In the vast landscape of childhood make-believe, where did you live your imaginary life? Who were your new parents? Were you an only child? Did you live in a house or an apartment or a tree…?
My alternate universe was pretty basic: everything stays the same but my parents are rich and we go skiing every weekend; we own a gas station like my friend Tracy and I get to eat all the mamba chewy candy I want; I am super pretty, but not in an obvious way that makes me snobby. I imagined the life of a child who stayed with alternating parents which did not sound terrible in spite of my parents’ incredibly healthy and loving relationship. What would this new world look like? How would I get to be different? Would I be more adventurous? Would it be easier? Would it make me better?
I put on Nina Simone and the 9 year-old stops in his tracks.
“‘Ain’t got no culture’? What? But that’s impossible. That’s where you come from and who your are.”
“I know bud. But. I mean. You can live disconnected from your culture. Like you do. I mean, you’re Haitian and part of the diaspora and I don’t know how connected you are…”
Recognition passes across his face– guppy mouthed.
This alternate universe dangles just out of my boys’ reach. It exists. It is known– kind of? Unclear. It *might be better*. It will certainly be different. For the older boys, it lives, breathes and smells like: garlic and coconut milk, thunderstorms, Haitian Patty, saltwater.
They tell me one place is no better than the other. Both are good, and they miss the one when they are in the other.
And. And. Sometimes we are not kind and we do not understand. Sometimes the rules are too much or too unfair and they are convinced it would be different– better– if they could leave. Sometimes the longing is so deep that it manifests in outbursts and self-sabotage. When they are gone, they reverse course. We all pay.
I don’t know if Paul and I are any different. We imagine ourselves in other cities, with other jobs, with less children, with more children. On one hand, this exercise in Greener Grass is silly and a way to pass the commute, and on the other hand, it can reduce me to spontaneous tears. More the latter if we were keeping score. The boys say things like: I wish you were different. Do you even care about us? I want to live somewhere else.
“Yes. I know”, I reply. “That’s why I need you to stop talking and go to sleep.”
When do we get to choose the ending for all of us? How does this story go?
I have NPR on in the car. They are discussing the massive, new study that demonstrates “the punishing reach of racism for black boys”. A asks me to turn it off immediately.
“This will not be you,” I tell him. “This will NOT be you.” He sits in the back and stares at me while I stumble through the data. My narrative starts to unravel and I turn off the radio.
My alternate universe is the one where they defy the current reality.
Read the above mother f’n study if you haven’t already. Then go to the mirror and ask yourself, out loud, what your part is in turning this ship around for the generations of young men coming up behind you. How many Black Men are you going to center, believe, hire, promote, coach, train, believe, see the best in, BELIEVE…?
Even when children grow up next to each other with parents who earn similar incomes, black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of America. And the gaps only worsen in the kind of neighborhoods that promise low poverty and good schools.
I have conversations all the time with people who have built their belief system, work ethic, professional practice, and relationship with others on the premise that the opposite of this data is true: so, a lie. And they will argue that lie because they would have to change their belief system, work ethic, professional practice and relationship with others in order to align themselves with something closer to the truth. That work is exhausting, traumatic, and life changing and it’s much easier to continue with the lie.
And the trick of it is, even if you’re up for changing the way you move through the world, there are very few maps and very few mirrors for doing this work correctly and we often take long detours and leave chaos in our wake.
I know, I know.
None of this fit into my wildest imaginings either.