“Was he white?”
This was one of many questions B asked me on her first trip to Ferguson. Today was the first time she learned that Mommy has taken to the streets a few times over the past six years to protest unjust laws, killings, racism, and white supremacy.
Today marks the sixth year since the first time I went to Ferguson. Unlike the following protests I attended, on that first day, I was more of an observer than a protester. Sure, I walked with protesters but I didn’t chant. Yes, I was threatened with arrest for standing still on a sidewalk – at an active bus stop, no less – but I wasn’t arrested. Instead, I left as the sun set, with the image of snipers on the grocery store roof lingering as I drove home.
Every year on August 18, Ferguson demands a visit. I make the trip to remember why we protest, why we fight for justice, why we fight for all people to be free. And today was finally the right time to share this experience with my 8 year-old, B.
Our history is black history.
B has been learning about slavery, lynchings, the Great Migration, civil rights, and protests this summer. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman are her role models. And even though she’s only eight years old, it’s important for her to be introduced to our history, American history, black history. We talk about slavery, lynchings and civil rights on her level. Is it hard? Absolutely! But we all need to know the choices that white Europeans/Americans made hundreds of years ago and how these abominable choices still impact us today.
As we drove to Ferguson, I was unsure of the “right” language to use. Is there such a thing when talking about human monstrosities? Instead of trying to determine what to say and how to say it, I allowed B to lead the conversation. I let her know we were going to visit an outside memorial, defining what a memorial is. She didn’t ask any questions, nor did she ask to know more about where we were going. Once we were about 10 minutes away from where Mike Brown was killed, the questions began.
Say their names.
The first thing she asked: What was his name? There is something deep down inside of her that knows the names of people are important. Our names matter. They tell the world who we are. And saying the names of people killed by police and white supremacy brings power to them and their story, while reminding us that they were human.
She asked a few more questions about Michael Brown Jr. in the car: about his age, his family, and why he was killed. “Why was he killed, Mommy?” I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to share about the history of our country, racism, our judicial system, white supremacy, and so much more. But that would have been way over her head and would have led to more confusion than necessary. Instead, we talked about how some police officers kill people when they suspect the person of doing wrong. For the moment, I left race out of the conversation.
But as we drove down West Florissant Avenue, there’s no denying that the community looks different than our suburban community. From buildings and restaurants to the color of people’s skin, B instantly noticed the differences. She noticed the skin color of people walking on the streets, the types of buildings we drove by, and the neighborhoods we drove through. Once I pulled onto Canfield Drive, I let her know we were almost there.
I parked a few yards away from where the memorial lays on the sidewalk. As we got out of the car, she took my hand, and we walked on the sidewalk across from where Mike Brown’s body laid in the hot August sun for 4.5 hours.
A flower from the suburbs.
Before we got to the memorial, she noticed the stuffed animals and flowers that were on the sidewalk. B asked why they were there, and I let her know that’s where the memorial for Michael Brown Jr. is. As we approached, she gently stroked the flower we had picked from our garden at home that would soon be added to the bouquet of flowers on the memorial. As she placed the flower thoughtfully amongst the other flowers, I read her the words on the memorial. Then we walked to the site where he was killed.
At this point, I let B choose if she wanted to continue. She said yes, so we continued our journey down Canfield Drive. The place on the road where Mike Brown was killed has recently been painted. It’s hard to miss as you approach the white, blue, and yellow paint on the pavement. As we walked down the street, there were other people walking by, plenty of cars on the road, and a family playing in the grass outside one of the apartment buildings.
“Was Michael Brown brown?”
Again, B led the conversation. After five minutes of asking questions, she abruptly looked at me and asked, “Mommy, was he white?” “Was who white, B?” I questioned. “The officer.” “Yes,” I replied, “the officer is white.” “Was Michael Brown brown?” she then asked. “Yes,” I confirmed her suspicions. “Michael Brown was brown, and the officer who killed him is white.” “That’s not right, Mommy,” she firmly stated. And she’s absolutely correct. It’s not right. I affirmed her and reminded her that this is one reason why I and others protest.
B is just a child. At eight years old, she understands the cultural constructs of race. She understands that white people aren’t in fear like black people are. She is learning the racist history of our past. Only a few months into learning about slavery, lynchings and civil rights, she gets it better than most of us white adults.
Black lives matter.
To be honest with you, I’m fine with sharing that I protest with my girls. I’m fine with letting them know how I’m standing up to racism, white supremacy, voter suppression and unjust laws in our society. But it greatly pains me to have to tell them WHY I protest. I don’t want to have to share the horrors of Michael Brown Jr., Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others. I took B out to Ferguson to let her know that history is living outside her door. B needs to know that protests continue. And B definitely needs to know that her life matters, even if people in our country try to tell her otherwise.
It’s not easy to have these conversations with adults, let alone with an eight year old child. But us white Americans have made choices that led us to where we are today as a nation. We can do better. And I will continue to fight and pray with my feet in the streets until we do better.