“I can’t explain the strange feeling that caught in my veins…” Jay-Z
When I walked into my son’s preschool classroom and saw that the children were apparently performing a daily ritual of who will hold the flag, while the other children marched behind, all singing America The Beautiful, I stopped in my tracks. For a few minutes it was difficult to breathe. It was hard to explain why I had such a visceral reaction at the time however, after a recent incident, it is perfectly clear to me.
My son understanding the privileges afforded to him globally as a United States citizen was certainly not a bad thing for him to learn and appreciate. And yet, I was struck that at the age of two, after starting a new school, in less than two weeks, he knew the song and was becoming indoctrinated to believe in the notion of America “the beautiful.” And all I could think was, does America love him back?
As with many things, time passed and my attention shifted. Two days after the Christmas holiday I set out to travel from Atlanta to my parent’s home in Florida. This road trip would take us 5 hours through Georgia, Alabama, and then on to Florida. As I planned my travel with my son, sans my husband, I thought about what it would be like to travel with a two-year old on his first long distance road trip. I decided it was best to leave early in the morning so he could hopefully sleep part of the way. This would allow us to make half of the trip as the sun arose. More importantly, it meant that the sun would rise just as we approached the back roads of Alabama. Many years of socialization taught me to avoid long southern country roads alone as a Black woman.
As we approached our turn off from the main highway to the route less traveled, I put on my son’s tablet so he could watch his beloved nursery rhymes. As he sang Baby Shark in the background I noticed that my entire demeanor began to change. I was holding my breath. I periodically glanced in the rearview mirror to watch him while watching each and every car that passed. More often than not, the passing vehicles were pickup trucks with large tires. I counted Confederate flags and memorabilia and told myself to drive 5 miles per hour below the speed limit, just in case. Despite the seeming autopilot hypervigilance that emerged, my thoughts also drifted to the fact that even if I was traveling 5 mph below the speed limit, I could be stopped at any time, for any reason, and have to manage the consequences. As I held my breath I cannot count how many times I recited the 21st Psalm and prayed to God that my son’s happiness would not be disrupted by some racist encounter. Lest one think I was entering a state of paranoia, Sandra Bland and many others came to mind as I continued to watch, look, and try to breathe. At some point I thought it was a good idea to try and sing with my son so as to keep him calm (he had no idea I wasn’t) and perhaps calm myself.
Many thoughts and questions came to mind: The next time a White person tells me they don’t see race; I am telling this story. How many Confederate flags am I going to see? How many gun racks? What if I encounter one of them? What will I do? How might they respond? Will they care if I have a child in the backseat? My reaction is valid and yet, I can feel the organs in my body reacting to the stress I am experiencing. This cannot be healthy. I love my son. I am sad. He is growing up and soon I won’t be able to directly protect him from racism (despite my best efforts and desire).
In that moment, I thought of my ancestors, I thought of the many news stories that have permeated the headlines for the last 5 years (or more) regarding the unfair and unjust killing of Black bodies. I thought of my grandparents and my parents. I thought of all of the injustices endured. I thought about the fact that unlike in previous years, current societal sentiments do not seem to reflect the alleged progress towards racial equity that some proclaim (Remember the proclamations of post-racial America?). This era, socially and politically, is one that is fraught with blatant acts of racism and ethnocentric rhetoric. It is one that some in my generation and certainly generations following may not have witnessed firsthand. It is one that is deeply disturbing to my soul.
THIS experience represents the strange feeling I caught in my veins while watching my toddler son happily prance around the classroom holding the flag and being conditioned through song of his allegiance to his country. As the mother of a two-year-old that desperately wants to take her son to see his beloved grandparents for the holidays, there I sat, trying to mitigate the potential damage of #racialtrauma to my internal organs by using the very same deep breathing and grounding strategies I recommend to my clients.
Eventually the time passed, as did the miles traveled. We arrived safely at our destination and into the loving arms of my parents and my son’s Granny and Pa Pa. In that space positive images adorned the wall, Black figurines sat on almost every table, and Kwanzaa decorations were prominent. I hoped it would be enough to provide respite, resistance, and healing for what I had just experienced.