for dinner. She would like to play on our neighbor’s trampoline and hang out with our dog. She had been hoping Juneteenth would be fun.
At home, we order pizza and her favorite, garlic knots. I make popcorn and we decide to watch a movie.
“Do you want to see Selma?” I ask.
She rolls her eyes.
“Can we watch Ferris Bueller?”
We settle on Beyoncé’s Homecoming. My daughter marches around the living room playing an imaginary trombone along with the band.
I wait in the car in the parking lot of my eye doctor’s office. It is 10:00 am and the air is already thick and humid. When the receptionist calls, I will put on my black cotton mask decorated with a red heart, tighten the grip around the bridge of my nose, and get out of my car. I will squeeze between the vehicles packed too close together in the tiny lot and step across the gravel to the pavement. I will hit the crosswalk signal button with my elbow, cross the street, and go into the office. I will wait at a desk for a technician to take my temperature. I will pump the sanitizer bottle and rub the clear fluid into my hands before being led into an exam room.
I listen to a radio talk show while I wait. The sun shines directly onto the roof of my car. I keep the engine running so that the air conditioner stays on.
The discussion is about being a parent of a Black child in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minneapolis. The guest describes how he balances telling his pre-teen children about the realities of racism and the importance of protest with “having a normal life.” The host takes a call, “Diana from New Paltz.” Her words tumble over each other:
“I’m so happy to be able to…”
She takes a breath and hesitates:
“Thank you for taking this call…”
She pauses again.
“I’m so happy…that you have created…I so appreciate it…that you have created this space.”
My eyes sting as the drops I take for ocular hypertension mix with the beginnings of tears. I remember crying dilutes the drops. My eye pressure will be too high when the technician measures it.
Diana is an early childhood educator from the Dominican Republic. She describes herself as a “Black Latina.” Her husband is African American and from New York City. She is the mother of two Black sons, twelve and fourteen. The family lives in what she describes as a “very white community.” She hesitates before she says “community.” Her voice gets higher, more constrained, like she is trying to smile through gritted teeth.
Explaining to her sons the dangers they face because they are Black is “so cruel” Diana continues, but “we do the best that we can.”
She means before this summer, before George Floyd was murdered, before most white people paid attention.
Diana tries to describe what it has been like for her family in the couple of days since the murder, during the protests.
“It’s been very, very difficult,” she says. “Very painful.”
She pauses again, trying to find the words:
“Very, very real.”
My chest tightens. The caller’s breath is shallow and catches in her throat between her words. I feel her hesitations, her pauses, the places where she tries to describe what it is like to be the mother of Black children.
I imagine the caller trying to figure out how to comfort her sons, how to offer them security, how to provide them with opportunities for relief and joy. Perhaps her sons look at their mother and think, yes, she knows what my fear feels like. Perhaps knowing this consoles them. I would like to give this kind of comfort to my daughter, but I cannot. I don’t know how she feels.
When my daughter was a baby, I attended a Black History Month discussion where one of panelists was, like me, a white mother of a Black daughter. A Black woman got up from the audience to ask the white mother a question. She smiled, hesitated, as she searched for the right words:
“Do you ever…I mean, in your heart-of-hearts…late at night…do you ever wonder? Or do you ever ask yourself…would my child be better off…”
The panelist interrupted before the woman could complete her thought. Her answer was direct: Of course, she had doubts. What parent doesn’t?
I had wanted the Black woman to finish her question. “Would your child be better off….”
With her real mother?
With her Black mother?
If she had been adopted by a Black family?
I have replayed this scene in my mind many times. I have imagined myself as the panelist and practiced what my response would have been—silently in my head or whispered to myself in the shower or alone in my car when I have been stuck in traffic driving back from Jersey City to Montclair. I have thought about my tone of voice, how my face would look, what my body language would have been like, how I would have felt as I replied. I have rehearsed the demeanor of my answer: sometimes I am angry, sometimes defensive. Sometimes I am cool and detached, sometimes smiling and friendly. Sometimes I am pointed, considered, or surprised. Sometimes I am hurt. For years, I have been practicing answers to questions which were never asked of the white mother by the Black woman at the Black History Month panel. These are my words I’ve put in her mouth. These are questions I ask myself and leave unanswered.
