I am sitting here writing this exactly a week before my fiftieth birthday and feeling a bit like we as a nation haven't progressed very far in the time between dates.
The level of racial tension and hatred is enough the slice through with a knife. While the dogs and hoses are replaced with Fox news and a bunch of tea bags, the hate has bubbled to the surface to remind us that there is still work to do.
My twelve year old daughter was called a monkey by a car full of five white male local high school students.
Of course she was shocked, hurt, and a bit afraid as she walked to the coffee shop from her middle school. She walked in and came straight to me with tears streaming down her face. I held her for what seemed like hours until she could tell me what happened.
Every scary scene played through my mind as I held her quivering body, backback still on, violin in her hand, and waited for her to be able to let me guide her down to the bench in the booth. I never let her walk from the middle school, one of the perks of my work/stay-at-home life. I always pick her up.
This day was different, I had just finished a meeting with my publisher and not wanting to just sit in my car for the hour, decided to treat myself to a pourover at the coffee shop and work on my manuscript. I sent her a text and told her to walk the few blocks down the busy street from her school to our suburban downtown. Many, many of her classmates made the same walk.
She was able to recount to me that as she was walking, the car full of white, wealthy boys had circled around and came back to where they were driving right beside her. The boy in the passenger seat rolled down the window and yelled, "You're a monkey!" He and the carmates were laughing as they sped off.
My daughter did what I taught her to do, not react, get to safety, and tell an adult.
She did all of that.
Then she became empowered.
There is power in taking back ownership of self and not allowing anyone to make you fearful. That is what they wanted to do, make her feel afraid, ashamed, to question her identity.
Instead, she wrote down what happened.
The next day, she asked me to meet her at her middle school to report the incident to the police officer stationed there. She remembered details and made her police report. She did not stop there.
She penned a letter that was to go in our local suburban paper and was subsequently, with her permission, sent to everyone from the school superintendent to each of her classroom teachers.
A local reporter picked up on the story and is interviewing her tomorrow. This must be told.
As she has been thinking about the incident, pondering her confusion, she is only in 6th grade, and feeling empowered to do something, she has felt stronger. She knows that incidents like this happened fifty years ago, that little girls like her weren't safe to just walk to a coffee shop, that their mother's wouldn't be enjoying a cup of coffee in a downtown shop.
That car full of white boys could have and history has shown, have down worse. They operate in their place of privilege and of cowardice, they wouldn't have said that to a black boy or even an adult. They thought it was funny.
Fox News, the conservative talk radios, the LA Clippers owner all give them overt and covert messages that it is ok to be disrespectful to African Americans, to say whatever they want, to let their affluenza get them off the hook for something a black boy in the city is serving time in an adult prison for. The society has supported them in thinking they are better than everyone else.
My heart was broken because a sliver of her innocence was sliced away at their words. Her glasses are not as rosy now when she glances around her classroom and wonder which of her fellow 6th grader will grow up to have hatred and cowardice in their heart.
1964 was the year of a presidential election and the signing of the Civil Rights Act that opened up the doors previously blocked by Jim Crow. In my lifetime I have enjoyed the gains my parents fought so hard to obtain - I never attended a segregated school or rode in the back of the bus, I attended an HBCU by choice and not force, I worked for some major corporations and bought my house in the suburbs because I wanted to and the only color that mattered was green.
2014 is a reminder that for how far we have come, 2008 was a reminder that we have not come far enough.
The sheets came off and the racists came out in tea bags and the Internet. Different, however, is the amount of people to counter their hatred and use the same tools of the Internet to confront them. Bodies are not swinging from trees like they were back then, another tool of terrorism and fear, but black bodies are housed in private prisons at an astronomical rate for the exact same crime that white boys in my suburbs use their money to obtain. There is a long way to go.
When I pondered the events and my daughter's courage, I know that this has changed her. As her mother, I ask the same question she asked, why? Then I remembered the lessons of my father and answered that they are afraid. Fear is the weapon they used because it is what fills their heart.
She overcame with the power of her words and refusing to be silent about what happened. She did what my parents did when the same kind of rich white boys burned a cross in my yard in mid-Missouri when I was her age. They thought they would scare us into silence and out of the algebra class at the high school. They were wrong then and are wrong now.
They call me radical because I am not afraid to speak truth to power, now, they can call my daughter that because she is not afraid either.
Fifty years is a lifetime and my heart is a little broken that she has to fight the same fight.
Children led back then, exposing the hatred in the heart of adults as children tried to go to school, tried to enjoy the amenities of their hometown, tried to travel, tried to simply live. Children led because they were reminders to the ones with a heartbeat of fairness that they were innocent ones in a centuries old web.
My daughter in 2014 was like the kids in SNCC in 1964, she stood resolute, did not answer back at her modern day lunch counter and kept walking for truth, justice, and fairness.