December 05, 2012

Keeping Clean Hearts

It was pouring down rain yesterday- one of those days that makes you want to stay inside.  But Sadie has a book report due next week and needed a biography to write about.  We waded through the rain and ventured to the public library.  Her little fingers rubbed the spines of every book in the biography section.  She pulled out one on Bethany Hamilton (the surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack) and decided that it would be the perfect biography for her report.  As we were walking to the circulation desk, she saw another book that caught her eye.  It was the story of Ruby Bridges- the first black student to integrate schools in New Orleans in 1960. 

Sadie loved the picture on the cover.  She picked it up and rubbed the picture and flipped it open to read the summary.  "Is it okay if I get this one to read for fun?"  She carried it to the librarian and handed over our library card.

She sat in the front seat of the car reading it on our way to the next destination.  Her little eyes were darting all over the pages.  "Mom," she asked.  "I don't get it.  Why couldn't that little girl go that school?  Was it really just because she was black, like it says?"

I don't remember what age I was when I learned about the injustices and prejudices in the world.  I don't think there was a profound moment.  Hearing my daughter ask me that question almost made me sick to my stomach.

"Do you remember last year at school when you talked about Rosa Parks?  And how black people couldn't sit in the front of the bus, but Rosa took a stand and wouldn't move out of her seat on the bus?  Well, a long time ago, African Americans also weren't allowed to go to the same schools as white children."

"But why?" 

I looked at my black son in the rear view mirror.  I  thought of my black and white children in the bathtub together, snuggled up together on the couch, and sneaking drinks out of each other's cups.  How many people like Ruby Bridges paved the way for my family to be able to look like it does?  How do I explain that to a child?

"Well, it's kind of complicated.  Many white people thought that if you had black skin that you weren't as good as someone with white skin.  They thought that if you used the same water fountain as a black person that you would get diseases. Or that if black and white people went to the same restaurant that the food would be contaminated. They thought that if you were black, that you were not important."

I let that sit with her for a while.  Finally she said, "I know there's a word for it and I just can't remember what it is."  "Racism, baby.  It's where you think that people who are of a different race just aren't as good as someone of another race."

She let that sit a little while, too.  Then she piped up.  "It's good we don't have racism any more." 

I suppose that because racism doesn't exist in her heart, she's not able to conceive of it in others.  If only the thoughts of her heart were true.  I hope and pray her heart stays clean forever. I struggled between talking to her about the reality and shielding her from evil.

It only took 5 more minutes of going through our afternoon errands to see that we still have so long to go...

Because of the rain, the covered sidewalk at the strip mall where we were running errands was more crowded than usual.  My boys were running ahead of me a little bit.  A loud, booming voice could be heard across the parking lot- even over the loud rain and occasional thunder.  Miles, always the one to be where the action is, ran right up to that booming voice and high-fived it's owner. 

The man said, "What's up my main man?" as he smacked Miles hand.

"Nuttin' my main man!"  Miles shouted back. 

By this time, I had caught up to the kids.  The owner of that booming voice had skin as dark as night.  He had a gray, scruffy beard and fuzzy, gray hair on his head.  He was missing most of his teeth, but the smile that he wore was enormous.  He was wearing an old pair of jeans and a flannel shirt that had probably been around since the 1990's.  He's the kind of man that they always use on movies as the stereotypical guy you don't want to meet in a dark alley. My kids were instantly drawn to this man.  He was jolly and loud and all the things that my kids love best.

He was collecting money for a recovery center.  He pulled out some suckers for my kids.  I dug through my purse looking for some money to give this man.  I pulled out a wad of old receipts, a Ziploc bag full of crushed Teddy Grahams, a couple of plastic McDonald's toys.  I finally fished out the only cash in my purse- a whopping $2.

The whole time I was digging, he was talking and my kids were hanging on his every word.  His hand was on Sadie's shoulder and he was saying, "God loves yo' heart, sister. He sees yo' heart and he loves it."  As person after person was passing, and I was still digging, he would look at each person and say, "God loves you, brotha.  God loves you, sister."  People kept walking by trying to avoid eye contact.

My kids started taking the wrappers off the suckers he gave them.  He started telling us his life story.

"I was a crack head for 28 years."

"What's a crack head?"  Noah asked.

"Drugs.  You know what drugs are?"

My kids all emphatically nodded their heads that yes, they knew about drugs.

"Drugs are bad.  Never do drugs.  God doesn't want you to do drugs.  Drugs will mess you up.  I've been sober 8 years.  And now I go raise money to try to help the center to get other brothas off drugs."

"These all your kids?" he asked trying to figure out our mixed-race family. I briefly told him about our adoption story.  He told me about how he hadn't seen his kids in 20 years.  All the while, he's still trying to stop people on the sidewalk and screaming, "God loves you sister!" at every woman who walked by.

He looked each of my kids in the eye and said, "God's got something special planned for yo' life.  Don't you forget.  Don't do drugs.  Work hard at school.  God loves you."

I'm gullible and always believe people.  Maybe he was just some crazy man passing out suckers and peddling money. Perhaps, he was who he said he was. For me, it doesn't matter.  Either way- two things struck me about our encounter.  One- our socks were blessed off by that chance meeting with that man and his encouragement for our family and his words of wisdom for my kids.  We could have missed that.  I'm glad we didn't.  And two- no one else stopped for this man.  White women did that awkward little dance where we suddenly feel the need to adjust our purse straps and hold on tight when we pass a black man.  Groups passed him, then looked back and whispered frantically to each other. 

I get it.  After all, how awkward is it to strike up a conversation with a black man who looks utterly homeless who is shouting about God and talking about crack.  It goes against what we've been taught in movies and by our great-grandparents and by our society. It's times like these that I'm thankful for the innocence of children who lead me into meeting some really amazing people.  Children who don't know racism until they are taught to hate.  Who don't know to judge until they see judgement. 

I'm thankful for children who can still see the good in people and think that racism doesn't exist.  And who think that a man shouting about God on the sidewalk who gave them a sucker is the most awesome person they could ever hope to meet on a rainy, Tuesday afternoon.

Each and every one of us is born with a clean heart. Our babies know nothing about hate or racism. But soon they begin to learn – and only from us. We keep racism alive. We pass it on to our children. We owe it to our children to help them keep their clean start.” --Ruby Bridges

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