My skin prickles. I am cold from the car’s air conditioning. My eyes feel hot. I look at my phone. If the receptionist calls, I will be able to stop listening.
My daughter was three when Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012. Four when George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting him. After that verdict, I went to panel discussions and roundtables, participated in online conversations, signed petitions, emailed my representatives. In November 2014, when my daughter was five, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police for playing with a toy gun. After that, Dan decided she would never be allowed to shoot bright blue, orange-tipped spongey bullets out of a luminous green plastic Nerf gun beyond the safety of our backyard. The next month, when she was almost six, after no charges were brought against the police officers who choked Eric Garner to death, we took our daughter to her first protest in downtown Montclair. I took a picture of her there, standing next to Dan. He holds a homemade sign: “Injustice. Anywhere. Is a threat. To justice. Everywhere.” The protest happened on the same day as the town’s Christmas tree lighting. My daughter smiles at the camera. The sucked-down end of a candy cane sticks out of the corner of her mouth and she stirs a paper cup of apple cider with a plastic straw.
After each of these times in my daughter’s life when Black adults and Black children have been murdered, I looked for information, shielded her from danger, took her to places where I hoped she would feel part of a community that cared about what happened to her. Now my daughter is no longer a baby; now that she is tall and strong and likes to wear basketball shorts, hoodies, and sneakers; now she can skateboard without holding my hand for balance; now she can jump four feet in the air and use her side kick to break a thick wooden board; now she is experiencing the world as an eleven-year-old Black child separately from me, her white mother—now, I don’t know how to help her.
I sit in my car. My phone rings. I look down. It’s the eye doctor’s office. I turn off the radio.
A few days later, I read a news story about a “wall of moms” who have joined Black Lives Matter protests in Portland, Oregon. A photograph shows them lined-up–arms linked, faces masked. One of the women is pregnant. The women form a barrier, a “wall of moms,” to protect protesters who had been demonstrating outside a federal building. For several nights, agents sent by the Trump administration fired rubber bullets and lobbed tear gas at the protesters. They beat them with sticks and fists and pushed them to the ground. They drove up to groups of people in unmarked vans and taken them away in handcuffs to unknown locations.
The wall of moms assembled against this injustice. They have deployed maternity as a weapon against white supremacy. Most of the moms are white. On the first night, they even dressed in white, like suffragists who marched in 1917 for a constitutional amendment which gave white women the right to vote. On the second night, the moms wear yellow shirts. They sing “hands up, don’t shoot me.” They carry signs that say, “I’m so disappointed in you” and “Go Home Goons Your Moms are Worried.” They defend themselves with pool noodles. A few days later, they are joined by a wall of suburban dads flourishing leaf blowers. One of the moms, Jane Ulman, says, “As a white-upper-middle-class woman in the whitest city in America, I couldn’t stand by any longer.”
I want to identify with the white mothers who form the Wall of Moms. I want to like the notes of admiration that my friends and family post about them on social media. I don’t want to question the bravery of the white moms who are tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets, images of whom fill my Facebook feed. Instead, I am resentful, envious even, about their clarity of purpose, of how confident they are about what they should be doing, of how sure they are about what their role should be.
I adjust the parameters of my daughter’s world, expanding its geography in tiny, futile, increments. I decide that she can play with her neighborhood friends if everyone wears a mask and stays outside. I let her run after the ice-cream truck, and when she comes back beaming with happiness holding a lurid orange and red popsicle, I make sure before she eats it, she washes her hands, removes the wrapper, and throws it away along with her mask. I provide her with distractions: we buy anime posters and LED lights for her room. I sign her up for Zoom camps—art, graphic design. She participates in them, but she is bored. She’d rather collect rocks at the beach, go out for chocolate chip pancakes, take the bus with her friends to camp where she can swim in the lake and count how many frogs she finds in the woods.
My daughter is glued to TikTok in anticipation of the launch of SpaceX, the rocket funded by Elon Musk. Two astronauts will orbit the earth in the rocket. She is thrilled about the prospect of counting down, seeing a rocket that looks like a rocket from a cartoon or a movie as it blasts from the launch pad in a cloud of fire and smoke. Her imagination is sparked like any kid who has learned about the planets or seen Gods mapped out in stars, who has constructed a rocket out of cardboard, or pictured living on Mars, who has drawn green, googly-eyed aliens, or pretended to walk without gravity.
It is five days after the murder of George Floyd.
I am skeptical about the attention given to this launch, funded by an egotistical millionaire white man and witnessed by a white-supremacist President. On TV, a white announcer explains how SpaceX offers hope in the midst of the pandemic, how it is a positive event in light of “recent protests” and “everything that has been happening.” I start to point out to my daughter how hypocritical, how wasteful, how ridiculous this spectacle is. How it is designed to distract us from the racism that is all around us. She turns away from the TV and focuses on her phone.
“They’re not showing Trump on TikTok” she smiles.
She turns the screen to face me so I can see the rocket framed by the sky. Her eyes shine like they always do when she has got the better of me:
“The picture’s clearer too”
“Hmm…” I say, side-eying what she is showing me; resisting her palpable joy.
When my daughter was three, she drew a picture of a bird in flight—one unbroken line in purple marker, intersecting in the middle and expanding outwards to form eagle-breadth wings that soared across a plain white background. She has continued to draw—vampires, ninjas, cats, invented comic book heroes, copies of her favorite anime characters.
When her school shut down in March, I bought her some acrylics and she started to paint skies. She mixed colors onto a clear plastic pallet and used paper towels to make daubs of blues and pinks that looked like clouds. Then, she squirted water through a plastic syringe into the opaque shapes. The diluted, pale drips looked like rain. She used different sized brushes to flick paint across paper thick with layers of yellows and purples to form stars.
One painting is of a deep blue sky above a yellow beach she has texturized so it feels like sandpaper. A horizontal swathe of grey-white clouds cuts the sky in half. She has painted the space above the clouds in a deep blue—a suggestion of night set against a calm, bright sunny day. This picture is the only one where she has painted ground—a narrow strip of yellow beach at the bottom of the frame. A tiny white crab in the left corner is the only sign of life.
The second picture is of a sunset or maybe it is a close-up of the sun’s photosphere. It is a miasma of lurid oranges and yellows that my daughter has painted in layers that vibrate when I stare at them. The colors are an acidic swirl—orange sherbet from an ice-cream truck, the surface of Mars drawn in a comic book, explosions from rocket boosters at a space launch.
The last sky is a maelstrom of deep blacks, purples, and greys. She has painted billowing clouds of pink, lilac, blood red, and white. They blend together, churning toward the painting’s center-point. Flecks of white scatter over its surface. I thought this picture was of a night sky. But my daughter said, no, it’s a painting of space. Her vision of it is violent and tranquil, foreboding and inviting, a spiral of colors that form stars, planets, galaxies, light. From the small desk in her room that is now her school, my daughter has reimagined her world and the fears and threats it contains. She has painted the vast distance away from everything she has felt and witnessed this summer of 2020.
I framed my daughter’s sky pictures and Dan hung them on the wall behind the stairs so that they face the front door. I see them when I take my shoes off in the entryway, as I turn to pick up a mask from the bench on my way out for my daily walk, and when I come into the house with grocery bags and head through the dining room to the kitchen to wash my hands. I glance at the pictures when I’m sitting on the couch watching tv or drinking coffee in the morning before I go upstairs for work.
The painting of space is at the top of the stairs near the landing. I notice it as I go from my home office to her room. I pass by it going up and down the stairs, to and from the kitchen, and back and forth from our basement laundry. Sometimes as I walk by, I see myself reflected in the glass, superimposed onto the surface of the world my daughter has created and I feel like I am hurtling toward its middle. Yet, this image is not chaotic. I survey the patterns she has created, follow the steps she has laid out for herself.
My daughter has constructed this world with great care. She has thought about every detail. I track the lines and swirls and remember her first eager, fearless, explorations of our Jersey City apartment. In the purposeful shapes, I recognize her determined fingers at three months old, curled around the edge of her crib frame, as she pulled herself to her feet then lowered herself down, over and over. In the exuberant particles of color, I recall her, age six or seven, jumping through a garden sprinkler in our backyard, arms aloft. With the tips of her elegant fingers, she touches the sparkling, brilliant, sun-filled droplets of water that surround her. My daughter has painted herself a map. In the joyous colors constellating around this painting’s forceful, infinite, focal point, I see her. She has chosen where her center should be.